There seem to be more deaths lately. I’m not sure if that is true or if I am simply more aware of them. In part, I think it is simply a sign of the times with the aging Baby Boomer population since many are in their 80s and 90s. It seemed to me that the “In Memoriam” section of the Oscars program this year was a little longer than usual, and I feel like I am seeing the letters RIP on an almost daily basis.
Having recently attended a couple events celebrating the lives of some who have passed, I also have been thinking about and involved in conversations about the peculiarities of dealing with death.
Most familiar to me is the ritual of a viewing at a funeral home, usually followed by religious services either that day or the following. Although less frequently, I also have attended the less somber memorial service taking place weeks or months after the death. However, there are many, many other possible rituals and ceremonies honoring and celebrating those who leave the earth before us. These traditions may vary by culture, faith, and even individual. Some practices no longer exist due to social evolution. (I don’t want to go into details; suffice it to say, an internet search turned up some funeral rites of the past that I found tough to stomach.) I imagine most of us have not really thought beyond our own experiences in this regard.
Culture plays a large role in funeral rites. Some cultures are reserved and somber in their treatment of death, others are vocal and cheerful. Mourning dress (to use an old-fashioned term) can vary as well. Though many of us are accustomed to seeing mourners in black, some cultures prefer bright bold colors. Culture can also dictate the timing of funerals. Whereas in some cases, the burial can be delayed for a myriad of reasons (to allow people to travel, for example), in others, there is a dictate that the burial occur at a specified time. There are also quite a few culture-specific superstitions surrounding death and burial customs.
As with many aspects of life, city and country rituals can vary. I have attended a couple funerals at a small rural church where the congregation followed the casket out the door to the adjacent cemetery, which was very personal and (I was surprised to discover) for me, oddly comforting. Other times, the procession to the cemetery can be via car, which can be a time-consuming process, even when the distance is not so great. Funerals are often specialized according to the status of the deceased. We have all seen television coverage of funerals for heads of state and those who have served in the military (if you haven’t experienced a military farewell, they are much more emotionally intense in person). Police and firefighters as well as some dignitaries frequently have escorts for their processions.
Sometimes traditions are influenced by geography. In many European countries, there simply isn’t enough space to bury everyone, so graves are re-used. In some of these cases, mementos (such as photos left on the grace) are returned to their families. Embalming, which is common in the U.S., is not universally practiced worldwide.
Several years ago, I was assigned a freelance article on pre-planning a funeral. It was an odd assignment and the research took me to a place called The Casket Store. Curiously, the store is no longer there, so one would wonder what the pre-planners do now. (Are they out the money for the casket, or did they have to take delivery and store it in their garage or basement? That’s a conversation starter!)
[Note: the store may have simply moved. I have merely noticed it is no longer in the location it was when I did my research.]
But I digress. Although at first I found the idea a little creepy, I ended up seeing the sense in pre-planning: it saves money and leaves no question for those one leaves behind. It also takes much of the emotional pressure out of the process. (For example, how do you say that a loved one isn’t worth the extra money you need to spend on a silk-lined hardwood casket?) I discovered that in pre-planning, some people just cover the basics, choosing a casket and paying for the necessary services, while others go all out, planning every small detail. A couple interesting things I learned about funerals in Pennsylvania: you can have a funeral in your home; a casket is not a requirement, you merely need a “container” which can be a cardboard box.
My earliest experiences with death were pets, which were sad, but not traumatic. My first funeral, at age 16, was my grandfather’s. He was a man I loved dearly and miss to this day. I went in to the funeral home completely unprepared. The body in the box was NOT my grandfather. (One peculiarity I have observed at most funerals: people invariably comment on the skills of the funeral director/makeup person and talk about how much “it looks like” the deceased. Really? Who else would it look like?) I could not bring myself to go anywhere near the coffin and could not understand how some people in the room were actually laughing! Those few days went by slowly, as if in a fog. But as always, life does return to “normal.”
Since that first visit to a funeral home, I have been to many more and my perspective has changed. Some of it is maturity. I will admit that it took many years for me to approach an open casket (and when possible, I even avoided being next to a closed one). I now am one of those people laughing – sharing stories and memories. At one family funeral service, we all sat in a circle and shared memories until it was time to leave. My grandmother’s funeral service (possibly my biggest loss to date) was small, family only, with no planned eulogy. It was fairly somber until my sister and I got started and everyone got up and shared a story or two. Sharing stories is what keeps our loved ones “alive.”
Just recently I saw a couple stories about people being cremated and their ashes turned into jewels, which the family could then keep or even wear. Some extra digging found that for those who want to “go out with a bang,” some companies will pack your ashes into fireworks and set them off. An internet search also turned up some convenient funeral practices: a drive-through to pay your respects and a video feed to pay your respects remotely, just to mention a couple. When searching for something else online, i even found a Museum Of Mourning Art in Philadelphia, which shows how people have coped with death through time (most of the art of other objects are from the 17th and 18th centuries).
Several years ago, I read about “green” funerals, where the body is not embalmed, there is no concrete vault, not even a headstone. Ultimately, the body is reclaimed by the land. Although the idea has some appeal to me, my family has objections (for example there would be no place to go visit). In my opinion, death rites are really for the living, so ultimately I will leave it up to them.