By Sally Carpenter
I recently read a blog post by a writer in his 70s who said he’s never seen a dead body. He’d never been to a funeral?
It could be the writer was referring to murder victims. But when I lived in the Midwest, viewing the deceased was a way of life.
Commemorating the dead in my rural hometown consisted of three parts: the viewing (called a “wake” in some circles), the funeral service and the graveside committal. The first two parts took place at a funeral home where the funeral director handled all the scheduling and arrangements. Clergy were asked to lead the services, but that was the extent of their participation or input.
At the viewing, the embalmed body was placed in an open casket, flowers were set out and the public dropped by to sign the guest book, greet the family, and look at the deceased who bore little resemblance to the person in life. I think when I was a kid my mother took me to some viewings of people she know. I thought it was odd to stare at a dead person. Why not visit the person when they were alive and you could talk to them? I also didn’t like how funeral homes looked, too artificial and fussy. Not the place where I’d want to spend my last earthly moments.
At the brief funeral service, an organist played syrupy music and a minister gave a short talk. While the guests were still inside, the funeral home affixed little flags to the hoods of their cars to mark them as part of the processional. With the hearse carrying the casket and the limo with the family members leading the way, a long line of vehicles moved at a snail’s pace to the burial site. Since funeral processions had the right of way, many times I had to sit in traffic while an endless stream of these cars passed through an intersection.
The committal service was even shorter, since people usually stood by the gravesite (except at my mother’s funeral, we sat in padded folding chairs beneath a canopy). Unlike what you see on TV/movies, the casket was never lowered into the ground and nobody threw dirt or flowers into the grave. The actuall internment took place after friends and family had left. Weeks or months later the gravestone was finally put in place.
For one of my uncles, the internment consisted of his widow showing up at the family plot on her own, and placing his urn of ashes into a pre-dug hole. Other family members, including myself, happened to be there at the time (must have been around Memorial Day for our annual visit to the graves of mom’s parents).
At my dad’s funeral service, my brother brought his young children. Even though they were not close to grandpa, they became hysterical when they saw the corpse and their mother took them out of the room for the service. I think their reaction was not grief over the loss but that their young minds had trouble processing a human death.
Now I live on the West Coast and funerals seem to be done differently here. I’ve never seen a funeral processional, although during the day I’m at my day job. But with the heavy congestion on local streets, a long, slow-paced procession would not be practical.
Religious funerals are now taking place in churches rather than in funeral homes. I’ve attended two funerals at different churches. For me, the services more meaningful and longer and included congregational singing.
“Home made” memorial services without the body present are replacing the traditional funeral. Family and friends, not processional morticians, plan and lead these informal services set in a home or a favorite bar or restaurant. Acquaintances share stories of the deceased and make toasts in their honor.
I’ve attended two memorial services set in different community theaters where the deceased was an active participant. One of these funerals screened a video montage of the decease’ stage roles. At the other service, the deceased’s collection of Beanie Babies was set on the stage. Afterwards those present were invited to take a toy home as a memento (the cat I picked sits near my computer). And on my way into the building, I was asked to say a few words during the service. I’m not good at impromptu speaking, but I managed to sound intelligent and even (unintentionally) coax some laughter from the audience.
How are funerals conducted in your town? What do you think is the best way to “send off” a loved one?