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?
17 thoughts on “Funerals and send-offs”
Sally, I’ve always thought this too: “Why not visit the person when they were alive and you could talk to them?” ‘Cause then they can enjoy you and you them. Though it is nice to pay respects after someone’s passed. As for funeral processions in L.A. I remember them from when I was younger, though haven’t seen any lately. But we moved out to the hinterlands, so we could just be missing them.
I’d rather have people come see me before I kick the bucket, mainly because I don’t want an open casket viewing for myself. The thought of embalming is just ewww! Cremation is my choice.
I remember my first dead body–my grandfather–who looked like a small, doll-sized version of what he had been when alive. Although I write murder mysteries, I’ve never seen a murder victim. Glendora, where I live, is a small town east of Los Angeles, and we still get funeral processions holding up traffic while they follow the hearse to the cemetery. Interesting post, Sally.
I have seen many dead; closed and opened caskets, but never a ( gulp) victim.
Thanks for stopping by. I don’t feel people truly resemble themselves in a casket because it’s impossible to duplicate the “life spirit.”
I’ve been a part of spreading ashes four times. Once as a teenager. My mom’s best friend had the ashes of her old college friend who wanted to be spread on her old boyfriend’s property. Justine(the ashes) was very anxious to get out of the box. My mom’s friend would find the closet door where Justine was kept open when she knew she’d closed it and later when the box sat on the piano it would dance back and forth when the piano was played. When we crossed the property line, the ashes started sifting out of the box. When my dad opened the box, the ashes exploded out. Justine was finally home. Then we spread another friend of my husband’s family on the property where she wanted to be. It was a cold windy day and she danced on the air before scattering across the land. The third was my husband’s uncle. He requested to be scattered at the race course he frequented. That took some covert ops to get that done. And then my father-in-law. He is on the first land he purchased when he moved here from the Netherlands. I think being able to put the person where they want to go is the best way.
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Hi Paty, yes, there are many options nowadays: burials, cremation and having ashes scattered. The race track is the most unusual option I’ve heard of. I believe in SoCal one can hire a helicopter so they can scatter ashes over the ocean or other places. I think dropping ashes over the Hollywood Sign isn’t legal but it’s still done.
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I live in New Jersey, and funerals are somewhat extravagant and of course, it depends on the religion of the deceased. Some funerals have a wake the night before and family and friends come to pay their respects, or the wake is held just prior to services. I am Catholic and many Catholic funerals have a Wake, then a funeral Mass at a church and then a graveside service, and we do throw roses on the casket just prior to leaving the cemetery; in addition, more and more people are choosing cremation, which is yet another ceremony. Most of my family and friends were buried, but others were cremated. I had my parents buried but my husband had wanted to be cremated. I have attended far too many funerals. My son decided to have a forties theme for my mother so during her wake, Frank Sinatra and songs were played in the background. Sigh, I also planned her funeral Mass and had many beautiful songs for the ceremony. Basically, reminds of what Amber wrote above about her Dad.
I’m Catholic and my parish holds wakes in the sanctuary. I can tell, because that’s when the parking lot is full! What’s interesting is the Catholic church nowadays allows cremation, and the local Catholic cemeteries have niches for urns. But I love when people play music meaningful to the deceased at the wake or service.
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Yes, you are so right —- the Church has changed its viewpoints about cremation but there is a caveat; the ashes must be buried in Sacred ground. Sister Eleanor ( now retired) planned liturgies and the Mass of the Resurrection was her favorite ( she also ran the bereavement group) and she was a pistol. She helped me plan my mother’s mass ( I picked out readings and the music), but one of Sister’s ministries was paying surprise trips to families who had a cremation and asking bluntly: ‘Where are the Ashes.” If the family still had them, she kicked up a fuss and told the family members that the ashes needed to be buried and intact. OH Well. My husband was Baptist and it was his wish to have his ashes scattered off the Jersey shore.
When I was a little kid, seeing a relative dead in her casket upset me. I understood death. I just found it troubling to be made to walk up and look at her dead body. Both my parents preferred cremation as the way to be, for lack of a better word, disposed of. My mother had a conventional church service and her ashes are in my sister’s garden. My stepmother arranged a semi-conventional church service for my Dad, with people talking about him and reading poetry he loved. Then there was the second, and to my mind better, service. He wanted to have his ashes scattered in Round Pond Harbor (they lived in Round Pond, Maine.), so my brother-in-law piloted the little motorboat, my stepsister brought a CD player and put on my father’s favorite music, Rhapsody in Blue, and the family puttered around the water on a beautiful fall day much like this one and scooped the ashes out at various stops. If my father’s spirit was around, I think he must have loved it.
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Hi, Amber. The lakeside service sounds beautiful! Some people are creative with planning fare-wells.
As a mininister of rural parishes where remains are “vaulted” as the ground freezes, I was often the only one @ the gravesite internment in the spring. In my 30+ years of ministry,however, I did TWO church funerals. Most everyone had the usual stuff at the funeral home as the communities got smaller….and older…
But I remember New England wakes, calling hours, rosaries, Masonic/ Daughters rites, VA and VFW honors, families tucking memories into corpse pockets, my aunt being buried with her dog’s ashes, the pomp and circumstance at a public funeral, the miles of a funeral procession. I remember burying a person in a ground blizzard at a homemade headstone where only God and the deceased actually heard me..and old people coming for the funeral “lunch”, even if they didn’t know the deceased just because the church ladies ham and scalloped potatoes was so good
I think the lessing of church “community” is why funerals seem less “homey” as we have less commonality/ community to fall back on. I’ve felt that way in part because ministerial “presence” is now an itemized funereal expense at a lot of undertakers…..
And so it goes
I live in Central California–and when in town I often see funeral processions from the mortuary and some of the churches. In our church though, we have memorial services with no casket. There is singing, a message and people share memories about the newly departed, and always food afterwards. (We are Baptists and we eat after many things.)
Hi Marilynn. I think the trend is for services with no casket. That reduces the need to transport the casket in and out of a building. Plus more people are having funerals or memorial services weeks after the death, probably to allow travel time and notifying people.
My experience of funerals is very similar to yours–the wake, or viewing; the service, sometimes in the funeral home or a church; and the committal. But I’d add a fourth, which is almost as important as any other part–the funeral meats, or gathering after the service, and often begins while the family is still at the committal. The gathering is at the church or a private home, or in the case of a colleague, in the nursing home where she was living at the time of her death. And you’re right about the funeral processions–they’re much shorter, and sometimes don’t happen at all, with just two or three cars going to the cemetery.
I wouldn’t be surprised at a young person not having seen a dead body, but I am surprised at someone in his or her seventies. The services have been pared down considerably also, with a visiting period involving a visit to the funeral home to offer condolences and view photographs of the deceased but not a body.
Lots of changes that probably reflect our changing world.
Glad you stopped by, Susan. As I recall, we didn’t have a reception or food following the funerals for my parents. The reason was probably logistics. The burial was 30 miles from the funeral home, and few people beyond the immediate family wanted to drive to the plot and back for a reception. I think with more people opting for cremation we’ll have fewer visitations.
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