I have just returned from an unknown place where I took part in a series of experiences that I didn’t understand. The place was West Virginia; the experiences were an open-casket visitation and a funeral.
I have not understood, do not understand, and will never understand what has been called “the American way of death” (I’m planning to order the book by that name, to get some insight into the funeral industry). It has to do with being the only child of an only child, and attending no open-casket visitations and darn few funerals when I was growing up. My mother’s parents and my dad were cremated; after they died, we held memorial services at times that were convenient for family travelling from far away, and we celebrated their lives with music, stories, and songs. These were not “funerals”; they were deeply personal memorials to people we loved.
When my husband’s grandfather died last weekend, and the visitation was scheduled for last evening and the funeral for today, I knew that it was right for me to make the trip. I also knew in advance that I’d be unhappy, confused, and even angry at various points during the proceedings.
Following is a series of questions that sums up my confusion and the sources of my unhappiness and anger regarding the predominant approach to death in America. If you have insights to offer, I welcome them.
1. Why put a dead person on display in a fancy box? The visitation and funeral were at a tiny, family-run funeral home in Charleston, West Virginia. Wood panelling, 1960s furniture, and, unexpectedly, bright red velvet drapes. Rows of folding chairs. Boxes of kleenex scattered at strategic intervals. Floral arrangements on pedestals and special tiered ladders that made the flowers look more numerous and also made sure no one’s basket was overlooked. And at the front of the room, in an ornate wooden coffin, resting on fluffy white pillows and ruffly padding, the thin, pale remains of a very old man.
My 8-year-old niece entered the room, took one look toward the front, and burst into frightened tears. I did what I always do in such situations: stayed as far back as possible, and when forced by the situation to get anywhere near the coffin, looked somewhere — anywhere — else. As I commented to my husband later, I don’t do dead people. I’ve seen too many episodes of Buffy. Dead people look like plastic, or like they’re asleep and creepily ready to sit up at any moment and take part in the conversations going on nearby.
The family (except me; the niece and I stayed in the back, and I sang songs to her) clustered at the front near the coffin, and visitors went through the usual routine of approaching, looking, and then commenting. Why? He’s dead. It doesn’t matter how he looks now; he’ll look terrible before long. Why does the corpse have to be part of the gathering?
2. Why do ministers at funerals assume that everyone is Christian? If you don’t know it already, I’ll repeat it here: I am an atheist. As such, I found the large majority of the funeral service offensive. But I would have felt equally out of place if I was Jewish, or Muslim, or Pagan, or Buddhist. Every traditional funeral service I’ve been to has been geared toward a Christian audience, with no leeway or suggested means of comfort for those of us who might not agree that “God has taken Leo to his new home in paradise.”
As usual, the service focused primarily on Biblical readings and assurances that thanks to God and Jesus, the dead man was now pain-free, happy, and living in a better place. Also as usual, the minister put in a few token words that were specific to this particular dead person — I could visualize the blank spots in her Funeral.doc file, with the notation “Get anecdote from family.” The rest of the funeral — which should, after all, be about the person who has died, given the expense and effort involved in getting the body ready for display — was devoted entirely to generic religious recitation.
I did OK for the first few minutes by attempting to ignore the words and instead mentally cataloging the types of flowers in the arrangements. But then the minister said something to this effect: “God, you have given the people of the earth their name. This family is here today, and they have the name of …” I waited for her to say “Taylor.” But she didn’t: She said, “Christian.”
“They have the name of Christian.”
At that moment, I involuntarily sat straight up, and realized that without my permission, my body was getting ready to leave the room. Instead, I folded my arms tight, held myself in place, and, as the minister continued her religious litany, tried to believe that this nice woman must be saying these incredibly close-minded words for some reason. Why must the traditional wording be such that it seems almost purposely offensive to those who don’t share that branch of faith?
Later, during a prayer, she called on God to help the family, because “they admit that they cannot understand the mystery [of death].” I wanted to raise my hand and say, Excuse me, but I don’t see any mystery in this situation: He was very old and sick, and he died.” What’s not to understand?
3. Why put the dead person in the fancy box in a hole in the ground or a big marble drawer in a wall? After the funeral, our car was part of the procession to the cemetery. It was, I think, only the second time I’ve driven in a funeral procession. The drive itself was an experience, along a two-lane road that wound along a West Virginia river. We passed tiny homes perched on ridges and clinging to the edges of hills, reachable only by incredibly steep, narrow driveways. It seemed that we had journeyed into an entirely other culture. (I was reminded strongly of scenes from the movie Next of Kin.)
The cemetery was on the side of a steep hill and had no standing gravestones; the stones were flat in the ground, presumably because standing ones might slide away. At the back was a large mausoleum, with a couple hundred of what I think of as file drawers for the dead. (The photo doesn’t show the actual one, but it gives the idea.) A mixture of snow and sleet was falling, and it was very cold. The people from the funeral home wheeled the coffin under the shelter of the mausoleum’s roof and set up a few chairs. They had also brought the flower arrangements, which they placed around the coffin. (Why? We’d all seen the flowers at the funeral home; why transport them and set them up here?) The minister spoke for a few minutes, reciting more generic religious text and additional prayers. As she talked, I read the names and dates on the file drawers behind the coffin. I mentally calculated the number of drawers, figured the ages of the dead, and wondered how they got the heavy coffins into the higher rows which were at least 15 feet up. Then my eye found a marker for a 16-year-old girl; her marker included the text “Our Beloved Daughter.” My daughter is nearly 16, so the situation immediately became very personal. I thought of my beautiful girl, felled perhaps by a terrible accident, and now mouldering in a box on a wall full of other boxes, all closed in with stone. It was — is — a horrifying thought: We were standing only a few feet from a wall built of dead people. Stacked up like logs, decaying in their boxes, sealed in so the smell can’t get out. It’s a version of eternity that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
The service ended without our having to go to the grave; the inclement weather, steepness of the ground, and frailty of the widow precluded it. All around the cemetery were wooded mountains, rising high above the river; I was reminded of a line from Where the Lilies Bloom, spoken after a man is buried in a mountain meadow: “This is fair [meaning beautiful, not “just OK”] place to spend eternity.” But the dead person can’t enjoy the view, or the fancy box, or the honor of being walled up in marble with lots of other dead people. And all those coffins full of decaying people take up a lot of real estate. (Except in New Orleans, where people have to be buried above ground, and the heat is such that a form of natural cremation takes place; after a couple of years, the vault is opened, the remains [if any] are pushed to the back, and a new body is inserted. If you ever have a chance to take a guided tour of the French Quarter cemetery, I highly recommend it; it’s fascinating.) Why do people do it?
Why? My husband reminded me that in olden days, before stethoscopes, you had to have the body lying around for a few days to be sure the person was really dead. My mother tells me that funerals are all about comforting the living. Fine. But I didn’t find any of what I’ve experienced in the last two days comforting (except maybe the lovely luncheon prepared afterward by sweet old church ladies, and the chance to talk with some family members I’d never met). Was the widow comforted? I don’t know. I hope so.
After the visitation last night, when we reached our hotel room, I said to my husband, “You already know this, but I’m going to say it again: You do not put me on display in a box.” I repeated this to my mother and my kids a little while ago, in an effort to be exquisitely clear.
I came from nothing:
give me to the cleansing flames,
and remember me