stranger in a strange land

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.

Why?

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.)

https://i0.wp.com/www.mausoleum.com/image6.jpgThe 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

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16 responses to “stranger in a strange land

  1. Unlike you I went to many visitations as a child. I always felt the hypocrisy of the entire thing. I think the first short story I ever finished was about a funeral home visitation. It was published in our school writer’s journal.

    I’m sorry for your loss. I hope Doug and the kids are doing OK. I don’t know how close you were but the loss of a parent or grandparent is always hard. It seems to me that when I experience a loss these days it brings up all the other folks that I’ve lost. But I think it is still better that we remember them, because that is quite possibly the only immortality that we will have.

  2. The experience of this funeral has affected you deeply, Tiffany, and your account expresses your bewilderment, grief and anger so well that I feel them. I hope you soon recover from the shock because there is nothing mysterious about death (as you said) and it should not be allowed to impinge on life, at least not for too long.

    Email SilverTiger

  3. The casket is left open for those who wished to say goodbye to the person, but did not have a chance to do so. Yeah, it may be creepy to some, but some folks need that closure. The service usually follows the beliefs of the deceased and their family. It goes that the faith of the immediate family (his wife, kids etc.) takes takes prominence. The burial occurs where it does for the sake of the family, not for the one who passed. It is for the family to visit and clean up the place of final rest for their loved one. All of the rituals are done in rememberance of the one who has passed and to give a little comfort to the family, usually immediate family. If you will remember that they are hurt and for some reason need this ritual to begin the healing process, even if you do not, it makes it easier to bear. I do not like going to view the body or even going to wakes, however, I go in support of the person who is greiving, and their being glad that I cared enough to show up and be there with them out strips my personal preferences.

  4. Interestingly, I have always had the same sentiments as you, regardless of how many funerals I have attended (which have been numerous). Unlike you, my first funeral attendance was when I was less than a year old, and I have attended countless many between that time and now.
    Up until recently, I always had my grandfather to distract me from the actual goings on. I think that deep down, although he was actually a Christian, he felt that there was some hypocrisy in the whole funeral business – however, my parents, grandfather, and I always went out of respect. Respect, moreso for the direct family members of the deceased, rather than the deceased itself.
    No matter how many bodies I’ve seen, it’s not something that is easy to get used to. However, none of that really bothered me until my grandfather’s death – perhaps because it was the first time that it was someone that I was extraordinarily close to? I’ve never really seen anyone actually mutter anything when going to “view the body” at the funeral, although this could be because in my family, we do wakes.
    I also have never seen the marble wall filled with the dead, and I have a feeling that it would freak me the hell out. I actually hadn’t even heard of it until today.
    Like you, I have a huge problem with a Christian sermon being given during a funeral. For one, it seems more like an advertisement for the actual church than having it seem as though a preacher actually cares for the family. I also thinks it seems sort of like preying on a grieving family – in fact, I’m rather surprised that a collection basket has never been passed around after.
    The book you mentioned sounds quite interesting, and is one that I’ve never heard of before. I’ll definitely have to check it out. And, just know that you are not alone in being baffled and confused by the whole funeral thing. I think that no matter how many you attend, the more and more confusing it becomes.

  5. #1 Seeing a person’s body is a stark reminder that the person is actually gone. It is a way to say goodbye once and for all. For some people, it is difficult to envision that the person is actually gone unless they see them there in the coffin. As for me, I don’t mind it either way. I think it’s about whatever is best for the family members who are still with us.

    #2 I have been offended when I heard words to the effect that this person is fine because s/he was saved. It always scares me because I’m afraid my faith isn’t strong enough to save me from the damnation of Hell. However, I understand that those are comforting words to other Christians, and, since the dead person presumably was Christian if it’s a Christian service, then it is “right” that the congregants should be assured of their loved one’s salvation.

    #3 I can’t help ya there. For me, the thought of anything being done to me–buried, cremated, allowed to rot out in the open desert for vultures to snack on–all terrify me. I used to dream of being buried alive, so burial is particularly disarming to me. In any event, some methods of disposal are more appealing to the person who died, and I think you have to respect the wishes of the formerly alive person. Perhaps it gives them comfort somehow.

    I never attended a funeral with an open casket–they were all memorial services such as those you attended. However, when I was in, like, the 7th grade, I was at camp and somehow ended up in a mortuary. The people in charge of the funeral home invited all of children to walk past the open casket of a complete stranger and touch the dead person. It was appalling to me at the time (though curiosity did rule; I touched the dead man), and it continues to be so now. How dare the funeral dude permit complete strangers to essentially marvel at this person without the consent of the family. Although this family wanted their departed loved one to be on display for them, I seriously doubt that display was intended for a strange and young audience.

    I must honestly say, Tiffany, that I can’t imagine facing death without some comfort of everlasting life with my Creator. I wouldn’t know how to face death without that assurance. Tell me more about how you view death, beyond what you’ve said already elsewhere in your blog. I am truly curious. 🙂

  6. Thanks for all the insights and they time you’ve taken to reply to my questions. Among other things, you all remind me of the importance of maintaining my tolerance and of trying my very best, in the face of multiple sources of discomfort, to put the thoughts and wishes of the dead person’s family first.

    Tiger and S, thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts and feelings.

    Kitadiva, your mention of wakes reminds me of the story I’ve heard of the untimely death of my dad’s younger brother, who was killed in a car accident in his 20s. My grandmother insisted on having a multiple-day wake in the house, with the body lying in the living room. After he was buried she was so haunted by the memories that she could no longer live there; they had to move. Personally, I’ve never been to a wake. I think it’s an experience I can stand to miss.

    Laura, the way I view death is very simple: You die. Your bodily and brain functions cease. That’s it — there is nothing more.

    Which reminds me, I’ve just finished reading a fascinating and funny book called Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. In it she researches all manner of efforts to prove the existence of an afterlife, and also gives historical insights into beliefs and customs from the past. I highly recommend it.

  7. Tiffany,
    Death in America is a strange business which has grown out of traditions and some religious beliefs. I agree how we treat death is morbid and I believe in someways very detached.
    The open casket viewing comes from the time when they were referred to as a “wake”. “Wakes” were conducted as a party if you will, lot’s of drinking and noise as the participants came to pay their respects to the deceased and also to attempt to wake the deceased. See, back in those days, before the practice of embalming, it was very common for people to be assumed dead and buried alive. The practice of the “wake” was designed to avoid that and have the person wake up if they were not in fact dead. The ornate coffin was designed as such for many reasons, the main one being that the deceased would be insulted if they were to see their funeral from above and they were not buried in the finest box available and looked to be made comfortable. Of course hundreds of years ago this was reserved for Kings and Queens, look at how the Egyptions buried their royalty. Of course some smart person sold this idea to the middle class and it became a tradition.
    One of the reasons that I dislike the funeral business is because of the obscene amount of money they make off of someones death and because it removes death from the home, we do not really get to see death as you would have a century ago and therefore we become more detached from what death is.
    Sorry for you loss.

  8. Naughty Heather

    I am still processing some of your thoughts, but I want to put my requests down somewhere – I want to be cremated, and the memorial service should include good food, good vodka, and the following songs:
    Be Thou My Vision
    Simple Gifts
    SexyBack
    A Pirate Looks at 40

    I believe that the funeral/service/wake should reflect the person who died, and should be something that will later be remembered with laughter and good thoughts. Remember my impact, my legacy, the things I brought to this world. I do not want my death, whenever it may occur, to be used as a cautionary tale or an advertisement for anything other than my life. The funerals I have attended that have done so have had a very negative impact on me. I had a friend who was 42 and died of AIDS, and his funeral could not be held at his church because he was gay and had HIV/AIDS, and the minister spent an inordinate amount of time preaching around that, but warning us not to be like Rick, lest we burn in hell. I am still not sure where he thought Rick ended up, but I am horrified that his death was cheapened and used as a “come to Jesus” as we call it down here.
    Argh! Now I am just mad.

    I am sorry for your family’s loss and I hope that some comfort can be gained from all this – eventually.

    Heather

  9. Heather, that is an appalling thing to have happened to your friend Rick! How awful for his family. Too bad they didn’t find a different minister who would have focused on him as a person and celebrated his life instead of preaching about his sexuality. It makes me mad, too.

    It also reminds me that when my dad was dying of cancer, one of his nieces (a woman about my age, who dearly loved him) sent him a long letter expressing her sorrow that she would never see him in heaven because he hadn’t accepted Christ as his personal savior and would therefore be going to Hell. Fortunately my mom intercepted the letter, and he never read it — but I’ve never seen her so angry in my life. I can’t imagine how that sort of thing qualifies as good Christian behavior…

  10. My brother actually took photographs of my mother’s body in the casket. Imagine the conversation at his house: “I’m feeling nostalgic. Whaddaya say we invite the kids over, pop the tops on some Dr Peppers, pull out the albums and spend the evening looking at pictures of plasticized dead relatives?”

  11. Whoa. That’s a really scary vision… What would you do with photos like that?

  12. My grandfather(father’s father) used to carry around a picture of his second wife in an open casket. It freaked me out.

    My understanding of open casket, is that it grew in part out of problems during the civil war, when people were sent the wrong bodies and the caskets were kept open to make sure they had the right person.

    I have so much to say on this subject, but no time right now 😉

  13. In Marion, Wisconsin in the 40s and 50s, there seemed always to be another reason for the open casket: folks wanted to make sure, with their own eyes, that the person really was dead, and the rumored death wasn’t just another hoax of some sort. I recollect having that feeling and seem to recollect conversations to that effect.

  14. MY HUSBAND’S FATHER JUST PAST AWAY AND I HAVE TO SAY THE IDEA OF FACING HIM IN THE CASKET GIVES ME BUTTERFLIES. HOWEVER, LIKE WHAT HAS BEEN SAID PREVIOUSLY, MY TAKE ON THE WHOLE FUNERAL/WAKE THING IS THAT IT DOES PROVIDE CLOSURE TO THE FAMILY. THESE EVENTS ARE FOR THE LIVING NOT THE DEAD. LAST YEAR I WATCHED MY AUNT DIE IN A HOSPICE FACILITY. IT WAS VERY HUMBLING AND AN EXPERIENCE I WOULD NOT TAKE BACK EVEN GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY. I WAS HONORED TO BE THERE BECAUSE I FELT HAVING ALL OF US AROUND HELP HER GO AT EASE. WHEN SHE DIED, SHE WAS PAIL, GAUNT AND A FRAIL 80-SOME POUNDS. SHE DID NOT LOOK LIKE THE WOMAN I KNEW. THE DAY OF THE FUNERAL, I WAS FEELING THOSE VERY SAME BUTTERFLIES THAT I TALKED ABOUT EARLIER BUT WHEN I WALKED INTO THE ROOM WHERE MY AUNT WAS LAID OUT. WHEN I SAW MY AUNT IN THE CASKET, I WAS OVERCOME WITH A SENSE OF RELIEF. I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUNDERAL HOME DID TO HER, BUT SHE LOOKED (IF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE) HEALTHY AGAIN. THEY FILLED HER OUT, FIXED HER HAIR JUST AS SHE HAD WORE IT AND SHE LOOKED GOOD. I GUESS WHAT I’M TRYING TO SAY IS THAT FOR ME, I’M GLAD TO HAVE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO REPLACE THE IMAGE OF HER LOOKING SO SICKLY WITH ONE OF HER LOOKING SIMILAR TO WHAT SHE USED TO. SHE DID NOT LOOK PLASTIC, SHE LOOKED A HELL OF A LOT BETTER THAN WHEN SHE DIED. FOR ME, THAT HELPED. I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO GO TO THE HOME WHERE MY HUSBAND’S GRANDFATHER DIED AND WAIT WITH THE FAMILY FOR THE FUNERAL HOME TO PICK UP HIS BODY. AFTER SEEING HIM YESTERDAY AS HE STRUGGLED FOR EVERY BREATH HE TOOK, I DECIDED NOT TO GO. I’LL JUST WAIT TO PAY MY RESPECTS AT THE FUNERAL HOME WHERE HIS IMAGE WON’T BE SO HARD TO BEAR AND WHO KNOWS, HOPEFULLY ONCE AGAIN I’LL BE OVERCOME WITH A SENSE OF RELIEF AND THE ABILITY TO LET HIM GO.

  15. Pingback: Alive and...well...what? « Kaleidoscope

  16. Recently a friend of mine passed away, and we offered her son a cremation urn. It was a perfect white marble vase style urn, and exactly what this woman reflected to us. Many people touched the urn and had a special connection to her through it. She was a good woman, good friend, and a knowledgeable and active member of our mountain side community. I will miss our walks in the morning with my dogs.
    We were glad to memorialize our friend through the urn we choose. Cremation urns provide the special opportunity to give a loved one a special resting place just as unique as they were in life.India’s hindus cremate as well, but scatter in the their loved ones cremains in their sacred rivers.For urns for your loved one, to go: Cremation Urns

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