Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Recently some old friends and colleagues wrote letters praising my teaching, researching, and writing talents. They wrote things that went far beyond the usual and I was moved by their comments. I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer the time he, Huckleberry Finn, and Joe Harper went off on a rafting adventure and disappeared. A search party determined that they had drowned in the river and so a funeral ceremony was planned. The boys decided they’d like to see their own funeral in person, so they hid themselves where they could observe without being seen. Sparknotes.com says “The minister gives a flattering sermon and the congregation wonders how they could have overlooked the goodness in the boys.”

This got me wondering about why we have funerals

The obvious answer is that someone has died. But where did the idea of funeral rituals come from? You might say a funeral is the service held at graveside. You could say that it’s a ceremony that usually involves religion. Funeral homes like to say it’s a service that is a beautiful way to acknowledge, honor, and celebrate the life of the deceased. The National Funeral Director’s Association says the typical cost of a funeral in the U.S. today is about $8,000.

Grief counselor and author Alan Wolfelt says funerals have six functions:

  • Support: Funerals gather people together, giving us the opportunity to assist each other.
  • Reality: They help us accept what happened.
  • Recall: Eulogies, the choice of music, and readings all give testimony to the life of the deceased.
  • Expression: Funerals provide safe places for us to voice our thoughts and feelings.
  • Meaning: Funerals give us an opportunity to grapple with existential questions.
  • Transcendence: Funerals allow those close to the deceased a chance to begin to adjust to their new lives. 

Others add that funerals do more than that

  • As there are often religious components, funerals reinforce our faith and beliefs about life and death.
  • Funerals encourage the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values. This function is of particular interest to sociologists and anthropologists, who know a lot about cultural values.

A complete funeral is considered to have all or some of the following components:

  • The Visitation: Guests gather to pay their respects, usually at a funeral home. Some call them wakes. Coffins may be open or closed, depending upon the culture of the deceased and/or family. 
  • The Ceremony: Invited guests gather to listen to eulogies, readings, music, and prayers, typically in a house of worship. Church ceremonies are what most people think of as funerals.
  • The Procession: First in line is the hearse, followed by one or more black limousines for the close family. Guests follow in their own cars from the ceremony to the cemetery, headlights on. The funeral cortege is sometimes escorted by police. 
  • The Burial: Usually only family and very close friends are invited to graveside rituals.
  • The Reception: Following the ritual at the graveside, invited guests gather at the home of a family member or close friend. Guests are served food and drink and visit with other attendees. 

Interment

Most of us think of burial as digging a hole in the ground, lowering the coffin with the deceased inside, and filling the hole with dirt. As funeral costs grow, more people are opting for cremation, where the remains are not put in the ground, but in a mausoleum, in a jar at home, or scattered at sea. Today you can even have your remains sent into outer space. Celestis Memorial Spaceflights offer Launch into Deep Space packages starting at $14,000, payment plans available.

Different cultures have different ideas on what to with dead bodies

Here are some burial rituals still practiced today:

  • The Bali Hindus bury their dead in mass graves until they have enough to hold a ceremony. They dig up the bodies, clean them, and stack them on a float decorated by the villagers, parade it through the village, then set the float and the corpse on fire in the village square.
  • The Kiribati lay the corpse out in their house for at least three days and as many as twelve, then bury it. Several months later, they dig up the body, remove the skull and display it on a shelf at home.
  • Tibetans dismember the deceased, take the body parts to a remote area, and leave them on the ground for scavengers that feed on carrion. 
  • Zoroastrians clean the dead body with urine from a bull and place it atop a round tower for vultures to eat.
  • The Maasi do not believe in an afterlife. Believing dead bodies are harmful to the earth, they cover them in blood and animal fat and leave them in the bush for the scavengers to eat.
  • Mongolians take the body away from the village, place it on the ground, and release ravenous dogs that have not been fed for days.

 

What’s a funeral without a funeral home?

A client in the funeral industry asked me to look into some issues of interest to them. As usual when my research takes me to a new industry, I learn new things.

In this case, consumers believe small, locally-owned funeral homes provide more personal services than large corporations. The client said this is why his large company retains the family names on the funeral homes it buys. Thousands of these seemingly little mom-and-pop operations are now owned by corporations, unbeknown to most consumers. The largest of them is Service Corporation International (SCI), owner of 1,500 funeral homes and 500 cemeteries. Nearly half a million families a year choose funeral homes owned by SCI.

The National Museum of Funeral History

Located in Houston, Texas, the museum contains a collection of artifacts, relics, inventions, tools, and vehicles designed to educate the public. It also houses an embalming school and a gift shop selling funeral-themed trinkets. Below are only a few things they have in the gift shop and online.

Euphemisms are ways to avoid mentioning unpleasant things by name

Some are reverential: Passed away, slipped away, gone to a better place, shuffled off this mortal coil, gone to be with the Lord, gave up the ghost.

Some are irreverent: Sleeps with the fishes, pushing up daises, bought the farm, bit the dust, kicked the bucket, the dirt nap, worm food, and a word-police favorite: Immortality-challenged. 

Tuesdays with Morrie

Mitch Albom wrote about his 14 consecutive weekly visits with a beloved former sociology professor. Knowing he was dying, Morrie taught Mitch how to live with a series of life lessons (regret, pity, emotions, ageing, death, money, love, and seven more) he shared with his former student in the last weeks of his life. 

Albom’s honors thesis is the novel he wrote

The book sold 20 million copies and was made into a stage show and a movie.

Morrie Schwartz

Morrie attended a friend’s funeral and was saddened: “What a waste,” he said. “All those people saying all those wonderful things, and Irv never got to hear any of it.”

Morrie wanted to hear those wonderful things his friend missed, so he invited those close to him to gather together in his home for his living funeral, to tell stories and laugh and cry together.

He called it a living funeral

Morrie had set in motion the idea of the living funeral, which was the main story line in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 11 premiere). Invited guests’ memories may include some bittersweet moments, but are largely positive expressions of gratitude. Wellandgood.com says the core purpose of a living funeral is to allow people “to reflect, connect, and find meaning in the face of mortality.”

Living funerals also give the honored guest an opportunity to participate in the remembrances. The trigger for many who choose to hold a living funeral is when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness. 

The Big Chill

The funeral service scene in the 1983 film The Big Chill is an excellent example of how music triggers recall among the friends of the deceased. Watch the actors’ expressions as they realize the tune being played by the organist. Extra credit: What role did Kevin Costner play in that movie? Alex, the deceased. We are shown his slashed wrists as the funeral home prepares his coffin.

Bonus

Most caskets in the U.S. are sold in the $2,000 to $5,000 range. Amazon sells caskets for as little as $800. Walmart lets you pay for their caskets over time. Luxurious caskets cost $30,000 or more. Corrugated cardboard caskets cost as little as $250.

The largest cemetery in the world is in Iraq. In the 1,400 years since it opened, Wadi al-Salam has interred more than six million people.

Tip

Most survivors are caught flat-footed when someone dies unexpectedly. Ninety-five percent of Americans do not make funeral plans before they die, mostly because they don’t want to think about death and dying. Don’t be them. Be one of the five percent: Make sure your will includes detailed instructions on how you want things to be handled when you die, including your funeral reqests.

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