10 Things About Funerals

I know I missed posting last month, but I have a good reason. My eldest nephew got married! My sons were both a part of the wedding, so there was a lot going on and I gave myself permission to spend time with my family in celebration instead of posting. I regret nothing.

Before I get started with this month’s post, though, I would like to let all of you science fiction fans out there know that you have only ONE MORE DAY to wait until the release of Erebus Dawning by A.J. Super! She is even hosting an online book launch party so you can join in on the fun! It’s all online and COVID protocol friendly, and she’ll even have a couple of special guests! I know that is a lot of exclamation points in a row, but I got to read the very first draft of this book and the fact that I’ll get to see it in full, published glory is overwhelmingly exciting. I’m like Buddy the Elf, only instead of Santa Claus I’m over here screaming “I KNOW HER” about A.J. Super. So head on over to Amazon, request the book at your local library, or visit your local independent bookstore! Wherever you get your reading material, look for Erebus Dawning tomorrow!

Okay, why did I start off talking about weddings and book launches and then start to write a post about funerals? Well, I’m fairly certain I’ve already written about Mother’s Day in the past, so that was out. And one of my sisters has been chatting with me this week about our own mother, who passed away many years ago. Since that has been on my mind, funeral trivia it is!

When you’re world building, even if you’re writing a contemporary instead of fantasy or sci-fi story, funeral practices can tell us a lot about family dynamics, character beliefs, etc. For instance, I know that a funeral in Mississippi and a funeral in Cambodia are two very different processes. Being that I’m not Cambodian and that’s not my culture to explain (as I would probably do it poorly), today’s post is primarily about Western Funerals.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Funerals:

  1. The word Funeral is derived from the Latin word “funus” which has several meanings, but primarily translates to “death” or “corpse”.
  2. In Ancient Rome it is recorded that family or close friends planted flowers over and around the grave to “cleanse the ground” of the spirits of the dead, and to ensure peaceful repose for the deceased.
  3. On the other side of that coin, it is considered bad manners to send flowers to a traditionally Jewish family during a funeral. It reminds them of the vibrant life that has been lost. Having said that, I have several Jewish friends who would welcome the sentiment with which the flowers are offered, so if you’ve ever unknowingly done it, don’t beat yourself up. Also, this is actually a growing trend in non-Jewish funerary practices too. In 1927 less than 10% of obituaries included the phrase “in lieu of flowers” asking mourners to do something, or perhaps donate to a favorite charity of the deceased instead of gifting the family with flowers. Today in the United States, that number is closer to 80%.
  4. Generally, a funeral in the West consists of three main parts (though some tend to blend the first two together). The first step is the viewing. Unless the body is too damaged or it is specifically requested by the family, the embalmed body is put on display so that friends and family may gather to say goodbye one final time. If the casket has to be closed, a photograph of the deceased is prominently displayed. I won’t lie to you, I have thought this part was kind of a weird tradition ever since I was a little kid. I’m in my mid 30s now and I still think it is a bit odd. The second step is the service, it generally includes a eulogy either by a member of the clergy or from close family or friends and, in the case of the Christian faith, Scripture readings. The final step is the graveside service, which is usually attended by fewer people than the first two. A few final remarks are shared and the casket is lowered into the ground.
  5. When you lose a loved one, especially in the American South, you will be given food by just about everyone you know. It is believed that a mourner should be able to take time to grieve and should not have to worry about such mundane things as cooking while they do so. However, they are expected to receive visitors who come to pay respects to the family and the deceased, so there are definitely still obligations to fill.
  6. We tend to use the words coffin and casket interchangeably, but they don’t actually mean the same thing. A coffin is the hexagonal box that tapers toward the bottom. A casket is rectangular and usually lined with a soft cloth. A casket is named after a special box that families kept their fine jewelry in. We don’t often refer to the velvet lined jewelry boxes as caskets anymore, but that is where the burial apparatus got its name. Of course, since the 1990s in the United State, the rising popularity of “green” or “natural” burials mean that there is not a coffin or a casket. While statistics show that this practice is gaining traction, I’ve never attended a green burial. The body is not embalmed and is buried with as little excess man-made materials as possible.
  7. While dark colors have been common during mourning for centuries in the West, wearing black specifically didn’t become standard until it was made popular by Queen Victoria. She wore black mourning clothes for the remainder of her life after her husband passed away. While dark clothes have been longstanding tradition, even longer standing traditions in many Asian cultures use white as the funerary color.
  8. Some gravestones are elaborate, some are all but bare. These days that might be a choice by the family, or it might be limited by the cost of the stone. However, in the early colonies, especially those inhabited by Puritans, elaborate gravestones were considered sinful. Trying to distance themselves from the elaborate memorial markers of the Catholic Church they were distancing themselves from, they went in the opposite direction and tried to keep both the funeral and the gravestone simple and austere. Today, you’ll find a mix in any given cemetery of elaborate gravestones and simple ones.
  9. Archaeological evidence in both Iraq and Wales shows Neanderthal bodies purposely buried and covered in a layer of pollen dust. While it is possible that the pollen dust has been deposited over the years by burrowing rodents, many believe this to be a sign that flowers at funerals were a concept even before modern humans entered the picture.
  10. There is another distinctly American type of funeral that is unlike any other. It started in New Orleans, Louisiana and it is not so uncommon that I haven’t seen it done. In fact, I have seen several. Jazz Funerals. During a Jazz Funeral, the family follows the hearse to the graveside on foot, followed by a Jazz band playing solemn hymns. After the graveside service, the Jazz band plays upbeat music and the family is joined by many other mourners to turn the mood into a true celebration of the life of the lost loved one. Everyone wears black, but it becomes a street parade. I’m not from New Orleans, but I do have to say that I like the idea of my family and friends celebrating my life instead of mourning my death. In my family, we have long embraced the concept of a wake and after all the loved ones we have lost, I think that celebrating their life helps my own personal grieving process much more than the somber whispers of a traditional funeral.

There you have it. If you are from a culture or part of the world that celebrates or mourns differently, I would love to hear about it. I know that sounds a bit macabre, but it’s true. Funeral practices and traditions can tell us so much about each other that I sometimes find them quite fascinating.

Celebrate life. Check out A.J. Super’s new book. Come back next month for more trivia.

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