I’ve been absent in the name of research, spending time with morticians and gravediggers. Thank heavens no one died. It was for a novel …not a horror novel. It’s a coming of age story, but one of the things that became wildly apparent to me was the CHANGE in the way we treat death over the last 50 years.
Like any newsy research, an author doesn’t get to use everything she’s discovered, but I want to pass along a couple of fascinating observations…
GROWING UP in the ‘50s.
Save the dress:
My grandparents (and every old person I knew), had one good dress or suit in their closet which they might wear on special occasions, but they’d be sure to let their nearest relative know, “This is the dress you need to bury me in.” It didn’t matter that the clothing was twenty years old or two sizes two small. The mortician could fix that. Even before people were dead, they were planning what to wear.
And then there was a wake:
But because we’re Lutheran, we didn’t call it that. It was visitations at my grandparent’s house, and all of us kid-cousins (who’d been banned to play in the yard) were constantly in trouble. These were the days before attentive parents provided toys and activities, so we hooligans made our own amusement: digging for worms, having dirt fights, or sneaking under the fence to explore the crawl-space beneath the Baptist church down the street. If we were caught and scolded back to the yard (to continue flinging dirtballs), an adult would come out of the house and yell at us for being too rowdy or noisy. “For the love of saints! Be quiet out here! Your uncle is dead! Have some respect!”
We couldn’t figure out why a dead man would care about our ear-splitting screams. And why did the adults get to laugh and tell stories that carried down the block?
We don’t call them funeral parlors anymore, but that’s what they did…provide a safe pest-free place to sit with the deceased. When funeral homes bundled their services into packages, many of our family activities went away—moved to a more professional, air-conditioned, padded-chair visitation room where there was nothing for us kids to do but kick each other and dare the youngest cousin to go touch dead Aunt Mildred’s hand.
And then the popularity of cremation brought an end to even more childhood exploits.
CHANGES FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY…New traditions are beginning.
Who isn’t curious what people will say about you when you’re gone? These ceremonies are mostly being embraced by folks with a “fatal” illness. A small group of friends or family family gather to tell the dying person the heartfelt things he/she wouldn’t have gotten to hear at their funeral. The benefit is that it breaks isolation. Lots of folks don’t feel comfortable visiting a dying person. They don’t know what to say and feel uncomfortable about visiting.This ritual has become about gratitude and closure for the living and the dying.
Newspapers such as the NY Times have “advance” or “draft” obituaries of famous pre-dead persons, so they’re ready to be published the moment the notice comes across the newsline. They’ll even phone the pre-dead for an interview. Now you can write your own obit and have it on file so you can “make sure the paper got it right.” (No guarantee anybody in your family will use it, though).
Here’s a dandy DIY project. Folks are making videos and delivering their own obits to be watched at their funeral. Or…maybe you’d like to leave someone a message that you would’ve never uttered in life? A company will allow you to create any message you choose and they’ll send it for you after you’re dead.
There are other changes in the “send-off to the great beyond.” But for now…tell me your stories.