I have never liked the traditional Western European funeral. It strikes me as gothic and melodramatic. I define this as embalming the body, church or funeral home service with an open casket, mourners dressed in black, a eulogy and mournful music and a procession led by a black hearse to the cemetery for a somber burial.
I had a friend who was, once, interested in going into the funeral director business; she had an aptitude for support services and social work and felt that aiding the bereaved would be satisfying work. She found that while many of the day-to-day details were supportive, in a corporate sense it’s a sales-oriented profession with expensive products and revenue targets. Eye-opening, huh?
I did a brief survey of some differing funerary customs:
- According to Buddha.net, Buddhist funerals consist of sacred readings, cremation and often interment of the ashes in an ancestral facility, and monastic visits to comfort the bereaved. Often, there’s a custom of a charitable or alms offering on behalf of the dead a few weeks following the ceremony.
- In Hindu custom, the dead are often cremated on a funeral pyre near a river, and the ashes are placed in an urn and immersed in the river with flowers and offerings. The family is considered to be ritually unclean for a period of time following the funeral and follows strict rules and regulations.
- Jewish mourners notably rend their clothing at hearing of a loved one’s death. There’s a complex ritual for preparation and purification of the body. It’s considered an honor for friends, family & community to dig the grave, and the memorial then takes place at both the synagogue (or funeral home) and the graveside. Jewish families often observe a traditional week of sitting shiva, formal mourning with prayer services and support from the community.
- Other interesting customs include:
- The New Orleans Jazz funeral, where the funeral parade shifts from mourning to lively jazz as the mourners dance/march their the way to the gathering.
- In some African funerals, the dead are buried in the floor of dwelling places, followed by a week long frenzied feast of remembrance.
- In ancient Rome, the mourning procession wore masks, and more prominent families hired professional mourners for a more ostentatious display.
- Viking chieftans were honored by being laid out in their boat with their weapons and tools. The boat was then set out for sea and set ablaze, in best Hollywood fashion.
- It’s now possible for chemists to create synthetic gems from the carbon contained in cremated remains, so occasionally a mourner may have a gem created from their loved one’s ashes.
My family’s preference, for a few generations at least, has been a more humanist funeral, with a quiet cremation, a wake or celebration of life, and a later scattering of the ashes at a place that’s meaningful to the person who’s passed on. My grandma’s ashes are scattered along the Methow River in the Winthrop valley; my dad’s ashes are scattered at Rimrock falls between Ephrata and Wenatchee. When we visit those places, we remember them.
This weekend, we’re scattering Bryan’s ashes, using the lovely urn Jim made for us. Bryan was raised and lived much of his life in Alaska, but after moving down here, found a great deal of joy on our boat on the Puget Sound. We – his family and close friends – are taking a couple of boats out and scattering his ashes, along with some flowers and a tiny metal plate with his name and dates, into the water. (This is not entirely legal – ironic for an attorney.)
I love the symbolism and the idea of returning the ashes to the earth, in a place he loved; as I gaze at the beautiful passages, bays & inlets, and drive across Agate Passage to the ferry, I’ll remember him. As poet Mary Frye said so beautifully:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die.