The severely simple funeral ritual that I described in an earlier column was part of a complex system of community practices that surrounded dying persons, their families, and close friends with highly personalized expressions of love and support. This full set of activities allowed the community as a whole to respond to the breach that a death caused and draw together for healing and health.
My first experiences with funerals were in a rural community in northern Indiana during my three years as a seminary student. Older members of the congregation lived on farms their grandparents, some of whom remembered the Civil War, had homesteaded. Most families were still geographically concentrated, within easy driving distance of the old family farm, church, and cemetery. Families had been intertwined through at least three generations.
Of course, many had moved to the cities—Kokomo, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis—but even there the traditional patterns of village and country life persisted. My seminary professor, O. L. Shelton, had experienced similarly coherent ways of life in Oklahoma and Kansas City prior to coming to Indianapolis in mid career. Because the system for community action at the time of death was firmly in place, he could teach his students how to do their part.
People usually died at home, surrounded by family and close friends for whom the process of caring for loved ones as they died was part of what it meant to be family. The medicalization and hospitalization of dying and death had not yet developed.
It was assumed that the deceased would be embalmed, a process that took place in a local funeral home, some of which were still closely connected to furniture stores, by local people whom the community knew.
A day or two later, the visitation occurred, usually at the funeral home. The deceased lay in state, surrounded by flowers, the scene bathed in warm light that softened the pallor of death. Members of the family would gather in a comfortable room to greet friends and many people from the community at large.
Part of the process was to escort those who “came to pay their respects” to the casket to look at the corpse. Often visitors would reach down to clasp the hands, and often they would murmur how “natural” she or he looked. Tears were common, because for many of the grievers, the ties had been long and strong.
A day or two later, the funeral took place at church, with coffin present. Here the immediacy of death as experienced at the visitation was compressed into the tight form of the religious ritual that was the formal, public rite of passage from this world to the next. Everyone knew who had died and who remained to grieve and names seemed hardly to be necessary.
Following this service, the coffin was wheeled to the church door where pall bearers carried it to the funeral coach that led many of the worshipers to the graveyard where the community had gathered many times to lay their own beloved dead into the grave. The committal was brief and direct: “dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
The family then returned to the church where their friends in the congregation served them lunch as a sign of friendship and support as they began the process of turning their attention to reconstructing a new normal for their lives.
As these villagers moved west, they took these customs with them and they became established in towns everywhere. Two of the most vivid replications of village funeral practices that I have seen occurred in later years with the deaths of aged persons in Fresno, California followed by burial in the family cemetery up in the Sierra foothills village of Toll House, and Portland, Oregon, with final rites 150 miles to the south in the village of Creswell.
Several changes have occurred in American life that make this traditional pattern untenable: the medicalization of dying and death; the wide geographical spread of families; the commercialization of the funeral industry; the disappearance of the village and small town culture of solidarity; and the abandonment of coherent and agreed understandings of life that include reasonable expectations that life continues beyond the grave.
The results are twofold. First, the old ways, with clergy and churches at the center, are disappearing. Second, new patterns of remembrance and celebration are emerging, often with little sense of coherence or of the deeper meanings of life, especially of the life of the person who has died.
The challenge—and opportunity—for ministers today is to regain their work as ritualizers for communities that are increasingly in need of ceremonial systems that give coherence and meaning to dying and death.