Saturday, July 11, 2009

Funeral Home Customs

I know that customs vary somewhat in the United States. In this area, most of the actual mourning and visiting takes place at funeral homes. People in this area rarely bring the deceased back to their homes. They are transferred to a selected Funeral Home after they die.

As I mentioned previously, we had begun the selection process when we learned my mother only had a few days to live. We were fortunate to find a wonderful operation. We had all been to funerals there, but had not made it our first 'choice' because it is hard to find parking. Well, as we learned after interviewing the place that had lots of parking--there are more important things.

Years ago when someone died there were usually several evenings of 'visitation'. A chance for friends, family, and neighbors to visit, offer condolences, and say goodbye. Most people have narrowed that down to one night of visitation these days. A notice is published in the papers the day before. Family members try to call everyone possible and ask them to pass on the news. Most of the time everyone who wants to know or visit is informed. Sometimes they are not, but the multi-night visitations are too hard on the immediate family.

I remember when my ex-father-in-law died. It was just as a long holiday weekend had begun. So the first night of visitation was four nights after he had died. Followed by three nights of visitation. He was buried eight days after he died and that was way too long for anyone to wait for that bit of closure.

Most people still have a 'showing'. That means that the body is placed in an open casket. Usually the bottom half of the casket is closed, you see the person from the waist up. On top of the bottom half of the casket are usually lots of flowers, often called a flower 'blanket'. There is usually a smaller flower arrangement placed on the edge of the inside lid, near the person's head. On each side of the casket is a taller, large arrangement of flowers. These are all purchased by the family. Each arrangement usually has a banner describing different 'roles' the person had. For example, my mom's flower blanket said 'Beloved Mother'. The smaller arrangement "Loving Grandmother", the two larger at each end of the casket said "Loving Wife".

Traditionally family, friends, employers might send plants or flowers. These are placed near the casket on each side, and around the visitation room. This is a strong tradition, and many people told me it was too hard not to send flowers instead of making a donation (see below). My mom received some beautiful flowers and plants.

We followed the custom of many by indicating in the obituary/death notice that 'the family asks that in place of flowers that you make a donation to ____ in the deceased person's honor'. The blank usually names a selected charity or two that reflect the interests of the deceased. In our case we asked for donations to either the American Heart Association or the Hospice where my mom spent her final days. The Funeral Home has a desk area with envelopes where people can write which charity they wish to benefit, and then they place their donation inside. They are asked to include their name so we might write a note of thanks. Others might choose to do that on their own. If my mom had been a practicing Catholic when she died, visitors would also have had envelopes where they could have placed an 'offering request' for Masses (prayer services) to be said in my mom's honor. There were many envelopes of donations for my mom, but we haven't had the energy to go through them yet.

Although it is a good idea to tell your loved ones what kind of funeral you want, many people find that hard. Customs and traditions vary here, and much is left to individual choice. For example, we knew my mom would like to be buried in a nice dress. She wore very little jewelry or makeup in her life and so we selected a necklace and very little makeup. Since the feet are not visible and she liked to wear slippers, my dad asked that she have those on her feet.

When a death happens it gets other people talking about what they would like. One cousin wanted everyone to know that he wants an open casket, and he wants to be dressed in the shirt of his favorite baseball team. The point is, people are usually dressed in a way they were comfortable in life, or in a way that they indicated to others before they died.

Most people have strong feelings about whether their casket should be open (able to view the body) or closed. In cases where people have been in a disfiguring accident, the option is always closed. Otherwise, it's a choice. I have always said that I do not want an open casket or a viewing. I've just always hated the idea of people looking at me when I am dead. I have been to funerals where they have placed a nice photograph of the person on top of the closed casket.

At the funeral home there is a room with the casket at the front, rows of chairs for visitor seating, and some smaller seating areas off to the side. There is a 'lounge' for visitors and family to gather outside of the room where the deceased is lying. These are usually small, with a bit of a kitchen area (refrigerator, microwave, some tables and chairs).

The family arrives about an hour before the guests are invited. For example, in my mom's announcement it says 'visitation 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.'. We arrived at 3 p.m. for some private time, and a short prayer service. The last guest left about 8:30. As you can guess, between traveling time and being there to greet the guests, there is no time to worry about food.

Bringing food to the family is still a strong tradition in this area, and in any area where I have lived. Probably four hours after my mom died one of her neighbors brought over a freshly made cake. Throughout the day others brought cakes, pies, cookies, casseroles, salads, sandwiches so the family wouldn't have to worry about food. Two of my close cousins had offered to prepare food and have it there for us. They worked hard and made a great feast, including my cousin's famous chicken casserole. It's now famous because so many guests that tasted it wanted the recipe and others were still asking her for the recipe the next day.

I was impressed by the neighbors because my parents have only lived in that neighborhood for a little over a year. They had moved from the home we grew up in, about twenty miles west of where they now live. They don't live in a small town or a big city. My parents and much of my family have always been in the sprawling suburbs, about an hour away from Chicago. Although there are names of town after town on the map, it is just one big populated area. In many suburbs, people have a long commute back and forth to work and rarely see their neighbors. I was glad that they had gotten to know a few of theirs, and that the neighbors clearly cared about them. I think that will help my dad in the coming months, just knowing that the people living around him care.

No comments: