A Change in Death—Or Not

Thank you for sending notes and letting me know you’ve missed me. I appreciate that.

860293834_4c8f575321_qI finally finished writing the latest Lutheran Ladies Circle novel, and it’s become wildly apparent to me that there’s been a CHANGE in the way we treat death.  Maybe that’s because lately, I’ve spent so much time with morticians.

The main character in Melody Markett’s Crash Course on Life is female funeral director with a checkered past (which she’s carefully hidden). I knew very little about the undertaking process, so I spent time with  folks at mortuaries, crematoriums, and cemeteries.

I discovered a bunch of fascinating details, which my red-ink-happy editors  cut because: “…while it’s intriguing, it doesn’t move the plot forward.”

Well, phooey!.  But then I realized…”Hey, I can share some juicy idea-bits with you.”  So start the organ music and let’s look at a few changes.

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 Covering-Earshouse, 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?

Funeral Parlors

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 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.

Living Funerals:

These are being embraced by folks with a “fatal” illness. A small group of friends and156097132_d7c96f8eed_q family gather to tell the dying person the heartfelt things he/she wouldn’t have gotten to hear at their funeral. It breaks isolation and allows others to know the dying person is willing to talk about his illness and death, and there’s no need to feel uncomfortable about visiting.


If you’re important enough, the NY Times or perhaps even your local newsrag will write your “advance” or “draft” obituary while you’re still alive. A journalist must be ready. The uncomfortable part is phoning the pre-dead for an interview. (I can attest to this. I’ve written two obits for live interviewees who wanted to “make sure the paper got it right.”)

Video Obituaries

A home DIY project (or you can hire a professional), folks are making videos and delivering their own obits to be watched at their funeral.  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.


PicnicOne thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that death may be final, but as long as a person is remembered, they live on.

Sometime over this Mother’s Day weekend the family will head out to the cemetery, armed with picnic baskets and garden implements. We’ll cut and trim and tidy.  Mom did it for Grandma. Grandma did it her mom. Great-grand did it for those who came before her.

And then we’ll spread picnic blankets under the nearby trees and raise a glass of lemonade and a snickerdoodle to those long-gone saints. The kids will throw worms and grass at each other. The adults will tell family flower-galleryplayer.jpgstories and laugh—remembering.

It’s tradition.

Happy Mother’s day, Mom. I’m keeping the tradition alive.

(If you’re interested in the story that evolved out of all this research, check out the book tab above for Melody Markett’s Crash Course on Life.)


7 thoughts on “A Change in Death—Or Not

  1. Glad to see you back! We’ve missed you.

    My dad, who was an Episcopal clergyman, was all for cremation, but he tried to talk people out of scattering ashes. “Scatter some of them if you must, but somebody, someday, is going to want to visit your grave.” He even convinced his last congregation to build a columbarium. I know in doing genealogy work, finding a gravestone can be vital.
    One of my uncles was laid out at his home, and I remember standing on the sidewalk with a couple of other relatives, as I was afraid to go inside, and my mum didn’t force the issue. I don’t think I was even in school yet; funny the things you can remember.
    As I’m sure you learned in your “travels”, sitting up with the body had two purposes; in pre-embalmment days, they wanted to make sure the person was actually dead, and they needed to make sure the rats didn’t get at the body.
    Amazing the things you learn when you’re a history major!

    • What wise words your father had about “someone wanting to visit your grave.” Whenever we travel (especially in England) we visit cemeteries, if possible. They tell the most amazing stories. How wonderful to have a congregation build a columbarium. What a great resting place. I wish more churches would do this.
      I’m guessing that sitting up with the dead through the night (to keep both rats and evil spirits away) lead to some very interesting conversations. Wouldn’t you have like to have been a mousker in the corner, listening to a late night conversation during a vigil?

      Thanks again for the kind and gracious nudge to get back to blogging.

  2. I can still remember the scent of the old catpee evergreens that encompassed the front porch, as the big front door was flung open to admit yet another shining casket—we seemed to be sit-up-with-the-dead- central when i was growing up. We didn’t call them wakes, either—folks just came and went, with several on the schedule to “sit” with the departed, even though all of my family was in the house, as well as whatever visiting kin we could fit into beds and onto sofas not in the room with the coffin.

    I even remember that when i was nine and my Dad’s Dad passed away, I was allowed, for the first time in my life, to lock the bathroom door to have my bedtime bath, and it was also the first time that I’d ever worn the pretty “duster” robe which had been a birthday present a couple of years before. The four steps between my room and the hall bath were in full view of the living room and what WOULD THEY think, to see me go by in pajamas?

    My dear Mammaw also “picked out” and designated her burying dress—a black silk she’d ordered from Sears Roebuck to go see Lawrence Welk in (danced with him, too, for about two steps before another lady could claim him). It was the only long-sleeved garment I think she ever owned, except for a coat, and I loved the smart shine of the fabric and the elegant rustle as she walked.

    I was already grown up when she died, and so regret that i was not there to enforce her wish, but I and a couple of girlfriends had been dispatched to clean her house for all the company to arrive on the morrow. And so, I missed the whole fiasco when my Mother and her brother went to the nearby small town to THE store and bought a PINK polyester blouse and a fitted skirt, whisking them away to the funeral home. “Mother always DID like Pink,” was the excuse for not remembering or not thinking or not caring about her wish for that silk dress. Mammaw had never worn a skirt and blouse since her slim, teenage years in the early 1900s—she was a dress-with-a-self-sash woman, and I simply hated that they’d consigned her forever to those mismatched shades of pink and that nubby woolly skirt.

    What a trove of Rest-In-Peace info you’ve acquired!

    • What fantastic memories. And you’ve captured them so weil, I feel like I’m traipsing down the hallway with you, trying to be demure and post-bath graceful. I, too, witnessed the elder women of the family takeover Grandma’s funeral clothes. My mom’s excuse was…”Oh! That old thing? She’d look awful. I always hated that dress.” And I didn’t hold enough age/credentials/wisdom in the family to out vote her. Thanks for sharing such great, vivid memories.

  3. Woo Hoo.
    Lovely to see your busy self pop up in my dash board again.
    And your editors…
    What can I say. My mind loves all of these details and loves books which take me down by ways.
    Over here perhaps the biggest change is a slow move towards eco funerals. No coffin. No headstones other than a tree.
    A return to days gone by… And a return I want to make. I really like the idea of feeding a tree, which shelters birds and critters.

    • Now that the world is tipping back in our direction, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of you. I’m so glad to have this book off my desk and I’m onto other riveting things…like yardwork. The eco interment trend is interesting. It’s not as big here. Mostly folks are going for cremation and winging ashes all over nature. I suppose it’s better than all the expense and square footage a burial takes…but I do find old cemeteries and their headstone-stories intriguing. I hope you’re well, I’ll be swinging by to see what’s cookin’ at your site. Hugs.

      • You mention old cemeteries and interesting headstones. One summer we went with our eldest daughter and her family to visit Lewes, on Maryland’s eastern shore, and visited a VERY old church; I think it is one of the oldest still in fulltime use in the state. (1680)

        In the church yard was a headstone shaped like a bed – head board, foot board and side rails, which marked the grave of a little girl who had died in the mid-1800s or thereabouts. I pointed out to our granddaughter, who four years old, that the child buried there was the same age she was. Amanda looked at the grave for a few moments, and then asked me to take her picture standing next to it. “I’m going to put the picture on my mirror, to remind me that when the doctor has to give me needles it’s so I won’t get sick and die, too.”

        Kid had better sense at four than a lot of adults today.

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