Thank you for sending notes and letting me know you’ve missed me. I appreciate that.
I 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 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?
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.
These are being embraced by folks with a “fatal” illness. A small group of friends and 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.”)
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.
One 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 stories and laugh—remembering.
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.)