Traditional funerals in the U.S. grossly underutilize the opportunity to truly celebrate life. I haven’t attended too many, and of course there are exceptions, but for the most part U.S funeral and mourning traditions have one theme: SAD. Yesterday I dutifully researched U.S. mourning custom origins with the help of my librarian Tami. (She was fantastic! Thanks, Tami!) I wanted to find out where this influence came from and see who was doing it better. Turns out in the 19th century Americans tried to mimic the regal ceremonies of British royalty.
As a result we ended up with somber processions, black clothing and heaps of funeral etiquette pressure. Good news! There are people out there doing it better.
Traditional Mourning Customs
From what I have experienced, wakes and funerals are very similar. The similarity bothers me because now every funeral I attend reminds me of my mother’s funeral and takes attention away from the recently departed. It’s not the end of the world but every time I attend a funeral I think there has be a better way. Now it seems silly to have spent so much time being stiff and “proper”. We had so many friends and family gathered in one place. Why didn’t we celebrate my mother’s life?
I don’t need to go into the gory details of what I remember about the funeral but one positive beam of light on the day was a 3×5, framed collage featuring pictures of my mom looking beautiful at all stages of her life. Though not an integral part of either the wake or the funeral, the collage was a catalyst for true reverence and a welcome break from the solemn tone that is a funeral parlor. People asked me questions about the pictures and I had the opportunity to truly remember and honor my mom.
Traditional Customs Falling Short
Aside from whatever it is I was going through at my mother’s funeral there was entirely too much attention paid to my family members and me. Yes, the situation sucks. There’s no way around it but I wasn’t looking to anyone for anything. Showing up said all that it needed to say.
My point isn’t I’m an island or that I don’t need anyone and you shouldn’t either, but that the format of the funeral is so tense that it makes celebration a challenge. Moreover, given the tradition, it’s difficult to take full advantage of how beautiful it is to see a community come together in peace. I couldn’t even sit through that huge cathedral-style funeral without breaking down, never mind build a sense of community. I wanted so badly to give a proper eulogy, but the idea of standing up above a church filled with hundreds of people and in my full-fledged old lady outfit seemed like an impossible feat. I still look back now and wish I had done more.
Finding New Customs
The motivation for all this contemplation came when I recently attended the crazy elaborate Italian funeral of my Auntie May. It brought back all of the horrible memories of my mother’s funeral. Same people, same flowers, same set-up. The whole aura was the same. Somber. Black. Stiff. That’s fine, but my Auntie May was 94 when she passed away. She had a litter of great-grandchildren and she was funny as hell. That’s a life worth feting.
All of this led me to explore alternative, and more importantly positive, mourning customs. One I really liked came from Buddhism and Islam. They generally view the funeral as an opportunity to perform charitable acts on the behalf of the deceased. It’s a perfect synergy of people wanting to help and mourners wanting that help to yield positivity and love.
Starting New Customs
I have notes and notes, but the most exciting discovery I made was the New Orleans Jazz Funeral. This raucous affair includes music, singing, and dancing and blends influence from Africa and the West Indies. (Check it out in this video.)
In a jazz funeral, onlookers dance and strut behind a buoyant band. After a somber procession, the music turns joyful. Collectively the group send the dead peacefully into the afterlife and begin to celebrate the life that remains. Now that seems like I tradition worth adopting.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned. I have more positive customs to explore and experience. If you know of any unique customs that you have participated in, observed, read about, pass them along. firstname.lastname@example.org