A few years ago, I was on my way to a funeral. An in person, non-masking, church member funeral with a receiving of friends, a service, and committal. Funerals remind me of funerals, the same way this Christmas will remind you of last Christmas. So many of the practices are the same.
At this funeral, there was receiving line. We stood in a line and shuffled past a table with pictures of the deceased and some of favorite things, past family and close friends, shaking hands and hugging the few we knew. Then, and I can’t remember if this actually happened at this funeral or at dozens others that I’ve attended, we walked past an open casket, with a body. Maybe there are comments, or silence. Tears may be shed, but it’s mostly silent with some chit-chat about flowers and the jewelry she has on.
During the actual funeral service, a few songs were sang, scripture was read, prayers were said, and a pastor eulogized about the woman’s faith, her love for God and her family, and the hope of her example for us all. It was a solidly Methodist funeral. John Wesley suggested that funerals should be teaching tools for how to live a faithful life toward salvation. (John Wesley also said it was a sin to cry at funerals, but it’s okay to not always agree with him). Other funerals I’ve been to had sermons about what comes next for the deceased, and on occasion, sermons about getting right with the Lord because you want the same assurance of salvation the deceased had.
I didn’t stay for the committal.
The receiving lines are what made me think. It’s a strange practice to get in line because someone has died. But we do it, at least in part, I think, to try to bring some sense of order to something that we cannot order.
If we step outside of our funeral practices, which, of course we can only partly do, we see a lot of things that really seem to be trying to bring order. Whether it’s bringing the family food. The wearing of black. The viewing of the body.
Over time we’ve chipped away at funeral practices. The sitting at home with the body, the months long period of morning, the stopping clocks (time can no longer stop for death, even in rural worlds), time off from work beyond one or two days (again time doesn’t stop), and funerals within a few days. Some of this is because of families being far more spread out and others are because of way society views death.
Death is often something to be observed in passing, not something, participate in, respond to, or make something from. Death isn’t valuable, it isn’t something that makes money or increases trade.
We also don’t teach death. As a child I was present at a visitation or funeral for family or friends at least once a month (it felt like this, even if it wasn’t true). I have memories of asking questions about a man sleeping in a casket, smelling carnations, and coloring on a note pad during the service.
Yet, today, we shy away from teaching children about death in many circles. Perhaps parents want to preserve innocence or maybe they want to deal with children as part of the process. I don’t have answers to that question.
But I do have a feeling about funeral practices. I have a hunch that the funeral practices, the means of creating order or organizing meaning through song, processions, flowers, and deviled eggs holds in it the tools for a rural practice of organizing meaning and creating…maybe not order, but creating something.
Part of my doctoral studies was congregational studies and qualitive research. My plan is to utilize this in order to study rural funeral practices in search of stories, images, symbols, that can point toward rural life. Funerals, I think, are designed to point toward life. The life of the deceased, the life of the community, and the life beyond life, whether heaven or legacy.
Look for more information on this soon. Maybe you can be part of my research.