Nobody likes to think about the myriad decisions related to losing a loved one or even dying themselves.
But there is more latitude in American traditions and procedures related to death than many might realize.
My brother, Hal, whom his natal family called “Jiggs,” passed away suddenly about a month ago, so the rituals of death in America are fresh in my mind.
Americans in most states have the option of a home burial, where gatherings and events are handled by the deceased’s loved ones themselves. The deceased’s body may be cremated or buried without involving a funeral home.
According to the National Home Funeral Alliance, survivors can self-style funerals or memorial services with the typical other traditions according to their budget and preferences.
Some states, but not all, have laws requiring that a body must be embalmed or refrigerated after a period of time (usually 24 hours). Even without specific laws, custom and convenience in a stressful time often lead families to employ a funeral home.
If a viewing is scheduled, the funeral home applies cosmetics to make the body look as “alive” as possible. The hair is styled, and even the fingernails are painted a fleshy color. The mouth and eyes are glued shut. The body may be prepared for burial without a viewing by loved ones.
A few states require that a body be buried or “finally disposed of” within a certain period of time, but most do not. It is even legal to move a body from one state to another yourself if you follow certain procedures using sealed containers. Usually, a body must be embalmed if it is to be moved.
The first stage of official services for the family of a deceased loved one is usually a “viewing” or wake. A wake is called such after the Irish tradition of keeping a wakeful watcher with the body for a few days before the funeral. Others claim the wake is to “wake the dead” with the celebrations of the deceased’s life.
The casket may be open or closed. Typically, attendees have an opportunity to view the body if it is in good condition. Traditionally, extended family and friends view the body and then just before the casket is closed, the head is lowered, final adjustments are made to clothing and the closest family members are the last to see the body.
Funerals usually involve music, sometimes hired professionals and clergy or funeral home workers giving a sermon. One person close to the decedent will give the eulogy, highlighting happy memories, special enjoyments, achievements or qualities. Memorial services are less formal, often with several speakers sharing an element of their relationship and memories of the dead. Music is not necessarily professional. At my brother’s memorial service, all eight of his children spoke, another of my brothers conducted, another gave the eulogy, and others of his siblings gave prayers and performed his favorite hymn.
Designated pall-bearers carry the body to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave. A procession of vehicles follows the hearse to the cemetery with their headlights on. The funeral procession follows the hearse with headlights on to the cemetery.
If the deceased served in the military, the casket is draped in an American flag. After a short prayer for the safety of the grave, an American legion officiator will oversee the folding of the flag in a precise and symbolic manner. The flag is presented to the closest kin, for that person to keep in memory of the deceased “from a grateful nation.”
“Taps” is played while attendees salute or place their hand on their hearts after which a 21-gun salute is fired.
Afterward, a meal is usually provided for the family by a church congregation or friends of the deceased. Sometimes, an open mic-type element is included with the meal where anyone can share a memory or thought about the family or deceased.
Though the customs are a collection of beliefs and traditions from around the world, they form, what seems to me to be a comforting and reverent way of honoring our dead.
Only in America, God bless it.