Looking Away

Funerals Aren't What They Used to Be

As I draw closer to my own death, reasonably healthy but in my late seventies, I have begun to think about funeral rites and how they have changed since I was a boy. I grew up in the era of open coffins, Requiem Masses, and somber sermons reminding us that our own end was near, followed by large family gatherings at the homes of the deceased. The past thirty years have brought major changes to these arrangements. Recently, close friends—nonreligious friends—chose cremation for their father and husband, scattering his ashes in their apple orchard; people dropped in casually, over the course of a weekend, to mourn with them, remembering him lovingly through fond stories. The wife of a nonobservant Jewish friend chose cremation when he died, and at his memorial service his musician son blew a shofar salute to give the service its one and only ritual note.

At a recent funeral for my beloved niece, I saw a typical mixture of old and new. The service, held in a Catholic church, adopted a tone of cheerful celebration, with the priest dressed in white, the Psalms—at my niece’s request—sung by a Jewish cantor, and the eulogy delivered by a friend who quoted amusing excerpts from my niece’s letters and e-mails. The priest’s few words made no reference to those of us who would exit next. For my niece, this seemed exactly right. Her life had been one of giving and joy that persisted despite a long illness. But it still left me wondering why final...

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About the Author

Paul J. Schaefer, a retired magazine editor, lives in Clinton Corners, New York.