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 rituals, some of which go back two millennia, have changed so markedly in the past fifty years.
In 1948, as a sophomore at St. Mary’s High School in Burlington, Wisconsin, I purchased Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Loved One at a school book sale. I think Sr. Perfecta recommended writers like Waugh and Graham Greene to her students because she was proud that these sophisticated English novelists had become Roman Catholic converts. Whatever her reasons, Waugh’s satire fit the mood of a teenager searching for a view of anything beyond the confines of a small Midwestern town. I recall laughing out loud at Waugh’s portrayal of the strange ways people in Hollywood approached death—masking it in stagecraft and using euphemisms, like “the loved one,” for the deceased. I laughed because, while I was as American as anyone, I had never experienced death the way Waugh described it. It was not Catholic to pretend that death was not real. I had genuflected and crossed myself through dozens of Requiem Masses. I had been the server, holding the cross mounted on a tall wooden pole, leading the procession of the coffin down the aisle. I knew the entire grief-stricken wail of the Dies Irae by heart. Death was routine for me at fifteen—a boy with the hard heart of youth, who didn’t truly believe in his own mortality.
The central theme in Waugh’s spoof is the conflicted relationship between Mr. Joyboy, the head embalmer in a mortuary in Hollywood Hills, and his girlfriend Aimee Thanatogenous, a mortuary cosmetician. As corpses move down the factory-like assembly line from Mr. Joyboy to Aimee’s station, where she rouges and lipsticks their faces, she is able to discern how her relationship with Mr. Joyboy is progressing—positively or negatively—by noting that the “loved ones” she receives from him are either smiling or frowning when they reach her. After Aimee and Mr. Joyboy finish their work, the bodies are placed for viewing in “slumber rooms,” sometimes sitting up in a chair while “holding” a flower in one hand as they “sleep” with their heads resting on the antimacassars.
Waugh never considers the possibility that the coffin might be closed. Nor did most Americans and Europeans at the time. I was five years old in 1939 when my parents took me to see the body of my grandmother. Only her head and shoulders were visible in the half-opened, glossy wooden box in her bedroom as my father led me to the coffin, instructing me to kneel at the small red-velvet prie-dieu and say a prayer. A few years later, I went to a funeral parlor for the viewing of a neighboring farmer who had died from something my parents called yellow jaundice. (I argued with my brother Jimmy, who said the farmer’s body would look as yellow as a Chinaman; I said that was impossible.) And by the time I viewed the body of a fourth-grade classmate who died of leukemia, I was an open-coffin veteran.
Then came a large family funeral for my cousin Robert and his baby daughter, killed when Robert, a young farmer, failed to see an oncoming train at the railroad crossing. This was the first funeral I ever attended with closed coffins, and I recall conjecturing morbidly on how mangled the bodies must have been. Afterward we all went back to my aunt and uncle’s house, where the kitchen and dining room were swamped with chocolate and angel food cakes, apple and peach pies and casseroles of pork and beans next to shanks of ham. If the Irish salved the wounds of losing relatives and friends with alcohol, we Germans did so with food. Aunt Esther, her eyes filled with tears, begged us to eat so that “all this food won’t go to waste.” Over full plates, family members told stories about what Robert was like when he was a little boy and about the sweetness of his child. We laughed and cried as we filled our bellies.
MY COUSINS' CLOSED COFFINS seemed an oddity in the 1940s because the display of bodies has been a part of pagan and Christian funeral customs since the time of the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks washed and oiled the corpse, then dressed it for friends and relatives to view. The Romans placed the body on a high pedestal in the home for viewing, somewhat in the way my grandmother was laid out in her own home. In the United States, having the body at home—unembalmed—was the general custom up to the middle of the nineteenth century. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! includes an odd, witty song, “Pore Jud is Daid,” whose final lines warn, “He looks like he’s asleep. / It’s a shame that he won’t keep. / But it’s summer and we’re runnin’ out a ice.” A “cold table” was indeed used as the final viewing place for most corpses until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Lincoln’s assassination and burial in 1865 seems to have been the turning point. Displaying his body before millions of people as it wended its way slowly by train from Washington to Illinois required embalming. Soon many American families were following the Lincoln example.
A century later, my generation began to question the need for embalming—or caskets, or even funerals themselves. With cremation there’s no rush, so why not have a memorial service later on, on a sunnier day when family members and friends are less overwhelmed by grief—a kind of open house, where people drop in to console the bereaved? Even for those who held more traditional religious services, viewing the body became less and less popular. I was part of those changes in attitude. It is hard to explain why, but it came to seem neater and less upsetting to put the body in a closed box. No need to see it in order to say a last goodbye. Many found meeting at the funeral home more comfortable without the body intruding on the conversation. On more than one occasion, when a corpse was displayed, I can remember people quietly saying as they left, “Why did they have to have an open coffin?”—almost as if it were a breach of good manners.
Jessica Mitford’s bestselling 1963 book The American Way of Death speeded some of these changes. Like Waugh, Mitford expressed outrage at American funeral practices, which she saw as a concerted campaign by the funeral industry to rip off the public. Cremation was far cheaper than embalming—and to drive home her point Mitford directed that when she died her body be cremated. (Reportedly her 1996 funeral cost only $533.31, at a time when the average funeral cost over $4,600.) But cost doesn’t seem to be the primary reason for the sweeping changes in the way we treat death. In fact, the more affluent you are, the more likely it is that you will have cremation as opposed to a traditional viewing and burial; in 2010, only 14 percent of those deceased in Mississippi were cremated, compared with over 60 percent of those who died in New Hampshire, a far wealthier state. Clearly cultural differences are more important than cost.
Another reason given for cremation and closed coffins these days is that we shouldn’t needlessly upset our children. Yet my experience tells me that children accept death with equanimity. An Irish friend told me about a wake for an elderly grandmother held at her home on Boston’s South Shore. It was interrupted by an epic storm that snowed in the entire region. The body was on view in the home with all the relatives gathered when the storm hit, delaying the funeral and burial by three days. By the last day, three little boys had become so accustomed to the corpse of their great-grandmother that they took to playing their card games sitting underneath the coffin.
My father’s funeral a few years back was a traditional one, with an open coffin. He would not have wanted cremation. When it was over, what I found myself missing was that old German custom—the consoling warmth of heaping plates of food brought by neighbors and cousins and aunts. There were no shanks of ham or casseroles of pork and beans, and very few stories were told. Instead of going to the family farm, we were fed lunch in the basement of the church: platters of sliced turkey breast and square pats of butter with which to make our own sandwiches on white bread. Next to these were little individual cups of deli coleslaw. Paper-clad cupcakes were the only dessert. There wasn’t a lot of laughter—or tears. We ate at card tables set for four, quietly exchanging small talk about children and grandchildren, and left quickly to return to busy lives.
Many of the changes in our funeral rites remain unsatisfying, even for someone who more or less concurred in them. At the core of those changes lies a certain turning away from death itself. I doubt that Evelyn Waugh, who died in 1966, would have guessed how surreptitiously today’s “loved ones” would be handled: bodies that simply disappear and come back in little urns and boxes. The average cremation rate nationally in 1960 was 3.56 percent. By 2010 it was 40.62 percent. Two funeral directors I know, one in New York and the other in Wisconsin, tell me that mourners are less and less comfortable when bodies are on display. Many do not go up to the casket; instead they mill around in the rear of the funeral home. Funeral homes are now adding crematoriums to make up for the lack of embalming income. So why haven’t we gone back to preparing the body at home, as in the nineteenth century and for thousands of years before? The answer is that modern Americans are too fastidious to be intimate with death. It is we adults who are frightened, not the children.
WHEN I DIE, I have no desire to be rouged and combed and viewed by my grandchildren while lying in a casket. Sixty years after leaving a working farm where odoriferous death was as present as teeming life, I have become as air-conditioned, hand-sanitized, and vacuumed as everyone else in the suburban middle class. I too want to keep my distance from the messiness of death. So how can I tell others to face its reality head-on and ask my wife and daughters to wash and dress and prepare my body?
What I will ask is that my family and friends revive at least one old German tradition. However they decide to dispose of my body, and after whatever kind of service they choose, I want them to sit down together at a large table laden with comforting food. Chocolate layer cake and peach pie will help soothe their hearts, and the picture in my mind of them mourning with good food and laughter as well as tears makes me smile as I write this. Lost parents, spouses, children, or dear friends are buried in memory’s shallow graves. Their ghosts break though the everyday topsoil of our minds at the most unlikely moments.