American Death Rituals

On Thursday G and I went to Vickie’s mom’s viewing. These American Death Ritual things are…oh man, where do I start?

Here’s how it goes: we embalm dead bodies and then dress them up in their best clothes and put makeup on them and entwine rosary beads in their fingers–and in this case we even put their glasses on them.
Then we line up the family of the dead person and have them greet people who are at a total loss as to what to say. The grieving friends cry on the shoulders of the grieving family, and the family winds up consoling THEM.

It’s not a good ritual–at least for me.

(G and I had a deep and meaningful talk on the way home about this.)
I think people DO need some kind of venue to express how they feel at the loss of somebody they love, somebody who has been part of their community, their tribe, their family, They need some organized, ritualized venue for this expression, but not this.

Good god, not this.

First, in my humble opinion, they probably do not need to see the dead body of their loved one all made up to look like they are still alive, only sleeping.

Who’s kidding who here, people?

BUT: They most definitely need to EXPRESS how they are feeling.  They really do need to stand before the people who are most affected by the loss and say something, or just give a hug and get one back. They need to be seen, and counted as part of the community of people who are feeling this loss.
So, despite not liking this “viewing” ritual, and believing that it is totally bizarro,, and creeptastic, G and I decided to go anyway. To be counted. To express. To give a hug. There was a need, most definitely a need for this, and this was the only venue.

As we got closer to the funeral home, G started taking big in-breaths followed by long audible sighs.  I was feeling pretty okay, because I didn’t know the deceased, or the family, except for Vickie, her daughter, and I only know Vic as a person I once spent a raucous week at the beach with.   G is her real friend and much closer to the family.

As we are going in, coming out are 2 men in polo shirts and shorts. They look like they just finished playing 18 holes.

Inside, there she is, in the box, all duded up, complete with glasses and rosary beads. G touches her, and frankly, I am creeped out by this.

We go through the line. First up, Kevin, the son. He doesn’t recognize G at first and then goes all, “Of course!” on her, and  totally breaks down.

We work our way down the line: sisters, sisters’ children and spouse, and then finally, Vickie.

Vic sees G and totally and utterly loses it. When I see this, I lose it too.

Life and jobs and time and geography have distanced these two friends, but they’ve stayed in email contact and their connection goes back quite a way, and Vickie’s mother (the dead person) always loved G.

Vic starts to say certain things, like how her Mom always told her that G was so “grounded,” and told her that she (Vic) needed to keep G in her life and a whole lot of other things straight from the heart, and then Vic totally loses it and starts sobbing uncontrollably on G’s shoulder. The appearance of G has clearly brought up a whole slew of forgotten stuff for Vic. This interaction touches me deeply, and I start to cry.

Oddly, I felt really happy that I felt something, that I was touched to the point of tears. I haven’t felt genuinely touched at one of these things for a long time. I didn’t even cry at my own mother’s funeral. But the moment I saw Vic’s face when she saw G, I felt something shoot right through me. It felt like a bullet.

And I bawled.

I did.


6 thoughts on “American Death Rituals

  1. I have always been intrigued with open casket viewings. I’m not sure why….the unknown maybe. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a dead person look anything like they looked in life. That life force that makes them who they were to us is so clearly gone. I’ve never touched a dead person and I don’t want to.

    I have a viewing and funeral to attend on Saturday…that of a 15 year old boy. I’ve cried at every funeral I’ve ever been to…even some where I didn’t know the person well. So much sadness in one room just overwhelms me.

    I’ve heard stories about Irish wakes….a very different way of saying goodbye. What do you want your send off to be like?


  2. Well sure, we all want that.
    I had the chance to go to a funeral in Austria. The family that I lived with had a small chapel at the edge of one of their fields. They didn’t have a weekly service inside the very small classic white chapel but they did have a funeral there. My tante gathered wild flowers and put them about the altar, opened the windows and did some general tidying. There had been an auto accident (seriously, I’m not sure why this did not happen more often….extremely narrow roads, winding hair pin turns on the mountains and FAST driving) and a woman had been killed. They had a viewing but instead of an open or closed casket like we have here, they had windows along the side of the casket. They ran from head to waist. They left the casket in the chapel for 6 days. I only remember one visiting day where people came but the body stayed there for 6 days and they she was buried. I don’t know if that’s tradition or they hadn’t decided where to bury her. If you ever get a chance to go to Austria, check out the cemeteries. They are absolutely beautiful. Each space has fresh flowers growing around the entire plot…not some plastic piece just placed there during a brief visit. People actually GO to the cemetery to tend to the flowers and talk with their loved one (at least that was the case in the small village I lived in).

    I don’t know what I want when I die other than to be in the shade of a maple tree with a few random daffodils. I’ve tried to think about what I’d want my send off to be but just can’t bring myself to do it.


  3. Oh, how I adore the way you write, YogaWonderWoman. it has been such a year of losses~all over the world. I just helped friends move, they leave tomorrow~so my eyes are leaking and I could use a bandaid or two for my heart. They are the third set of friends with a moving truck. Any more budget cuts and I will begin to look like Arnold Schwarzeneger from all the heavy lifting ~ not such a good look for a girl. Really.


    1. Oh, Cwal, I hear you! It’s a sad, sad time. But maybe take consolation in this: the world has become a very small place. Distances can be spanned with email, text, skype and actual VISITS!! (Yay for visits!) When my daughter moved to the west coast (and a whole different time zone) I was distraught. But she really doesn’t feel that far now because of the aforementioned technological advances. Take heart, dear harp…and learn to Skype!


  4. Sometimes my web-browsing is a lot like a stream of consciousness. I click on one thing which leads to another and another etc. I have been thinking about my mom, I lost her 2 years ago this coming week. So I read this post and was thinking of funerals and death rituals.

    Tom’s brother passed away about four years ago now and his family is Irish. There was the “traditional” bawl your eyes out funeral and then there was this huge party, a celebration of his life at their house following. Tom’s brother had been married to a woman from Bulgaria. She did not understand this concept and found it quite offensive. I found the difference in mourning styles very interesting.

    When I lost my mother we did a similar thing. We had two viewings in one day and had a party in between. We left the casket closed, I’m with you guys, why would you want to see a dead person? I am not particularly fond of the last memories I have of my mom, but at least they were “real”. But I think my dad really hit the nail on the head, whether you are religious or just more of a spiritual person (or have no belief in an “after-life” at all for that matter)….he said (shortly following her passing, as in we were still in the room), “Why are we all crying? We need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves”. He said it in an attempt to lighten the mood, but it’s true…whether that person is in heaven, they have simply ceased to exist, or they are somehow with us in spiritual form…we mourn more for the loss of their time with us than their own loss of life.

    Just food for thought, and I was feeling thoughtful 🙂


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