Life at a funeral

Life at a funeral

Loulou Callister-Baker explores the burial ritual and current, sometimes bizarre, trends within funeral industries around the world

We reached Hamilton the day before Christmas. It was a reflective time - the drive was long and stuffy, another year was coming to an end and both of my parents’ dads were, at that time, in care. The afternoon we arrived, we visited my grandpa, who, after recent hospitalisation, was now in the intensive care ward of a Hamilton rest home. On seeing him, his impending death was immediately apparent. His skin was pulled tight around his face and his head looked shrunken somehow. His usually tanned skin tone had faded to a pale yellow. His lips were curled back into his mouth, which was dropped open revealing a black, seemingly toothless cave. His eyes were also open but milky and unseeing, despite rolling occasionally. His entire body heaved as if it took all his strength to capture the next breath.

In the afternoon on Christmas Day, we visited my grandpa again. His condition hadn’t improved. The nurse pulled my dad aside to talk to him privately but I still picked up on the words “from hours to two days” – the time frame for my grandpa’s remaining life as predicted by a professional. The nurse left and Dad walked back into the room – his expression unreadable. The three of us then watched my grandpa for a while. Dad offered me a grape from a packet beside Grandpa’s bed. Time passed and soon we had to leave. Dad stepped forward and sat on the bed beside Grandpa. He then lent over his dad and gently lifted his body into a tight embrace. Made contemplative by this intimate gesture, Mum turned to me and commented that part of the grief we experience when a family member dies can be for “a lifetime of things that went unsaid.” In a subdued state, we left the room, weaving through Christmas-hat-donned elderly lined up in rows of La-Z-Boys as they watched Christmas specials on the television. They had seen it all before.

Early the next morning, while at breakfast, Dad got the call. Grandpa had told everyone that he was going to make it to Christmas. He died on Boxing Day. Death, however, is only an end point for one person; for the family and friends who remain alive, a death marks the beginning of the process of mourning, celebrating and remembering. And although this process can be deeply personal, there is often a communal element – a coming together, a sharing of grief and stories – which commonly takes form in the ceremony of a funeral. But what purpose do funerals really serve? What do they mean and how do they convey that meaning? Although the answers to these questions can vary tremendously for different cultures and secular or religious groups, the concepts of “eventual rest” and “reward” for the dead are common to most death rituals. William G. Hoy depicts one example of a universal theme underlying all death rituals in his book Do Funerals Matter? “Whether in the tribal funeral march of the Kenyan Luo, the repeated ‘stops’ along the traditional Jewish funeral route to the grave, the Cambodian Buddhist custom of driving past the deceased’s home and workplace on the way to the crematorium, or the police-escorted procession of a fallen Marine to the rural cemetery outside a small town in America, the image of the ‘last mile of the way’ is ubiquitous in describing the rituals surrounding death.”

The first point in time when humans began a process of burial and ceremony is difficult to determine. However, some claim that one of the earliest examples of deliberate disposal of the dead was found in Pontnewydd Cave in Wales. The remains discovered, which included the teeth and jawbone of a child, dated back approximately 230,000 years. In a different location another team of researchers found a Neanderthal man from approximately 60,000 BC whose body was buried in True Detective-esque style, adorned with antlers and flower fragments. These adornments have been thought to indicate ritual and remembrance and also symbolise a rudimentary effort to protect the living from any negative spirits expelled from the dead person. By the sixth century B.C., ceremonies associated with burial were well established throughout the world. In ancient Greek society, for example, the necessity of a proper burial was paramount, which resulted in a customary burial ritual. This three part ritual began with prothesis – the laying out of the body for people to visit and mourn – followed by the ekphora – a funeral procession, typically occurring before dawn – and ending with either burying or cremating the deceased.

While the global histories of death rituals are endlessly fascinating, their roles within the increasingly secular attitudes of a typical New Zealand family or community is what drew my attention at my grandpa’s funeral. Grandpa’s funeral was hastily organised, held just over a week after his death at a beautiful Anglican church despite my grandpa, as well as a majority of my extended family, being staunchly atheist. This contradiction is something local Hope and Sons Limited Funeral Director, Donna Jenkins, is well aware of. “The increasing popularity of Celebrants and Funeral Directors providing custom built facilities, and a climate of more flexibility in and around funeral service timing, has led to many changes but I would also say that in a crisis people often go back to what is familiar,” she explains. “For example, the family may not be regular churchgoers now, but as children they attended with Mum and Dad so they will sometimes choose to have a service in the church for Mum, with a clergyperson conducting the service.”

As we waited for people, many of whom I did not recognise, to fill the pews at my grandpa’s funeral, I studied the white, cardboard coffin, which stood on the small stage at the front of the church. Later I learned that this ecoconscious coffin choice reflects an increasingly green attitude to funeral services worldwide. And there is good reason as to why. Each year in the States alone, according to the Green Burial Council, “cemeteries bury more than 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tonnes of steel in coffins, 17,000 tonnes of steel and copper in vaults, 1.6 million tonnes of reinforced concrete in vaults, and more than 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid.” Donna confirms this eco transition within the New Zealand funeral industry: “Eco funerals are now very much within the framework of the funeral profession. Environmentally friendly products are used in the care of the deceased, there is an environmentally caring range of caskets available and Dunedin has now had its first natural burial.” In respect to Donna’s own company’s practice, they “endeavour to reduce our carbon footprint through buying locally; maintaining nice green gardens; recycling within the DCC guidelines; using energy saving light bulbs; we financially support the Orokonui Ecosanctuary and make a donation twice a year in memory of the people we have cared for; recycle paper; we have air conditioning units throughout the building that are energy-saving; and we chose our brand of photocopiers because of their carbon footprint. We are always looking for ways to improve.”

Environmental consciousness also provides a partial reason for the increasing popularity of cremation, which also can reduce funeral costs by 50 per cent. But there is a whole range of reasons to be excited about cremation; savings on burial expenses and maintaining sustainable practices are just the beginning. The company Cremation Solutions, for example, can turn a few ounces of cremated ashes into a variety of jewellery – even diamonds (with the most expensive option being close to US$25,000). Often the jewellery will be moulded with a hollow chamber inside where the ashes can be placed and sealed in. And in Cremation Solutions’ own words, “Cremation jewellery is a perfect way to symbolise everlasting love along with celebrating the eternal spirit of a loved one who has passed on.”

Hard to comprehend? Another particularly specialised company takes cremation to the next level – quite literally. The American company Celestis Memorial Spaceflights offers a service that involves launching a portion of the deceased’s cremated remains into Earth’s orbit. The more expensive options (approximately US$12,500 each) either involve launching the spacecraft to the moon’s surface or on a path that means the spacecraft will eventually exit our Milky Way, continually floating on in a “permanent celestial journey.” The process for this unique service is explained on the company’s website: “The remains are placed in a specially designed, individual flight module or capsule which contains either seven grams or one gram of cremated remains, depending upon the service you selected. They are then integrated into the Celestis spacecraft, which is attached to the rocket and launched into space.” Grievers can even keep track in real time of their Earth-orbiting loved one through a link on their website. Celestis spacecraft are carefully designed so as not to create orbital debris and, for those who select the Earth-orbiting option, when the spacecraft re-enters it is completely consumed by Earth’s atmosphere “blazing like a shooting star in final tribute to the passengers aboard.”

Despite the knowledge that Grandpa, along with his eco coffin, would be cremated after the service, it felt important to acknowledge his body’s physical presence. However, my contemplative mood quickly became distracted when my eyes narrowed in on the set of felt tip pens teetering on the smooth curve of the coffin’s lid. Small children and supervising adults suddenly congregated around the coffin. Like a get-well card doing the office rounds, or an arts and crafts afternoon in primary school, individuals wielded their felt tip pens and began to either draw or write personal messages directly onto the coffin’s surface. Despite the sombre mood, I began to laugh. This only intensified with the realisation that laughter at a funeral is not entirely appropriate. Extended family members turned around in their seats to give me discerning looks. In a later conversation with my dad about this funeral trend he enlightened me on how wrong this fad can turn. At one funeral he attended no one particularly liked the deceased, so when it came time in the funeral service to write messages on the coffin, the coffin accumulated a set of messages only appropriate for a filthy public toilet wall – the least crude of these messages being a classic “good riddance to bad rubbish.”

The increasing personalisation of funerals both parallels and intertwines with the increasing integration of app or web tools solely created to aid and ease our mourning rituals. New Zealand company, One Room, for example, provides a live funeral webcasting service for friends and family (or “virtual guest[s]” as the website describes them) who are unable to attend a service. The company was launched in early 2012 and is now installed in approximated 30 major funeral homes throughout New Zealand, having already live streamed over 1,000 services to more than 25,000 virtual guests. Other related services that One Room discusses on its blog include text-based memorials posted on memorial websites, and QR Codes, which can be implanted in tombstones and scanned over with a smartphone to take the scanner to this web memorial. One Room states: “Social media has become an essential part of today’s funeral experience, as it has changed the way people communicate about their sadness.”

“It is probably fair to say that nothing is too surprising, but we will often guide families as to whether it would be appropriate, practical, dignified and of course – legal!” Donna told me when I asked what other requests or trends she has witnessed in the funerals she has directed over time. “Some examples include: a surfboard on top of the Dodge hearse; playing a recording of the deceased person singing as their casket leaves the Chapel; being asked to drive past certain hotels on the way to the cemetery; a prepared, prior to death video recording of the deceased speaking to the congregation; holding the service at the race track then the hearse (casket in back) following a race horse around the track to the song “The Gambler” being played across their PA system; a daughter spoke at her mother’s funeral from Italy via an iPhone being held to the microphone (it was very clear, as if she was there in person); horse-drawn carriage taking the casket to the crematorium and all the family following behind on foot (approximately four kilometers); fairylights, statues and greenery throughout the Chapel to recreate the deceased’s own garden; boats, motorbikes, classic cars and trucks parked in and around the funeral service venue.”

Donna also listed an interesting array of music requests for when the casket either arrives or leaves the chapel. Among these included: The Can-can; Another One Bites The Dust; the Star Trek theme; Dancing Queen; Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life; the Thunderbirds theme; and, most confounding of all (to me), the Shortland Street theme. Although these choices may raise some eyebrows, Donna firmly believes “it is each to their own and if it has a special meaning for them then go for it!” She has, however, once refused to play something when requested by a member of the extended family because it “contained some really ‘colourful words’ and out of respect for the deceased, his immediate family and the wider congregation I said ‘NO’ to playing it in the Chapel and suggested that they could play it later at home.”

At the end of my grandpa’s funeral, the pallbearers carried the coffin from the church and placed it into a waiting car. While the guests watched individuals scatter flower petals over the coffin, my cousin was directed to take photos of the crowd, particularly of our extended family. Although photography at a ceremonious event like a funeral is hardly a foreign concept, there is increasing debate on the appropriateness of taking selfies with the dead or during a funeral service. The Tumblr titled Selfies at Funerals is an excellent source for such photos providing evidence of this phenomenon. However, the curator of the site recently stopped publishing content to it, ending with the famous photo of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and U.S. President Barack Obama posing for a selfie during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Despite the waves of criticism, a range of notable writers have defended the idea of selfies at funerals. Tracy Clark-Flory for Salon, stated, “These days, selfies are how we make ourselves real, to ourselves and to the outside world. So, it’s no wonder that some of us turn to our iPhones in these moments of loss. It’s a way of saying, ‘I still exist.’”

Increasingly personalisation, celebration (rather than mourning), eco-consciousness and technological integration are a handful of broad trends evident in funeral industries around the world. Bizarre or not, humankind’s unwavering commitment to the burial ritual continues on in a perpetual quest to make sense of the absolute mysteries surrounding death or what it means to be alive.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2014.
Posted 7:01pm Sunday 30th March 2014 by Loulou Callister-Baker.