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Published: 11 months ago
A funeral is a powerful thing: a ritual that all at once publicly acknowledges a death, says a final goodbye to the deceased, gathers together a support group of those affected by the death, and allows them to begin to move forward in the grieving process.
Every funeral is unique, of course, because every person is unique. Yet across the entire spectrum of individual funerals, they all work to serve those same basic ritual needs.
The traditional American funeral is structured as it is because it meets those needs well. Even in today’s social-media age, when it sometimes seems that we’re always seeing stories online about unusual funerals involving colorful costumes and exotic ceremonies, there are still generally a number of elements that most funerals share in common:
— a visitation where friends and family gather, comfort one another, and (often) view either the body, casket or urn;
— a spiritual ceremony that reflects the family’s beliefs;
— a eulogy and/or other ways of recognizing and honoring the deceased’s life;
— a procession to the place of final disposition;
— and burial or entombment.
While the details vary with the regional, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the United States, the structure largely remains the same. Both an Irish wake and the Jewish practice of sitting shiva are kinds of visitation; an African-American homegoing has a strong religious element; the rifle volleys and flag-draped casket of a military funeral honor the deceased’s life; and a New Orleans jazz funeral’s parade serves the same processional purpose as does the line of cars that follows a hearse from church to cemetery elsewhere in the country.
Every funeral, whether or not it’s completely traditional in tone or not, allows friends and family “to mourn properly as they work through their loss,” says Hugh Strebeck. He’s the general manager and owner of Ott & Lee Funeral Homes, a historic Southern institution that’s been in continuous operation since 1934. That basic role of facilitating mourning, he says, “does not change even with the different fads we face in funeral service.”
From Strebeck’s perspective, tradition and personalization coexist on a spectrum. “We do not see a distinct difference between traditional services versus unique services,” he says, noting that, after all: “Tradition is rooted in family.”
Which is to say that if a unique element serves the family, it becomes completely appropriate. Families each make decisions about which traditional elements they want to emphasize and others they may want to change: eschewing the dark, formal clothing that’s most traditional, for example, or using contemporary popular music.
So, while Ott & Lee may hew closely to traditional practices much of the time, Strebeck also proudly notes their expertise in what they’ve come to call Signature Moments, “special moments we create during the funeral service that highlight a particular aspect of an individual’s life.”
One family, for instance, told hunting stories about the deceased at his visitation. So the funeral home staff quickly organized a “hunter’s salute,” a variation on traditional military rifle volleys, in which the deceased’s fellow huntsmen “were positioned around the edge of the nearby woods to give a gun salute at the end of the graveside service.” In another case, while memorializing one woman who loved butterflies, vases full of them were included with the floral arrangements, and presented to the family after the funeral services were complete.
In crafting moments like these, Strebeck says, a funeral home can help a grieving family create “a very unique experience that is directly linked to the individuality of the deceased.” Thus tradition isn’t ignored—it’s simply supplemented with something extra and personal.
One traditional funeral practice that has steadily declined, on the other hand, is the burial of the deceased’s intact body in a casket, as opposed to cremation. While cremation has long been popular in countries of limited space, such as Great Britain and Japan, in the United States it was used less than 10 percent of the time as recently as 1980, according to the Cremation Association of North America. But in 2015, the U.S. cremation rate, 48.5 percent, exceeded the burial rate, 45.4 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
The trend is expected to continue. And while it certainly marks a departure from what was once commonplace, it’s a change that American funeral traditions can easily accommodate. Cremated remains can still be honored as the physical remains of a loved one, can be transported in a procession, and can be part of a traditional burial ceremony.
Traditions persist—otherwise, they wouldn’t be traditions. But traditions evolve with the times, too. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t persist for long.