Monday, October 22, 2012

Christian American Death Rites

It wasn't until I went to India that I discovered not everyone was buried or cremated the way they are in the US. I'm sure it would have made sense to me to realize the differences had I ever really thought about funerals. I tend to avoid the subject of death and funerals due to my own personal difficulty with the subject.

With my granny having just passed I thought now was as good a time as any to enlighten my non-US readers as to how the issue of death is typically handled in a Christian family in the Southern US.

I'm going to spare you the pictures of what granny looked like in her last days and I will only briefly tell you what happens at the hospital after the death occurs. Of course, in the US the elderly are sometimes afforded the option of going home and "being comfortable" when they are near death. Some are not in good enough health to leave the hospital and some die suddenly, without any warning, wherever they may be at that time.

I watched my great-grandmother be bed-ridden for many years. She was being kept comfortable until her time. The day she died she actually waited until all of her children were present in the house. Her youngest child was coming from out of town and she lived a full day longer than expected, only to die after seeing him walk in and putting a smile on her face. She was at peace.

Granny wasn't as privileged. Her last couple weeks were very rough. Some days she seemed to get better and other days she didn't look like she was alive. Although the doctors said she was comfortable, she was not and you could see it when she was alert.

When both of them passed away, a medical official was called to make the final determination that they were indeed no longer living. The time of death is noted for record purposes and a cause of death is listed. Then the body is taken to the morgue where it is cleaned, the bodily fluids (including blood) are drained and - as needed - an autopsy is performed.

Depending on how large a city is or how busy the morgue is, sometimes the bodies are kept in cold storage or frozen until the autopsy is performed. I won't comment further on autopsy's because they are not done in my family. I do not know the procedure, nor do I want to know as they can be rather grotesque.

After the morgue the body is transported to a funeral home. The family is asked to choose this at the time of death. Sometimes the family doesn't even realize what they are agreeing to because of the intense emotions they are feeling when asked. Can you imagine being asked 5 minutes after your loved one took their last breath where the body should be taken? I can't imagine anyone could think straight in that situation. Some families, like mine, have a pre-determined funeral home that the entire family uses.

After the body is transported to the funeral home, the family visits the home to make the funeral arrangements. This includes picking out a casket, setting the date and time for the viewing, the funeral procession, the graveside services, who will speak about their loved one, and many more options. There are so many, I couldn't list them all here. The family is also responsible for bringing a set of clothing for the deceased person to wear.

The funeral home embalms the body. This is the process of preserving the body so that it still looks good for the funeral and doesn't traumatize anyone. They also paint the body to look more life-like including doing the body's makeup and hair. They put the clothes on the body and place it in the casket. The body is then posed to look peaceful and at rest. All of these things are done to help the living family members process the death and it is of no benefit to the body. (It's actually to the detriment but I'm not getting into forensic details today either.)

After all of this is done, the close family members gather at the funeral home during their designated time to receive friends and extended family of the deceased. People bring pictures and things to place in the casket (if allowed). The friends and family all pay their respects to the deceased in their own way. Sometimes this is a verbal good-bye, other times it's saying a prayer over the body. Generally there is music playing in the background.

This is how the viewing hall is set up. The body is inside of the wooden box. In this picture, the lid to the box is open.

Then comes the funeral service. In some instances, this is directly after the viewing and then a separate graveside service is performed the following day. Other times the funeral is in the morning and the graveside service in the afternoon. This varies with the time of year, theweather, etc. My mother's side of the family typically does the entire funeral service grave-side.

During the main funeral service a preacher comes and preaches a sermon to try and lead others to follow Jesus Christ. This is not an age old custom but rather a growing trend in the Christian community. The deceased is mentioned and used as an example but the main service is not directly focused on the deceased.

For graveside services a tent is set up atop the grave and seats are made available for close family members. The casket, with the body inside, is set atop a 6-foot deep hole on a special platform. Everything is covered so you do not see the hole. Flowers and a picture of the deceased is placed on top of the casket and family members are invited to say a few words about the deceased's life and the difference they made in the world. This service can last a short time, or a long time, depending on who all is speaking. We tend to be intensely emotional in my family so our services are never long, lest we literally choke on the tears we are fighting.

After the graveside service the family leaves the area and the funeral home, in conjunction with the graveyard staff, then place the casket into a sealed vault. The vault is lowered into the ground and covered with dirt. The dirt gets packed down and a temporary marker is placed at one end of the grave (the family chooses head or feet) that indicates the name of the deceased.

Later a permanent grave marker, often called a headstone (see the examples in that last picture), is placed at the gravesite. This marker is unique to each person and typically contains the name of the deceased and some information about them. That information could be the year of birth and death, the full date of birth and death, their favorite quote, their picture, etc. I've seen many different examples over time and it really is up to the children of the deceased to pick out what they feel reminds them most of the loved one.

After the funeral visitors, mostly family, will continue to come daily, weekly, monthly or yearly to place flowers on the grave site. They do this in remembrance of the loved one. Living individuals visit the grave site as a way of feeling closer to the deceased person until they are able to fully come to terms with (accept) the death. This too is unique to the individual and could take years before people stop coming and leaving flowers. In many cases, the family continues to put flowers on the grave every year on the anniversary of the death or on the deceased's would-be birthday. Sometimes both. It depends on how close the family was to the deceased.


  1. It's fairly similar on how it's done in Switzerland, the only difference is that there is only one service and it happens in Church for those choosing to have a Christian ceremony. The service generally last abot 30-45 minutes, the close family sits in the front pews, the others fill in the rest of the seats, in some case the church might be too small, so loudspeakers are set outside for all those that came to pay their respect but are not fitting inside. Once the service is finished the family usually exit first following the casket, and lines up outside the church on a single line while the casket is loaded in the funeral car, the other people then all exit passing in front of the family line silently, we call this part the "last honor" or simply "honor" this is the most awkward part to be in, as a person, looking at a grieving family flooding in tear is har, being in it is though too, because you are crying, and you barely know half the people present and feel awkward being reviewed that way. Then the imediate family follow the car to the cementary, the other guests head to the party hall, where afternoon tea is served. At the cementary, the casket is lowered into the grave in front of the family, no vault, it's going directly in the dirt, the family pay personal hommage there, throw flower and trinkets into the crave and leave, the cementary staff covers the crave and place fresh flowers on it to cover it until the head stone can be placed (weeks later). Open caskets are rarely done. Nowaday many people opt for cremation though, and ask their family before their death to spread the ashes in a particular spot dear to them in some cases. My paternal grand parents made arrangement not to have graves, and no religious service, they just want the immediate family there in a room to talk fondly about them, my grand pa left us in 2008 with my Grand ma surviving him, he died right after I came back to India from my 2 months trip, so I wasn't present, but the rememberance ceremony went just as planned.

  2. Thanks for sharing. It does seem our funerals are similar in several ways. I have a lot of trouble with funerals. I don't handle death well at all. It is very difficult to face the family but even worse to be in the family that is grieving.

  3. So sorry to hear of your grandmother's passing. At least you able to be there at this sensitive time.
    My parents opted for cremation & asked for no 'services' to be given to mark their passing. My sister threw a fit (she wanted some service in spite of our parents' wishes) so we compromised and had 'memorial' pamphlets printed up & mailed out which specified our parents' favorite charities to which donations could be made in their name. My sister still has their ashes. I think.
    I've had a lot of Indians ask me what a traditional 'western/Christian' wedding is like too. It is really hard to describe without pictures- the 'layout' of a typical Christian church in the US with the pews & an aisle down the center leading to the pulpit is a very unfamiliar to the average Indian, I've found. And a 'white dress'? White is for funerals in India.

  4. Thank you, as sad as it is, I'm glad I could be here for my family during all of this. I've been the one going through her clothing, etc. and deciding what to do with it because her children were too broken up over her passing. I'm really glad I could help in this small way. It's brought back so many memories.

    Since you don't blog, maybe I can do a wedding post for you to refer people to. I have easy access to all of those pictures and it would be a great idea. If you don't mind my taking it over? I have some great ideas for sharing American life with my non American readers coming up, I just have to get them put together and this would be great to add to the list.