by David Dean
In my last post, which was about weddings, I mentioned that I had just returned from one. I also said that as I had grown older, sadly, I attended more funerals than weddings. What I didn't say was that I had attended a funeral on that same day. To be accurate, I had attended a sea burial--the funeral Masses for my wife's parents having been celebrated long before. It had been their wish to be cremated and then to have their ashes scattered together at sea. And that is what we did on a beautiful morning off the coast of Cape May. My wife led her siblings and our collective children in a prayer known as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. This had been an especial devotion of both Bob and Jackie whose day it was, and so we honored them in this way.
It's a fairly recent development that Catholics are allowed to be cremated. It was not always thus. For many, many centuries this practice was forbidden by the Church as a heathen rite. In the very early days of Christianity many pagans practiced cremation; sometimes in spectacular fashion, e.g. the Viking's long-boat funeral pyres! Quite the send-off! Of course, a different view might have been taken by valued servants of the deceased as they were sometimes left on-board for the proceedings. But, as the Christians believed in the resurrection of both soul and body on the final day, it was deemed inadvisable to burn the remains. Since those dark times a consensus has been arrived at; that as we believe in a God that created life and promises resurrection, perhaps he can do so with whatever material we leave behind. Oddly, there is still some controversy over the scattering of ashes.
Unlike weddings, funerals crop up quite frequently in mystery stories. Not usually as the setting for the crime itself, but often as the end result thereof. Often there is graveside plotting while the minister/priest/rabbi/imam drones on about the deceased. Not infrequently we are introduced to the players at graveside. Sometimes the attendees are carefully scrutinized for signs of guilt. It was once a custom to expose the accused to the corpse of the murder victim to see if his wounds bled afresh at their presence--a sure sign of guilt! It is not recorded how efficacious this method was. As I understand it, at a certain point during decomposition wounds may seep once more. I suspect timing was of the essence with this method--bad timing in the case of the innocent. There was also a theory that the victim's retina retained an image of the last thing it witnessed...quite possibly his slayer! Again, this practice appears to have fallen by the wayside for unexplained reasons.
Like weddings, funerals are part of every culture and faith. Even if one has no faith in the hereafter, the dead must be dealt with and that generally entails a funeral of some sort. I've attended funerals that celebrated the life of the deceased--most often when the person has lived a long, productive life. On these occasions, there tends to be a good deal of joking and laughter along the sidelines as people share good memories with one another. But I've also been present at the opposite: funerals that result from accidents and murder, suicides and death at too young an age. It's hard to celebrate a life that's been cut short, however many good memories they have left behind. There's always that, "What if...?" left hanging in the air; never to be answered.
Different customs apply, as well, not to mention the last wishes of the deceased. It was my Grandmother Dean's wish that her six sons dig her grave with shovels and lower her coffin into it themselves. She did not want a backhoe, or other machinery involved, and her wishes were complied with to the letter. It seemed very appropriate, that as she had labored to bring each of them into the world, that they should labor to carry her out of it. There were no complaints amongst them.
We don't do wakes much any more. It was once a widespread custom that has fallen into disuse. I think we've grown too fastidious for such things as sitting up all night with the dead. In Ireland, the local pub sometimes offered their services for such occasions. The deceased was laid out in a room off the public area and there friends and relatives would come to pay their last respects. Those waiting could refresh themselves as needed in the saloon. The term "wake" derives from just what it sounds like...staying awake. It used to be believed amongst many peoples, that during the short period between death and burial, the soul continued to reside within the corpse. During this brief span it was vulnerable to dark spirits who might attempt to snare it and carry it away to hell. Thus the family's duty was to keep watch the night before the burial Mass in order to protect their loved one's soul. It was important to stay awake or the forces of hell might succeed. Staying awake was certainly aided by visiting friends and neighbors telling stories and gossiping. How the whiskey and ale helped remains unclear other than to attract said friends and neighbors. Perhaps I could enjoy funerals more if, like wedding receptions, there was an open bar.
Ah well, believe it or not, I have another funeral to attend this week--a dear woman who was our court clerk for my entire police career. She actually worked into her nineties (this after an earlier career in Jersey City) and was only recently considering retirement. Hers will be one of the 'good' funerals--a celebration of a life well-lived and a woman most loved. My former department will offer an honor guard and I expect to hear (and tell) some good stories… and even laugh a little.