Thursday, December 26, 2013

End of Life Traditions: Preparations and Visitation

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Genealogy tip for today: End of Life Traditions

Since the change of year dates are often illustrated by Father Time (the Grim Reaper) and the New Year Baby, let’s look at end-of-life Funeral Customs. They vary from country to country, even region to region and definitely from religion to religion. But in America there are some generalities.



In this country a casket is most often used although the term casket is used interchangeably with coffin. Technically a coffin is six-sided with one end smaller than the other with the head laid in the larger end. The casket may be open or closed for viewing, but almost always closed for the service. It usually is dependent on the preference of the family. Most often it is open, but in cases of severe illness or tragic accident where disfigurement has happened, then the casket may be closed.

Embalming, and cremation or not is also stipulated by what religion the deceased was. Hindus, Sikh, Roman, Greek, some Christians, or the secular will cremate. Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism prohibit cremation. Judaism prefers to bury within 24 hours and therefore do not normally embalm their loved one.

Even the custom of dressing the body varies. In southern Louisiana (where I used to live) the woman is usually put in a penoir set, i.e. nightgown and matching housecoat, because the bible refers to those “who are asleep” meaning dead. In other parts of the country usually someone’s Sunday best is put on. In some cases when it is a bride who has died, she may be buried in her wedding dress.

I will have to tell you a quick story here. When my grandmother was alive, her hairdresser was always trying to get her to have her hair fixed a different way. Grandma always said “no”. The hairdresser told her that when Edna died, then, she would fix it the new way. Grandma replied, ‘You do and I’ll raise (sic) up and haunt you.’  The day came when Grandmother passed away. The hairdresser was called in to do her hair. She and Mom stood by the casket talking about memories. Suddenly they both remembered at the same time what Grandma had said. Without another word spoken, the hairdresser looked at mom and said, ‘don’t worry, Beth, I won’t do it’!! Of course, they had a good laugh over it.

During the Victorian days, houses were draped in black swags or drapes. This isn’t done any more to speak of, except in cases of a formal funeral, or a state funeral of some dignitary. Folks usually where black to funerals as “black” is the color of death in America. But even people are not doing that as much as they used to, either. Americans try to avoid death, and do not indulge themselves in mourning like other countries. Thus, the trend to get away from black when someone dies.


Visitation is a common practice in the United States. But the location may vary depending on the region. Where I lived in Kansas, this was sometimes held in the home. This was determined more by church than community, as there were others who would have visitation in the funeral home. It usually was held the evening before the service, for a couple of hours. In the south the visitation is held for 24 hours, staying open overnight leading up to the service.

Saturday we will look at the service and burial rituals. Be sure to come back.


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