Monday, March 07, 2011

A British Expat's Take on US-Style Open Casket Funerals

Hailing from a country that thrust the Victorian age upon an unsuspecting world almost 200 years ago, I am quite used to the notion of morbidity.

Indeed, I remember some years ago (before moving to the United States) stumbling upon a selection of 19th century photographs. They depicted a family sitting on their lovely Victorian furniture. Nobody was smiling, but then no one did in photographs back then, and the family looked, well, just like any other family. That is, until I discovered that the baby—seated in his or her mother's lap—had died two days before the photo shoot. The family dinner must have been a gas that night.

The imprint of these moribund black and whites remained in my head for quite some time. That said, I was deeply relieved that practices such as this were consigned to the 19th Century. Quite a naive belief, it turns out.

Here in America, a tradition persists that frankly sends chills up and down this writer's spine. Indeed, it is a tradition that might as well have broken my spine, such was the numbness I felt immediately after bearing witness to it.

I'm talking about the open casket funeral; the practice of displaying a recently deceased relative or loved one inside a funeral home (or, indeed, your own home!) for all to see.

In 2009, I attended my first open casket funeral. In fact, to be more precise, it was a wake, but the results were much the same. It was held for an elderly relative of my wife at a local funeral home in Anderson, Indiana. Having not met the deceased while she was alive, the wake bore little personal sentiment to me, but there was a multitude in attendance who were greatly impacted by her death.

Such was the size of the gathering, I could see very little initially—just the back of the aforementioned people, who seemed intent on looking toward the front.

As I waited "my turn," a series of thoughts passed through me: what does a dead body look like? Will her eyes be open? Which stand is selling the popcorn?

People at the front started to turn, as my stomach did the same. Driven by morbid curiosity (and familial obligation), I continued to remain in line. And then it happened. The group in front of me, clearly satisfied with their viewing, dispersed—leaving a line of sight that led directly to a white, wooden casket. And there, painstakingly decorated, was my first dead body.

I felt like the four boys in Stand By Me at the moment they discover the body of Ray Brower. Except, this body was not blemished by scars or cuts—in fact, her appearance was almost too good. She resembled more a manikin than a human—heavily made up and pumped full of formaldehyde. Not that it hit me at the time, but why would anybody wish to remember their loved one this way?

My second reaction, after being temporarily disoriented by the whole bally affair, was to politely ask my wife if it was kosher to leave this sort of thing prematurely. It was not, and we did. 

As we hit the gas and headed home, my brain didn't know what to do with the images it had just received—whether to file them away with the dead 19th century baby or condemn them to a part of the brain labeled, "no thanks." As it happens, I do occasionally still think about that woman; how she entered the world during the 20th century a healthy, crying baby and left it during the 21st a lifeless, three-dimensional oil painting—an oil painting at the centre of that weekend's exhibit.

And so, in a contradiction that is almost as old as the nation itself, America—while championing the promises of tomorrow—nonetheless often remains ever faithful to the past (a trait that is, of course, applicable to all nations). Open casket funerals are a sign that not only does America have an overtly Victorian way of saying goodbye, but that it has a difficult time saying goodbye—at least to outdated, morbid traditions. For me, this is one tradition I was happy to say goodbye to. May we never be re-acquainted.

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia. In addition to his expatriate musings, Laurence is a keen composer of orchestral music. For more information on Laurence's compositions, follow him on SoundCloud.

10 comments:

Almost American said...

I once told my (American) husband that if I go before him and he has a wake with an open casket, I will come back and haunt him!

Laurence Brown said...

@Almost American. I shall pass these same sentiments onto my wife.

Anonymous said...

My family still takes pictures of those that have passed on.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Laurence Brown's article. My first American funeral was agony. I came upon the open coffin with no warning and almost passed out! I now know not to go near the open coffin and lose myself in the mourners. I think this is such a barbaric tradition (along with many other American habits), but, at least now I know how to handle it. And I will not be reserving my burial site either!

Melissa S. said...

I'm American and I detest open casket funerals. I will either refuse to go to a viewing or I will remain at the back of the room. My problem is two-fold - I don't want my last memory of that person to be lying in a casket (I can never remove that image from my head) and I find it a tad dis-respectful. Maybe the person wants a viewing but personally I feel like it's a final bit of voyeurism. I don't like the idea of people glaring, touching and saying things like "Doesn't she look wonderful? She looks the same?" No she doesn't! She's dead! The last thing I want is to be gawked at. Leave the casket closed and leave me alone.

Anonymous said...

As a Brit having lived in the USA for 36 years I still get creeped out by the open casket funerals. Not by seeing a dead body (I'm a nurse - I see lots) but by the kitchiness of the funeral homes, the abundance of bad taste in funeral home décor and and the general irreverence of the occasion.
Best open casket viewing I've experienced was my brothers at a UK undertakers _ very reverent, quiet, and speedy (30 mins tops). If it hadn't been for my sister in law's sister having the vapours it would have been perfect.

lyniebeck said...

I'm an American who grew up in a small Midwestern town katty-cornered (diagonally) from the town's funeral home. My mother, knowing virtually everyone in the small town, would get up in the middle of the night to go to the loo and see the light on in the basement prep room of the funeral home. Knowing that someone had died the next question she asked herself was who. If there was a dear old person in town who had been ill for a long time my mother went to bed knowing that that old soul was at rest. If not, however, she would stay awake and fret worrying about who had had a fatal accident. She couldn't sleep until she knew who had passed away that night. I grew up across the street from death. I have no memory of the first open casket I witnessed. I was never protected from such sights. Ever. I grew up with such an acceptance of death being a part of life that now, at the age of 63, the thought of death doesn't bother me as much as it may bother some people. I do, however, understand the reticence of those folk who didn't grow up in such an environment as mine. For those of you, please know that it's okay. It's okay. Death is part of life. Don't be afraid of it. I was very near death 2 years ago...don't be scared. If you have to endure another open casket event just remember that the person in that box is at peace and smiling with the most incredible amount of love at all those in the room. It is all part of life.

Anonymous said...

Please understand--we don't all do this!! I think it is more prevalent in some regions or cultures.

Anonymous said...

I'm an American Anglican and we don't do open caskets in our family, in fact most of my past relatives have been cremated. For my husband, however, who is from the South, it is a very common practice. I don't like the idea myself as I would prefer to remember the deceased as they were, alive and well rather than remember a dead body in an open casket. I'm not afraid of death at all. I just prefer a simple memorial service without a body where we can celebrate our lost loved one's life here on Earth.

Anonymous said...

As my wife once said when a "plot" salesman called - "I wouldn't be caught dead in this country." :)

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...