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.