Thomas G. Long writies:
AT a funeral directors’ convention recently, I wandered around an exhibition floor crowded with the usual accouterments of the trade — coffins, catafalques, cemetery tents, cremation furnaces and the like. Scattered among these traditional goods were also many new baubles and gewgaws of the funeral business — coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; “virtual cemeteries” with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded...
there is another, more accurate way to understand current funeral fashions. They illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.Rituals of death rest on the basic need, recognized by all societies, to remove the bodies of the dead from among the living. A corpse must be taken fairly quickly from here, the place of death, to somewhere else. But no healthy society has ever treated this as a perfunctory task, a matter of mere disposal. Indeed, from the beginning, humans have used poetry, song and prayer to describe the journey of the dead from “here” to “there” in symbolic, even sacred, terms. The dead are not simply being carted to the pit, the fire or the river; they are traveling toward the next world or the Mystery or the Great Beyond or heaven or the communion of the saints.
And we are accompanying them the last mile of the way. Every generation re-imagines these images of what lies beyond this life, but what persists is the conviction that the dead are not refuse to be discarded; they are human treasures traveling somewhere and it is our holy responsibility to go with them all the way to the place of farewell...
Today, however, our death rituals have become downsized, inwardly directed, static and, as a result, spiritually and culturally impoverished. We tend now to recognize our dead only for their partial passions and whims. They were Mets fans, good for laughs at the office, pleasant companions on the links. At upbeat, open-mike “celebrations of life,” former coaches, neighbors and relatives amuse us with stories and naïvely declare that the dead, who are usually nowhere to be seen and have nowhere to go, will nevertheless live always in our memories. Funerals, which once made confident public pilgrimage through town to the graveyard, now tread lightly across the tiny tableau of our psyches.
To experience a stark cultural contrast with modern-day American commemoration of the dead, visit an RC church with a significant Mexican congregation today or tomorrow on El Día de los Muertos or All Souls' Day. Parishioners fill every nook and cranny of the church with burning candles, flowers, photos, touching letters and mementos of departed family members and friends. Guest books also allow visitors to leave notes for the departed. It's quite something to behold, but it isn't all warmth and sentimentality. There is also, by contemporary American standards, a rather ghoulish quality to the displays--lots of skeletons.
Catrinas (above left) is one of the most popular figures used in Mexican celebration of the day.