Cumberland Times-News

May 22, 2008

Funerals have changed a lot over the years

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Last week I had occasion to visit a local funeral home to offer condolences on the death of a man who had been one of a gaggle of teenage basketball players when our family moved into the house on Park Avenue.

My son, who went with me, and the deceased's brothers had a fine time reminiscing and I came away thinking about how much funeral practices - and my attitudes toward them! - have changed in the last half century.

Coming from Philadelphia, I was not prepared for Frostburg's funeral conventions. In my experience, Catholics held wakes when someone died, but Protestant funerals often took place in homes where there was no room for receiving non-family members.

Viewing, except for a brief period before the service, was frowned upon, and the ladies of the church were not called on to provide a post-service luncheon for all who cared to remain.

For me, the worst part of all was the idea of holding a conversation with the widow as she stood next to the open casket of her husband; that seemed positively ghoulish!

But I don't feel that way any more. I've come to see the visitation as a blessing to the bereaved family, bridging that awkward period when they can do no more for the beloved one, but are not quite free to begin another routine.

Funerals, like weddings, are occasions that bring families together. They come long distances, not so much to say good-bye to a relative as to reconnect with brothers and sisters, cousins and in-laws who have little chance to get to know each other. In an era in which families are more fractionated than ever before, funerals are important.

Funerals are no longer the beginning of an extended period of mourning as they were a century or so ago. For a few days, men and boys wore black armbands; little girls had black ribbons on their braids instead of their usual pink bows; a big black wreath was hung on the front door.

But for a widow, mourning extended for six months, or a year, or, in the case of Queen Victoria, for 40 years after the death of her husband.

A widow was dressed all in black, and for the funeral her head and face were covered by a heavy black veil. As long as she was in mourning she had no social life - no dinner parties, theaters, or holiday excursions. Finally her all-black was lightened with grey or purple, which finally faded into lilac and let her rejoin society.

Now our widows dress in every color of the rainbow, and their friends encourage them to participate in everything that goes on in the community - social, civic, educational, or just plain fun.

Funeral services, too, have changed. They used to begin with a lugubrious hymn, never sung on any other occasion, and moved on to an uneasy sermon.

Some preachers used the opportunity for a lengthy definition of death as the wages for sin. Others praised the deceased in terms that made the family wonder whether it was really Grandpa in the casket before them. And through it all the widow sobbed noisily beneath her heavy veil.

In recent years funerals have become a celebration of the life of the one we have lost. Family and friends are invited to share their memories. Sometimes these are reports on the individual's unique achievements, but more often they are anecdotes about the funny things that happened on the way to Main Street. The laughter brings the person back to us as no tears can.

Nowadays, when I come away from a funeral home, I am not dabbing my eyes with a black-bordered handkerchief. Instead, I am giving thanks for the opportunity to have known the individual lying there, and the family and friends associated with him.

No matter how few and trivial my contact with them, those encounters have enriched my life. - Yes, funerals have changed over the years - and so have I.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.