Cumberland Times-News

Betty Van NewKirk - From the Museum

May 22, 2008

Funerals have changed a lot over the years


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.

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Betty Van NewKirk - From the Museum
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