Education & Etiquette

Behind the [Burial] Traditions (Part 2)

Ever wonder why certain things, that seemingly make no sense, are done? Sometimes, these rituals or actions just need historical context. The funeral profession is one that is so mired in (mostly religious) tradition that there are a lot of neat little vestiges from days of yore that we still do today. Here is installment two of Behind the [Burial] Traditions:

light-in-the-darkness-871x710The Wake: How the practice of showing up to a place to look at the recently departed begin? While there is no definitive data saying wakes started at this time and place, wakes have been recorded as far back as Roman times. After the remains were anointed, and the decedent laid out with their feet pointing toward the door, the family would gather at the bedside. Before modern medical technology, there was a real (and very legitimate) fear of being buried alive. Hence, family members and friends would hold a vigil for a prescribed amount of time to make the decedent was actually dead.

The Hebrew tradition of shemira is related to ancient tradition of the vigil. In the Jewish custom, a shomer (shomeret if female) guards the body until it is buried.

This fear of premature burial was so pervasive that the president of the Second Continental Congress, Henry Laurens, of South Carolina, ordered his body burned because he was terrified of being burial alive after his daughter almost met with that fate. This is the first recorded “cremation” in America. (I put quotations around cremation because it wasn’t a modern cremation in a retort, it was more akin to an open-air pyre).

The Colonial and Victorian fears of premature burial spawned a whole cottage industry of grave alarms designed to alert family and friends visiting gravesites of premature burials. Despite this semi-lucrative trade, there was never an officially recorded instance where a grave alarm alerted to a premature burial and saved a life.

Despite the advances in modern medicine negating the actual need for a wake, the tradition continues as a forum for the community to express condolences and friends to affirm the decedent has passed—an important step in the grieving process.

deathspoonPrayer Cards: Funeral/mourning gifts were a common custom in Colonial-era America and beyond. Common gifts given to the mourners who attended were gloves, scarves, rings, and spoons. The rings bore inscriptions typical to the time period (e.g. “Prepare for Death”) and were often handed from one generation to the next as family heirlooms. The spoons were called “monkey spoons” because of the curved hook on the handle end, and were often custom made for the event with funerary imagery or saints engraved in them.

The value of the gift corresponded to the deceased’s station in the community, the wealthier the person, the more extravagant the gift. The gift giving caused the cost of the funerals to soar, leaving some municipalities to issue limits, or do awfuneral spoon1ay with, the giving of gifts (except the pallbearers and clergy, they were still allowed to receive mourning gloves). But the tradition continues. Instead of a solid silver spoon, attendees of a funeral oftentimes leave with a prayer card or memorial folder as a keepsake of the event.

Stones on a Headstone: Have you ever been in a cemetery and seen small stones placed on the top of a monument (monument or marker are fancy undertaker synonyms for headstone)? There are many interpretations of this ancient Jewish custom including marking the grave to prevent priests from becoming ritually impure to creating a bond with the deceased. And while those reasons aren’t incorrect, there’s a more practical reason. Centuries ago when Jewish people were buried in the desert mourners would mound collected stones over the grave because there weren’t modern stone slabs to serve as monuments. That pile of stones was the remembrance, the “marker,” of that loved one.

The custom became, when family and friends would pass the grave, they would add to the monument to keep the person’s memory alive. If they didn’t continually build the stone mound the desert winds would eventually cover the monument. This tradition continues today when visiting family and friends place small stones on top of existing monuments when they visit. The practice has been extended beyond the Jewish faith, and visitors will often see these mounded stones in cemeteries of many different faiths today.

Day Is Done

This essay was first published in Southern Calls (Sept. 2017)


Day is Done

by: Todd Harra


It was a day  twelve weeks in the making. The sun was hoisting itself out of the Atlantic when I pointed the hearse toward the neoclassical bridge spanning the Potomac, Lincoln’s cenotaph at our back. Slate colored water rushed underneath the bridge’s arches, and the sprawling former estate of the Confederacy’s savior  unfolded across the rolling hills of Virginia.

I slowed while approaching the barricade, then lowered my window to allow a blast of February air into the cozy confines of the cabin. The guard on Memorial Avenue merely nodded.  He knew  what my business was today. Threading the hearse through the metal barrier, I continued toward the imposing entrance monolith, the middle niche bearing the seal of the United States. E pluribus unum.

Out of many, one.

I pulled into the designated area in front of the low slung administrative building. The drive would soon fill with professional  , all waiting for one of the thirty burial slots meted out during a normal business day. They’re drinking from a fire hose. Four hundred and fifty   vets die each day, not to mention the more recent conflicts.

“Wait here with the casket,” I instructed my colleague. He grunted, and settled into his phone, glad not to have to brave the cold .

Inside, a cheery administrator directed me toward the reserved lounge and I thanked her. There would be no need for that today. I paced the polished floors while mourners, bureaucrats, and liverymen bustled about until spying a familiar figure coming from the visitor’s lot.

“Is everything set?” Fran asked, her nervous personality heightened, not so much due to the surroundings but the situation. Here she stood on hallowed ground, not as kith and kin, but as informant. Neighbor at best.

I consulted my watch. “A few minutes more.”

At the appointed time, a cemetery representative escorted us down drives bearing the names of dead generals. The grave was nestled in the south-eastern part of the cemetery, near the Pentagon, the Air Force memorial glinting in the rear ground like giant blades of grass. An Old Guard casket team with florid cheeks waited in stillness.

Today there would be no staging area with waiting caisson. No caparisoned filly, boots turned backward in dangling stirrups, nervously prancing. No smart tattoo issued by a brass band. No color guard, flags luffing in the breeze. There wouldn’t be an escort platoon with bayonets pointed skyward and hobnails on asphalt. No, there wouldn’t be the pomp and circumstance, but today honor would be conferred.

A slight man in a collar and overcoat greeted Fran and I, his breath emerging as little puffs of smoke. “I’m Father Lopez, the chaplain. Are we all here?” He looked at the single car behind the hearse.

I opened the door, pulled the bier pin, and stepped away. The commanding sergeant issued a few sharp commands, and the casket team, in perfect unison, executed pulling the casket out and stepping it to the lowering device. Fran and I followed through rows of perfectly aligned white marble dies .

The team held the colors tautly over the casket as Father Lopez gave a brief but eloquent service. Twenty-one shots rang out and then the mournful notes of taps . The six men folded the flag smartly. Salutes were exchanged. T , leaving Fran clutching the folded flag, accepting words of condolence from an Arlington Lady.

We stood in the sunlight and biting cold for a time, staring at the casket suspended on straps. There was nothing to say. Finally, I asked, “Are you ready?” Fran took one last look, hooked her arm through mine. arlington

Every day I tell myself I’ve seen it all, until tomorrow rolls around. This man—a hero—was of modest rank, sergeant, but of ample valor. He earned a silver star for his courage in Vietnam. Whether by choice or by design, there were more undertakers than bereaved at his committal. But that didn’t matter. America recognized his sacrifice and stood in solidarity to commit his remains to the ground.

“Rest on embalmed and sainted dead, dear as the blood ye gave, no impious footsteps here shall tread on the herbage of your grave.”



Flowers at a Funeral

A card signed by Yoko Ono is attached to flowers sent to St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Ave. in Manhattan, the site of Walter Cronkite's funeral, Thursday, July 23, 2009 in New York. Cronkite died last Friday at his Manhattan home at age 92. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
A card signed by Yoko Ono is attached to flowers sent to St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Ave. in Manhattan, the site of Walter Cronkite’s funeral, Thursday, July 23, 2009 in New York. Cronkite died last Friday at his Manhattan home at age 92. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Novelist Lynn Coady wrote, “Flowers are an easy, eloquent expression of love at a time when words can seem clumsy and inadequate.” And for this reason, funeral homes and churches are often filled with flowers on the day of a funeral service.

The tradition of flowers at a funeral service stems from the days when people would gather in homes around a body that may have laid there for several days. And, in the days before embalming, that meant people were walking into a home that smelled like, well, a decaying body. To stave off the odor, the family and friends would surround the body with the sweet smell of roses, gardenias, lilies, lilacs, and other fragrant flowers. Over time this tradition morphed into a sign of sympathy.
While flowers can be a wonderful sign of your sympathy and can be very meaningful to families who have lost a loved one, sending flowers aren’t always the best option.
So, what does this mean for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself as you learn the news of a loved one’s death.

Does their religion deem flowers appropriate?

1. Christians: Most Christian faiths (Protestant & Catholic) allow/encourage flowers. However some churches only allow so many flowers in the sanctuary; call the church ahead of sending.
2. Jewish: Flowers are not appropriate. They do not have flowers in the sanctuary or at the grave.
3. Muslim: Flowers are not appropriate. A small, living plant may be sent to the family home.
4. Buddhist: Flowers are not appropriate. Flowers play a significant role in Hindu funerals but are used much differently from those in Western funerals and sending or bringing them would be seen as rude.
What does the obituary say?
1. In Lieu Of: Some people have requested that instead of flowers, people make a donation to the deceased’s favorite organization or to research a particular disease/health risks. Most 59046177c984a5dc0034b2afb47d0054places will notify the family that a gift has been made in their loved ones name. So, don’t worry about the family not knowing you were thinking of them.

If they request no flowers, please do not send them. Sounds easy enough but it still happens. If there is a point blank request, it is rude to ignore it.

If you really, really want to send flowers even if a “in lieu of” has been given, consider sending a smaller arrangement that says something like, “We sent a donation to the Humane Society and wanted you to have these beautiful flowers to remember your Mom.”

2. If the obituary does not specify: In this case, you are more than welcome to send flowers! I even had one family request that flowers be sent because their mom just adored flowers.

Now that you’ve decided to send flowers, what’s next?
1. $$: Flowers can be pretty pricey, so find a florist who fits your budget. Talk to them, ask questions—they are professionals at flowers, so they can help you decide size, color, and vase/stand.
2. What kind? The immediate family purchases the casket spray or urn wreath. The family also often purchases the arrangement at the head and/or foot of the casket. Unless the family has reached out to the community to help fund “family flowers” please do not purcha
se these family flowers.

3. Where? This is really up to you. If you have a favorite florist, go for it! If you’re totally lost on which florist, consider contacting the funeral home to see who the family is using. You can call that florist, and unless specified, the florist will often arrange flowers that are in the same theme/color as the family flowers.

Usually the florist calls the funeral home to find out what day, time, and where the flowers need to be delivered.

When in doubt, call the church/gathering place or funeral home to ask questions about flowers. They can help guide your decisions to best fit the family in need. And always remember, flowers aren’t all you can send! For other ideas, check out this blog.

Navigating Sympathy Gifts

White flowers, spaghetti in a disposable tin, and chocolate chip cookies…each of these come to mind when thinking about things people send as sympathy gifts. When trying to figure out how to help those whose husband, child, grandparent, or mom has died, it is our instinct to turn to beauty and baking, thus flowers and food seem to be the staple gift for grief.

But sometimes it’s nice to think outside the box—though, I would never say that casseroles and flowers are a bad idea!

Last October, my spouse and I each lost a grandfather. It was a strange and sad month to be grieving both men. But, one day soon after both deaths had been announced on Facebook, we received the most amazing sympathy gift, a Blue Apron Box. Blue Apron is a meal delivery service. They give you the exact ingredients and an easy to follow recipe. This was something we desperately needed. It was healthy and really tasty, and it meant we didn’t have to go to the grocery store!!! That is a huge gift when you are grieving. A year later and we are still thankful for that thoughtful gift.


So, if you’re wondering what you should give or send to a grieving family, don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Here are some other ideas:

Re-Plantable Flowers
By sending a flower like hydrangeas or tulips that have not been cut, a family can replant your gift and then have a beautiful memory year after year as the flowers bloom.
Tree or Shrub and Memorial Stone
A family I was serving received several flowers and as we were loading them up to take them to the reception, we noticed a stone with a Celtic blessing. We thought it was pretty but couldn’t figure out what it was. In the hustle and bustle of three truckloads of flowers, the card was displaced from the stone. Turns out, someone bought and planted a tree in memory of the deceased. The stone was a keepsake to put at the foot of another tree, in a path, or in a garden. When we put two and two together, the family broke out in praise for such a thoughtful gift.
A quick Google will give you several options, a tree in a foreign rainforest, a plant in California, a sapling in your loved one’s favorite National Forest.

A couple of months ago, a college friend died and the first thing I did when I found out was look through all of my pictures with her. And, it occurred to me that her mom probably doesn’t have this picture of her daughter wearing chaps (backwards at that) riding a mechanical bull in the middle of West Texas. So, I printed it out and a few others. I have heard from other grieving parents that they truly cherish the collection of pictures that have been sent.

A Self-Care Gift
When you’re grieving, it’s hard to spend any time on yourself, and yet, that is a vital part of processing loss. Consider a self-care gift, something that organic-massagehelps the mind, body, and soul, like a massage, pedicure, or manicure. Or even a month of yoga classes would be great! But self-care isn’t just pampering, it can be tickets to the movies or tickets to a game. Or even an Amazon gift card to purchase or rent several movies! Self-care gifts can be anything that help bring relief to the constant worry that comes in grief.


House Care

Some people know each other well enough to say, “I’m coming over to clean your kitchen, walk the dog, wash the car, and do a load or two of dirty towels, bedding, or even cloths.” But for others, this could be awkward, so how about a gift certificate to a cleaning service?
For some people having things clean helps let them get to the hard part of dealing loss, and if the dishes are clean, that leaves extra time to talk to lawyers, close bank accounts, etc.

Lawn Care Service
Slawncarebucketimilar to house care, yards are a big energy zapper when trying to grieve and get things squared away after a death. If it’s warmer weather, mowing yards, pulling weeds, filling in mulch are things you can do or a lawn care service provider can do! If it’s deep winter, offering to clear the snow is a huge help! It might seem simple, but when you’re sad, your energy takes a while to replenish and slaving over a long driveway is daunting. Think about ways that you can help your friend through brightening their yard or making it easier to use.


For Children                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           bounce-bali-kidsChildren often get left out of the grief process because it seems too sad to even think about or it is too daunting to figure out how to help them, but they need friends to help them too! They might not appreciate groceries or the lawn being mowed, but they would appreciate care, love, and attention. It could be something as simple as a box of their favorite Pop-Tarts, a new video game, or you could get a gift certificate to the local trampoline gym. Help them find ways to make new memories that are not filled with confusion and the feeling of being left out. Don’t let the specific grief of children be overwhelming for you, instead, think about what they like and take the time to make it a special gift just for them.


Need more ideas? Etsy has several unique gifts for many types of situations that can be personalized.

Behind the [Burial] Traditions (Part 1)

Ever wonder why certain things, that seemingly make no sense, are done?? Sometimes, theses rituals just need historical context. The funeral profession is one that is so mired in (mostly religious) tradition that there are a lot of neat little vestiges from days of yore we still practice today.

Placing Flowers on the Casket: The little tradition of placing a single flower on top of the casket has more practical roots than simply saying a final farewell. In pre-industrial England, mourners would be given sprigs of rosemary during the graveside service to place on the lid of the coffin. The idea was the scent of the fragrant herb could cover any unpleasant odors from the unembalmed body during the service.

Image result for graveside casket


Sending Flowers to a Wake: This tradition dovetails nicely with the previous topic: why do people send flowers to a wake or viewing? Archeologists have uncovered ancient burial pits dating back thousands of years that showed early man surrounded their dead with flowers. It has been theorized there was a twofold reason for this: first to help mask any odors, and second to beautify the decedent. Regardless of the true purpose, this tradition has continued through the ages and is such a “given” in modern funerals that some families state in the obituary to make donations in the deceased’s memory to a charity instead of sending the flowers.

Image result for casket flowers

Money/Pennies on the Eyes: In Greek mythology Charon is the name of the ferryman who ferries the dead from the land of the living across the River Styx to the Underworld. Like all transportation authorities, Charon needs to be paid. Enter the pennies. Prior to modern embalming practices in Europe and America, people would be laid out with pennies on their eyes to pay Charon for their crossing. The pennies had the more practical purpose of weighing the eyelids down and keeping them closed during the wake. It was such a prevalent practice that the Beatles even mention it in one of their songs, Taxman, “…declare the pennies on your eyes…”

In modern times it is not uncommon for families to tuck the two pennies into a coat pocket (one with the year of birth and one with the year of death), or another twist (specifically an ironic Christian twist) on the tradition is to slip 33 cents into someone’s hand or pocket to pay Charon, the age Christ was when he was crucified.

Image result for penny

The Pall: A pall is a cloth used to drape the casket in certain liturgical churches. Therefore, a pallbearer is literally someone who bears the pall draped casket. Pallbearer is interchangeable with casketbearer. The tradition of draping the casket with a pall dates back to Roman times. Pall is short for the Roman word pallium which means cloak. Roman military officials and dignitaries would have their bodies draped with their cloaks for the procession to the mausoleum. The people that carried the body became known as “pallbearers” and the church picked up on the practice and began using it to drape coffins/caskets for services. This practice renders everyone equal in the eyes of God no matter how simple or elegant your casket is.

Image result for poussin paintings

Embalming – The Myths Dispelled


It seems these days a disproportionate amount of folks have some misconceptions about what embalming really is. I get it. I watch TV too. Cable dramas (especially of the criminal and courtroom ilk) love to depict graphic autopsy scenes. I’m guessing the formula is gore=ratings. But that’s just what those scenes are: autopsies.

Embalming is process designed to disinfect, preserve and restore. In that order. It is defined by Robert G. Mayer in his seminal work Embalming: History, Theory & Practice as, “[the] process of chemically treating the dead human body to reduce the presence and growth of microorganisms, to temporarily inhibit organic decomposition, and to restore an acceptable physical appearance.” In what we in the profession call a “straight” case—or textbook case—the entire process can be achieved by a one inch incision in the neck area, near where the collar of your shirt sits. Using the body’s plumbing system (i.e., arteries and veins) formalin—an aqueous form of formaldehyde—is exchanged for blood. The entire process is as minimally invasive as possible.

The question that typically arises, especially with families living at great geographical distances today, is, “how long will an embalmed body last?” (By “last” most people mean how long will they be “viewable”) Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast answer to that. Embalming is meant to be temporary (see the above definition), but temporary is relative in each case.  Individual physiology and way in which a person died will play a big part in how long a person will remain viewable after embalming. It could range from a number of days to a number of weeks.

Rest assured, however, that if you do choose embalming, the person taking care of your loved one will use all their skills to give you the most satisfactory viewing experience possible.

Writing a Eulogy


So, you’ve been asked to speak at the funeral service of a loved one. This is a huge honor and it shows the confidence your family or the family of the deceased has in you to share stories. But, this is not like writing a term paper or giving a speech in communications class. Even a seasoned public speaker can find this difficult because not only will you be in front of people, you’ll be experiencing your own emotions of grief and sadness.

One time, a very gregarious TV personality was asked to eulogize his cousin. As the clergy person, I am always glad when friends or family want to eulogize their loved one! I think it adds so much love to a service, but I always warn people to WRITE it down and to practice. He assured me he could wing it and would be just fine. I announced his name and he came up to the podium and broke down, making his “winging it” very difficult. He did tell a great story and we all laughed and cried. It turned out very nice, but I know he felt awkward for several moments and wished he’d have been able to tell other stories that were important to him. No matter who you are, come prepared. Emotions will be high, so, have a plan!

And, part of that plan can be to have a backup plan. There have been many times where someone really wants to speak but just can’t at the time. But, they have written it out and I read it for them. Think about discussing this option with your clergy/funeral officiant. That way if it comes your time to speak and you simply cannot speak, your words and story will still heard.

Here are some other tips for writing a eulogy that people will remember.

1. Keep it less than 10 minutes (5-7 is even better).
Trust me on this one. No matter how good your stories are, if you talk too long, everyone will stop listening. It may seem to reason that the longer you talk the more you loved the person or that the person deserves to be eulogized for 40 minutes. No doubt your loved one deserves an amazing, memorable eulogy, but talking longer than 10 minutes will not make your words more effective. Talking too long leaves people fidgety and there is less time for others to speak.

2. This is not about you. This is not about you.
Don’t tell a story that isn’t about the deceased. It’s weird, don’t do it. And, don’t just focus on you. Inevitably, the stories you share will probably be about your experience of your loved one, but try to make the eulogy a shared experience that everyone can say, “oh, yes, I remember when she did….” Or “Exactly! She was so good with my kids too!”
Also, this is not a time to tell everyone for ten minutes how sad you are. Sure, that is an important part of the eulogy, but everyone is sad and we know you are too. Feel free to mention how much you loved your friend, mother, grandfather and how much you will miss them, but don’t forget to tell stories, tell stories, tell stories.

3. Laughing and Crying are both good!
Don’t feel like you can’t tell a funny story. People need to laugh and laughing at a funeral can be very healing. In fact, sometimes stories that have humor add a very genuine moment to the eulogy and people truly feel like they are finding healing, rather than a stuffy sermon-like-eulogy that is full of platitudes and doesn’t help anyone find comfort.
Likewise, it’s okay to cry. It’s a sad moment. Don’t feel badly about crying or making other people cry. You do not need to apologize. Just catch your breath and keep going.

4. Don’t use curse words
This may sound silly, but one time I counted 50 curse words in one person’s eulogy. It was really awkward. 50 is way overboard but even more than three times is probably too much. Sometimes there truly is a story or a phrase that needs a curse word, but don’t abuse it. No one wants to go to a funeral service and walk away offended or scandalized.

5. What do you actually say?
This is a question I get a lot. And, I tell people, to tell stories, to give thanks, and to be real. The best eulogies offer words that name why the person was beloved. Tell about that one vacation that went horribly wrong but then became a family favorite story. Tell about that time that he won a cannonball contest. Or that other time that she laughed so hard milk came out of her nose. Or maybe that one Christmas when your sister gave your children a puppy. Look through pictures, through Facebook, through anything you have that might remind you of lifelong stories of your loved one.
I also suggest that people don’t give obituary type of information. For example, don’t give a bullet list of dates: He was born on July 1 at Women’s and Children’s Hospital and graduated from Middleton High School in 1987. These are things for an obituary and really are not meant for a eulogy, unless it helps you tell a good story.

6. Be yourself.
You loved this person and they loved you. That’s all you need to get started, love. If you want to write a letter instead of a eulogy, do it. If you want to make a list of the top ten moments, do it. If you want to sing a song, do it. Be yourself, take a deep breath, and prepare and you will honor your loved one beautifully.