Christian Funerals in the Western World

The Funeral—in the Christian Tradition of the Western World

Overview

Women have traditionally been at the helm of the planning of life’s most important events: births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. As such, books on male comportment rarely offer detailed information on those topics. But in the 21st century, with same-sex marriage, surrogate births, and an overall bending of gender-lines, no book on male manners would be complete without addressing those subjects.

Like marriage, funerals tend to involve a mélange of legal, religious, and cultural elements. And like marriage laws and traditions, funeral procedures and traditions vary from country to country, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, culture to culture, and family to family. But there are certain consistencies in Christian funerals throughout the Western World.

Given the likelihood of the modern gentleman having to bury his parents, and that he may have to bury his wife or husband or even a child, the 21st-century gentleman must know how to conduct himself when required to take charge in the planning of a funeral. Death is typically accompanied by sorrow, stress, distress, and bewilderment, and having delineated guidelines available for men serves to help them navigate the storm seas that typically rage upon the death of a loved one. In addition, funeral homes are the authorities on the planning and organizing of funerals, and they should be contacted for guidance and assistance.

Death and the Processing of the Deceased

When death occurs, the body is secured under the direction of the appropriate governmental authority—whether coroner, justice of the peace, or some representative from the local Department of Justice (or its equivalent) and medical professionals—and transported to a local hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital, a doctor or medical examiner declares the person dead and authorizes the preparation of a preliminary death certificate. The body is then placed into the morgue facility at the hospital.

Persons who die outside a hospital are generally required to undergo an autopsy—unless the deceased was an ongoing patient of a licensed physician and the physician verifies that the death was due to or significantly related to the condition(s) for which the deceased was receiving medical care. Persons who die in a hospital facility are generally not required to undergo an autopsy.

Once the family of the deceased selects a funeral home, the funeral home obtains an “Authorization for Release and Removal” of the body from the hospital, receiving a copy of the preliminary death certificate in the process. The funeral home is them responsible for embalming the body and storing it in an on-site morgue pending the funeral. The funeral home, with the assistance of the family (which will provide vital information such as date and place of birth, name of parents, etc., of the deceased) and the information gleaned from the preliminary death certificate, applies for the official, certified Certificate of Death from the appropriate governmental agency, sometimes referred to as the Division of Vital Statistics.

Official copies of the Certificate of Death are submitted by the relatives of the deceased for spousal and dependent(s) Social Security and retirement benefits, as well as for life insurance claims, etc. Official copies of death certificates are also required by banks in order to allow relatives of the deceased access to the deceased’s account(s) in order to secure funds to cover funeral and other relevant expenses.

Burial Garments and Overall Presentation

It is the responsibility of the relatives of the deceased to provide the funeral home with the burial garments for the deceased. Black is the traditional color of burial garments for adults, while white is traditionally used for children and infants. Since the 1960s, however, the tradition is to bury the dead in clothing and of colors of his/her liking. The family may also consult with the funeral home regarding particulars such as hairstyle and makeup preferences for the corpse.

Memorial Services and Wakes

Most Christian funerals are officiated by clergy in a church or some place of worship. But it is now common for funeral homes, prior to the funeral, to have a viewing of the deceased and a memorial service for the deceased at the funeral home facility. Today, many funeral homes have non-denominational chapels on-site for those purposes.

The rise of funeral home-based memorial services has led to the decline of the traditional “wake,” where the deceased, on the evening preceding the funeral, would “lie in repose” in the home of the deceased or that of a close relative in order for family and close friends to view and pay their personal respects to the dead prior to the funeral. [Traditionally, the “wake” would last through the night, persons in attendance departing the site of the wake in order to go directly to the church for the funeral services. But today, the wake, if held, lasts for a few hours, mourners leaving thereafter and returning the following day for the funeral at the funeral venue. Traditionally, mourners attending a wake bring food for the family and fellow mourners. But today, catering services are oftentimes engaged, or mourners gather at a designated restaurant for a post-wake repast].

Garments

Unless otherwise specified by the relatives of the deceased or dictated by custom, adult mourners attend Christian funerals in conservative garments of dark, somber colors—black, gray, purple. White is also correctly worn, especially by women and children. And women may wear garments of patterned fabrics (including floral-prints), provided that the colors are somber or a combination of white and somber. In warm climates, women may wear sleeveless shifts (though garments with sleeves are regarded as more appropriate). Women may wear pants-suits. Of course, strapless dresses, even if in the color black, are inappropriate (unless worn under a jacket). Some women wear hats, though head-coverings are no longer required. Very traditional widows or immediate female relatives of the deceased may wear veils covering their faces. Men are expected to wear dark suits—black, charcoal gray, or navy-blue—and a dark tie with a white shirt. Mourners carrying umbrellas should select ones in the color black or some other somber color. Even with today’s relaxed rules, no one needs to see a red umbrella at a gravesite. In the Christian tradition, a man wearing a hat removes his hat prior to entering a place of worship. (He may, however, don his hat while walking in the funeral cortège en route to the cemetery or burial site; but hats should be removed at the gravesite, especially when the casket is being lowered or at military funerals during the flag ceremony when “Taps” is being played. See below, “The Funeral Cortège”).

Open-Casket

Typically, there is a viewing of the deceased at the funeral venue before the commencement of the funeral service. Most Christian funerals occur in churches, and the viewing typically begins one hour before the commencement of the funeral service. After the viewing, the casket is closed and remains closed.

Closed-Casket

Sometimes at the request of the family of the deceased (usually as determined by the condition of the corpse) there is no viewing of the body by mourners—neither at the funeral home nor at the funeral venue. In other cases, the viewing is conducted only at the funeral home, with a closed-casket funeral service.

Pall Bearers

The word “pall” is used to describe both a coffin and the fabric draped over a coffin. Pall bearers are typically able-bodied men (but also occasionally women), usually in numbers of four or six, who lift (onto their shoulders in some traditions) the casket when it is not being moved or supported by gurney or vehicle. Pall bearers are usually closely related by blood, marriage, or friendship to the deceased. They are responsible for bringing the coffin into the funeral venue before the viewing; transporting the coffin out of the funeral venue at the end of the funeral service; placing the coffin into the hearse for transport to the burial site; removing the coffin from the hearse at the burial site; and positioning the coffin such that it can be lowered into the ground/placed into its crypt. (There are also “honorary pall bearers,” who are called upon in the event of the incapacity of a pall bearer).

The Funeral Service and the Eulogy

The nature of the funeral service depends primarily on whether it is religious-based or secular-based. Secular funeral services are as varied as the wishes of the deceased and/or the survivors, within the limits of the laws of the jurisdiction. When no dress code is indicated, a gentleman should err on the side of dark, conservative clothing.

Catholic funeral services take place within the ritual of the Mass and, as such, follows the format of a Mass. Generally, for an hour or thirty minutes before the Mass, there is a viewing of the deceased. Then the casket is then closed, and the Mass begins. The eulogy is not delivered during the Mass. Instead, it is delivered during the pre-Mass viewing or just prior to the Recessional. In other Christian denominations, the eulogy is delivered within the funeral service.

Cremation

Cremation is not traditionally a Christian practice, but it has become increasingly accepted. When the body has been cremated and will be given a religious-based funeral service, the cremated remains are generally brought into the church or funeral venue enclosed either in an urn or in a coffin bearing the urn.

Burials at Sea

Especially in island-communities and coastline jurisdictions, burials at sea are occasionally performed. Generally, there is a church service, then the body of the deceased is transported by hearse to a pier, thereafter placed upon a vessel and transported out to sea, accompanied only by the immediate family, after a brief pier-side blessing. A final blessing is performed out at sea immediately preceding the release of the body for its resting place at the bottom of the sea. There are jurisdictional regulations regarding the amount of miles from shore where the body may be lowered into the sea. Generally, burials at sea allow for the options of being submerged enclosed in a weighted coffin, or being shrouded in weighted canvas and lreleased into the sea. When no church service is held, a pier-side funeral service usually precedes the burial at sea. [When death occurs onboard vessels on the high seas, the laws of the country of the flag under which the ship sails, along with maritime law, dictates how the funeral and burial should be conducted].

The Funeral Cortège

At the end of the funeral service, the coffin is placed into the hearse and transported to the burial site. In old municipalities, where churches and their respective cemeteries and interdenominational public cemeteries are within the town proper, the hearse leads the funeral procession to the burial site. Immediately following the hearse is the clergy, followed by the immediate family of the deceased, then the remaining mourners, all on-foot. In Catholic funerals, the priest recites the first part of the Hail Mary, and the mourners respond with the second part. The prayer is repeated until the mourners arrive into the cemetery. Men are allowed to wear hats while walking in the funeral procession, but their hats must be removed when the coffin is being lowered into the earth or being placed into its crypt. Today, when the funeral service takes place at a location beyond comfortable walking-distance from the burial site, the funeral cortège (also spelled “cortege”) is by car: hearse followed by cars transporting the clergy and immediate family followed by cars containing other mourners. Automobile cortèges are escorted by police vehicles so as not to impede or be impeded by traffic, and vehicles in the procession typically turn on their headlights so as to indicate to other motorists that they are part of the cortège.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, the funeral procession to the cemetery is led by a brass band playing dirges in the jazz genre. And while mourners typically dress in somber colors, many carry umbrellas and parasols—some elaborately adorned—in festive colors.

Burial Plots

Even the dead must own property or pay rent! And dereliction of proprietary duties or nonpayment of rent can result in eviction!  In some jurisdictions, burial plots are purchased and remain with the purchaser in perpetuity. And in some cases, family members, after a period of time as specified by statute or ordinance, may be interred in the same plot. In other jurisdictions, burial plots are rented in, for example, 20-year intervals, with maintenance agreements and options to renew.  It is not uncommon for individuals or family units to pre-purchase or pre-rent burial plots so as to ensure desired accommodations.  (The remains of persons whose survivors do not renew burial plot leases are typically relocated to mass graves on the cemetery-site so as to make available the rental plots for future occupants). Cremated remains may also be interred or entombed in cemeteries. And some jurisdictions permit survivors to keep the cremains in their possession (usually in an urn within the home) or to dispose of them per the wishes of the deceased and/or the survivors). Some survivors, for example, “spread” the ashes in a place highly regarded by the deceased.

Some jurisdictions also allow for interments on private property. Permits from a local entity is typically required. Professional funeral homes are well-versed in all the laws and requirements pertaining to funerals and burials and should be consulted for guidance.

At the Gravesite

What takes place at the gravesite during secular burials is as varied as the wishes of the dead and their survivors. Religious-based graveside services typically involve additional prayers and blessings led by the officiating clergy, and the singing of hymns by the mourners.

Interment

Burying the dead is more unique to and distinguishing of the human species than is the use of tools. And burying the dead is so compelling a component of the human experience that enemies will even temporarily interrupt warfare so as to afford opposing sides the opportunity to inter their dead with the requisite ceremony and dignity.  The word “interment” derives from Latin “terra,” meaning “earth.” And to “inter” is to place a dead body into the earth or a tomb. When the coffin is lowered into an earthen grave, it is customary for the pallbearers to each toss a handful of dirt onto the casket. When pallbearers wear white cotton gloves and mourning-bands on their upper-arms, they remove them and toss them into the grave. Persons situated in the immediate vicinity of the gravesite also toss a handful of soil onto the casket. In some traditions, immediate relatives pluck a strand of hair from their heads and toss it into the grave along with a handful of soil. Thereafter, as the mourners sing hymns, the gravediggers cover the coffin with soil.

When the coffin is being placed into a tomb, whether subterranean or above-ground, the pallbearers place their gloves and mourning-bands into the crypt, which is thereafter sealed by masons.

Inurned cremains are typically placed into crypts, whether above-ground or subterranean, but are sometimes placed in an earthen graves.

In some jurisdictions, mourners must depart the cemetery before the coffin is interred.

Flowers at the Gravesite

Years ago, and still in some places today, the amount of floral wreaths laid atop a gravesite was an indication of the mourners’ esteem for the deceased. Today, because of the configuration of most modern cemeteries, only a few wreaths can be accommodated. And, as such, the immediate family of the deceased usually arranges for the delivery of two special wreaths: one to be placed atop the casket prior to interment, and one to be laid atop the covered/sealed gravesite, mourners being requested to give donations to specified charities in lieu of sending flowers.

The Gathering after the Funeral

The tradition of gathering after the funeral at the home of the immediate family of the deceased is observed in some cultures. In other cultures, it is the tradition for the immediate family to retire privately at home after the funeral services and the interment. In some cases, a gathering takes place at a public venue such as a men’s club, a restaurant, or a community center.

Funeral Etiquette

-Telephone contact should be made with the immediate family of the deceased upon being notified of the death, offering to assist the family in any way needed or possible.

-A letter or card of condolence should be mailed to the immediate family of the deceased immediately after the funeral. The letter or card should relate specific personal memories of the deceased. If the deceased was not personally known, general words of condolence are sufficient.

-Electronic devices should be disengaged or set at discreet settings while attending wakes, funerals, and burials.

-When the post-funeral gathering takes place in the private home of the immediate family, close friends and family should carry a communal dish or a bottle of wine or distilled liquor—unless the gathering is being professionally catered or unless otherwise specified.

-In cases where funeral expenses are likely to be burdensome for the immediate family, cash gifts, presented in a sealed envelope or card of condolence, should be given. The amount given should be determined by the financial wherewithal of the donor and the donor’s relationship to the deceased and/or the immediate family.

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