My parents didn’t want to have a funeral. They didn’t want an obituary printed or posted. I recall hearing the first inklings of those requests about ten years before Dad’s death, when they approached their 60th wedding anniversary. As Dad’s dementia became more evident in the ensuing years, the “inklings” were fixed in the cement of Mom’s answers to my occasional questions.
No fuss, please. Their remaining friends were old. It would be a burden for them to attend any service. And anyhow, Mom calmly, bluntly added . . . many friends are already dead. One of the few changes that occurred in their later years involved Dad’s willingness to be cremated. Until I was in my thirties, Dad’s rare comments about death emphasized a belief that Christians should be buried. Though he may not have quoted the New Testament to me, at certain points I read passages such as, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (I Thessalonians 4:16.) If you’re cremated, Dad figured, how can you “rise” from the dead? But his thoughts, his faith, would shift. Given his sensibilities, maybe he learned it was cheaper to be cremated. More likely, his youthful, literal notions about Biblical mandates evolved into an “all things were possible” view about God . . . that even the cremated would be in line at the pearly gates.
What are your requests about death? How do your personal, family, cultural or religious traditions influence (or dictate) your decisions? For some, the only “tradition” may be to never talk about anything. You’ll tell your children/family/spouse/best friend what you want done . . . tomorrow. You guess you’ll do what your parents and grandparents did . . . whatever that was. You’re heard your imam or priest or rabbi talk about rituals, but that’s just for old* folks.
At my hospice, a Muslim daughter—her dying parent’s primary caregiver—profusely thanked the social workers after they helped her make sure the burial occurred within 24 hours. Islamic tradition demands burial before the next sunset. And Islamic tradition is against cremation.
During a bereavement call, a husband bemoaned he could no longer “see” his deceased wife. However the farm workers on his ranch, all long-time employees, had “seen” her . . . playing with their dogs once or twice, and also out in the fields closest to the house. “It’s their Mexican traditions,” the husband said. “They can see the dead. I wish I could do that.” He was as envious as he was comforted by their “sightings.”
At a recent death, the hospice nurse instructed the funeral director, as he was claimed the body of a Hmong family member, to roll the deceased feet-first out of the house. For Hmong with animist traditions, they believe (and worry) that the spirit will walk back into the home unless they “leave” in the correct direction.
I do not understand some traditions, within or outside my Christian faith. Certain traditions become lost in the haze of history. They are done today because . . . it’s always been done that way. With certain rituals—in families or religions—there are multiple explanations. It’s like that with our most important, and our most trivial, actions. I remember visiting Tennessee relatives, bewildered by their “rules” for Monopoly. Their rules weren’t my rules! My parents cautioned me to respect the differences. Even though, in my kid’s view, my relatives were weird and wrong.
But they were not. Traditions, and honoring requests, can help the living in the liminal time of a loved one’s death. At the thresholds of dying and grieving, of losing love and rebuilding life, rituals can help. I’m glad the social workers assisted a grieving Muslim daughter. I’d never tell a grieving spouse that what others “saw” was unlikely or misinterpreting a culture. I applaud the nurse that asked a funeral director to aim a gurney in the right direction for a grieving Hmong family.
In my view, the only “bad” traditions people have are to never express personal desires to family/friends, or to avoid asking about religious beliefs or rituals.
Me? Long ago, I made an effort to respect my Tennessee cousins and their odd Monopoly rules. Mom and Dad said it was important.
They were right.
*The old, or elderly, are always the ones older than us. An 89-year old will likely view his or her self as “late middle age” compared to an “elderly” 99-year old friend.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)