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.”



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.

Cremation – Why the Price Disparity?

Urn in field

Just like any other good or service in a given geographic region the consumer will see a continuum of pricing for cremation services. My dad, who ran his own business (nothing related funerals mind you) for many years has an adage I’ve heard many, many times, “Quality pays. It doesn’t cost.” Those are words to remember if you’re buying something as cheap as a pack of gum, or as expensive as a car, or somewhere in between like, say, a….cremation.

A lot of consumers get bogged down in the idea of why one firm is more expensive than another. When in reality, I think the consumer should be asking, why is one firm so much cheaper? What makes them less expensive? Are shortcuts being taken? Maybe, and maybe not, but it seems that when this profession lands itself in the media it usually seems to have something to do with cremation…and it’s usually not the firms that are doing things by the book. Just look at what happened in Georgia with Tri State Crematory. In 2002 it was discovered that over 300 bodies that had been consigned for cremation were languishing on the property. Three hundred!

Questions you may want to ask when arranging for a cremation are:

  • Who will be doing the cremation and are they certified?
  • Are you a member of the Cremation Association of North America and/or the National Funeral Directors Association?
  • May I inspect the cremation facilities? Or better yet, show up unannounced, and request a tour
  • What steps are being taken to ensure the cremated remains returned to me are that of my loved one?
  • Are your facility and professional licenses up to date?


The price disparity with cremation can also have to do with what the consumer is getting. A low priced offering when all the “extras” are added in can be just as much as the “more expensive” firm down the street. I believe in marketing terms this is called the “bait and switch.” When cremation shopping, make sure when you are comparing price you are also comparing the services (and sometimes goods) attached to those prices.

Like any other purchase, do your research before you commit.