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October 9, 2007 > Dearly Departed

Dearly Departed

"Death is terrifying because it is so ordinary. It happens all the time." ~Susan Cheever

As this quote says, to many people, death is a scary thing. It's also one of those tricky little things in life that you can't avoid. Modern views of death have evolved over time and are very widely influenced by culture, family, and beliefs, making the topic particularly relevant to discuss in a history museum exhibit- especially in a community as diverse as ours. What funeral customs are practiced in this community? How do we mourn and remember the dead?

At one time in America, when someone died, the family took care of cleaning and preparing the body for burial in their home. A local cabinetmaker supplied the coffin and delivered it to the family home but the family did everything else. Though a body could be kept on ice for a period of time, until the advent of embalming, burials happened quickly after death. Embalming became popular following the Civil War because it preserved a body for a longer period of time and allowed family members living some distance away, to travel for a funeral. Embalming is still widely used, whether it is a full body burial or cremation. Many people like to have open caskets at the funeral service making embalming a necessity.

With the advent of embalming came the occupation of funeral director, who stepped in to take care of everything involved with a funeral, including preparing the body and making arrangements for the service and burial. The funeral director takes some of the pressure off of families and relieves them from making all the arrangements for a funeral themselves though beliefs and traditions of the family really dictate how a funeral is to be conducted. For example, some faiths such as those of the Jewish and Islamic religions prohibit embalming and require burial within 24 hours of death.

Once a body is prepared, whether embalmed or not, the family must decide between an earth burial and cremation. The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that in California there is a 50/50 split between cremations and full-body burials annually. Many religions prefer earth burials in a consecrated cemetery rather than cremation. Hindus and Buddhists on the other hand, require cremation. Other religions like Roman Catholics prefer earth burial but allow cremation as long as the ashes are buried rather than scattered. Cremation allows for a little more flexibility in a funeral than a full body burial, which are limited to cemeteries or sea burial.

"Cremains," which are what cremated remains are called, are buried in the ground as well as columbariums and mausoleums in cemeteries. Some families prefer to take their loved one home in a decorative urn, scatter the ashes at sea, from the air, or another special place rather than place them at a cemetery. Others choose to keep their loved one with them in the form of jewelry such as a pendant containing a small amount of ashes or a diamond fabricated from a person's ashes. It's all about preference of both the family
and the deceased.
While preparing the body of the deceased and deciding what to do with the remains is one part of the funeral, the ceremony surrounding a death and mourning traditions of the family is the other part. A service for the deceased might be held in a church, temple, or funeral home. Depending on the person, the service may be religious, a mass or eulogy given by a priest or minister, or an informal memorial where friends and family talk about the deceased. Sometimes the deceased is present in a casket, or if cremated already, in an urn; others prefer to have a service without the physical presence of the deceased.

Following a service, there is often a procession to the cemetery if someone is to be interred and an additional graveside service. Later, mourners gather at the family home, restaurant, or church building to support the family and honor and remember the deceased. These can be loud, vivacious celebrations with lots of food and drink, or more moderate and somber gatherings. The length of the mourning period again depends on the family's personal beliefs. For example, Orthodox Jews sit "shiva" for seven days. During this time, all normal daily habits stop while the family mourns. In the Victorian era, women were expected to wear all black for a period of about a year or more in mourning for family members.

Once the mourning period is over, no matter the length, life eventually resumes a normal pace. While a loved one is never truly forgotten, as life goes on we may think of the person less often. However, there are certain days throughout the year that are set aside specifically to remember and commemorate those who have passed. One such tradition is Days of the Dead on Nov. 1-2, a tradition commemorating the dead originating in Mexico. A family visits the cemetery where they clean the family graves and leave small offerings of food and flowers. Some families build shrines to their loved ones in their home, prepare special foods, and spend time praying and talking about the deceased. Another tradition held in August is the Obon Festival, a Japanese festival celebrating the spirit of deceased ancestors. There are other national days of remembrance such as Memorial Day in May commemorating those who lost their lives while serving in the armed forces or Transgender Day of Remembrance in November memorializing transgender people who have been killed.

Dearly Departed, the current exhibit at the Hayward Area Historical Society Museum, touches on all these elements of local funeral customs and runs until Feb. 16. As part of the exhibit, McConaghy House is currently in traditional Victorian mourning. A section of Dearly Departed is also on display at the Sun Gallery through Nov. 24 in conjunction with the East Bay Art Collaborative's "Columbarium," a "Days of the Dead" art installation.

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