Some Happy Thoughts on American Funeral Customs

Vance Lauderdale ponders the difference between cremation and traditional burials.

In the 20 years since I've been writing my "Ask Vance" history column, I deal with a lot of people who have passed away. Sometimes I visit their graves to photograph their tombstones. And sometimes I even attend their funerals.

Yes, being a history columnist is a cheerful job.

Last week, I attended memorial services for a friend, who had been cremated. The urn — a lovely white porcelain vase — was on prominent display at the service, instead of the usual casket.

The whole cremation business dramatically changes the American notion of death, don't you think?

Because with a "traditional" funeral, we like to believe — because it just sounds so pleasant and reassuring — that the "dearly departed" is only sleeping. We dress him or her in their best (or favorite) clothes. We fix their hair and makeup and make them look nice. And we tuck them into a comfy casket with a soft tufted interior, and even put a pillow under their heads. We cross their hands peacefully across their chests, and when we finally close the lid and bid them farewell, we still like to pretend they are merely slumbering — for all eternity.

But when the dearly departed has been reduced to a half-pound cannister of ashes, well, it's hard to pretend they are still sleeping inside that jar, isn't it? It really drives it home that they are gone, and reduced to the most basic elements. From dust to dust, ashes to ashes, and all that.

Nobody ever walked up to a cremation urn at a funeral service and said, "Oh, he looks so natural."

And there's a much stronger sense that they are indeed gone, in every sense of the word. At a funeral with a casket, it's easy for the minister or family members delivering a eulogy to point to the casket while they are talking, or touch it, or otherwise refer to "our dear father" or whoever happens to be lying within, as if they're listening to what people are saying about them.

That doesn't work so well with a cremation urn. At the funeral I attended last week, the daughter who was telling everyone good stories about her mother kept indicating the urn nearby and referring to it as "Mom." At the end of her moving tribute, she made a comment that her mother never went anywhere without a nice scarf, so she took the scarf from her own neck and gently draped it around the urn.

There wasn't a dry eye in the chapel. It was a moving gesture. But still, it made me think. You can do that with a casket, and if it's an open-casket service, you can even place that scarf in the casket. But when it's a jar of ashes? It seems ... unsettling ... to refer to that as "my mother."

At what point do we stop being who we are? I don't have an answer. I've just been mulling this over lately, since I've been attending more and more cremation funerals, and the whole "dynamic" is different. There's not as much to look at, to comment on or criticize ("Oh, they did her hair completely wrong!"). And if it's an open casket, there's not that sense of dread as we approach the casket and look inside.

As I was leaving the service last week, I noticed the funeral home had sent a hearse — just to carry that little jar of ashes.

Oh, and if you're wondering about my own plans? Taxidermy is the Lauderdale way.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

About This Blog

Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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