Death of a Parlor
Grief is a place that none us know until we reach it. When it comes, it is nothing we expect it to be. Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees, blind the eyes and obliterates the normalcy of life.
“Grief remains one of the few things with the power to silence us” ~ Anna Quindlen.
Death is universal. At the graveside the Episcopalians say, “In the midst of life we are in death”. In early America, home funerals were the practice everywhere, and each community had a group of women who came in to help with the “laying out of the dead.” Visitation was held in the front parlor followed by a procession to the church and cemetery. In the beginning of the funeral procession, skilled furniture makers would often be called upon to construct coffins for the deceased. When they realized that they could make money by handling the entire process of collecting the body, embalming, transportation, holding a funeral, and burying the body, they were ultimately “undertaking the funeral process”. Over a short time, the name was reduced to the term undertaker. In modern times, the name mortician was preferred until the more recent “Funeral Director”. In essence they are all one in the same thing – just in different time periods.
Americans are not the first or only ones to incorporate looking upon the dead body in their funeral rituals, nor did the practice originate with the funeral home. The first Europeans to settle in North America brought with them the tradition of laying the body out inside the home before it was buried, during which time neighbors could visit the home of the bereaved and take a last look at the dead. There are variations on this practice in other times and cultures, with two important examples being the Christian “wake” and the Jewish religious ritual, the “watching.” In both of these cases, the gaze upon the body is active and inquisitive, searching the body for signs of movement or life in order to avoid giving the person a premature burial. In 1829 Taberger’s safety coffin was developed; it included a bell to ring that would alert the graveyard workers if they were being buried alive.
“When the place was packed full, the undertaker he slid around in his black gloves with his softly, soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all ship-shape and comfortable, and making no more sound than a cat. He never spoke: he moved people around, he squeezed in the late ones, he opened up passage-ways, and done it all with nods and signs with his hands. Then he took his place over against the wall. He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see, and there weren’t no more smile to him than there is to a ham” ~ Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Abraham Lincoln’s death is considered to be the birth of the modern American funeral industry. After he was assassinated, the War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, organized a funeral train that snaked through thirteen cities across the North over the course of two weeks. By the time Lincoln was buried, it is estimated that over seven million people viewed his remains. Such a long and exposed journey would have left the President’s corpse in an advanced state of decomposition if it were not for the controversy of embalming. Although preservation of human remains recurred in various cultures throughout history, the practice of arterial embalming was a radical innovation, both uncommon and rejected by the American population at the time. As the death toll mounted in the Civil War, the North and the South both used men trained in embalming to treat the dead before shipping the bodies’ home. With days or weeks separating the mortal wound from burial, and the railroad a relatively new innovation, embalming was deployed in order to give the soldiers’ families the opportunity to see their loved ones one last time.
Most people only experience the funeral home in action, which is to say the moment when the dead body is put on display. In such moments, the boundary between the display and its production is most rigorously defined. The area in which the funeral director prepares the body is kept off limits, often concealed, as if these rooms did not exist. In some homes these spaces are located around a bend in a hallway; at others behind locked doors or curtains. Whereas the late-19th and early-20th century undertaker used to prepare the body within the home of the bereaved, today’s funeral directors perform this task in relative isolation, in the hidden spaces of the funeral home. The private areas of the funeral home that enable the viewing include: space for assembling the coffin, dressing the body, and applying cosmetics; space for the storage of coffins; garage space for automobiles such as the mourning car and the hearse; living quarters for the funeral director’s family; a private office for conducting business; and the space where the body is embalmed. While each of these spaces is necessary, it is the chemical process of arterial embalming that is vital for sustaining the funeral home. In one sense, it suspends the decomposition of the body, allowing it to be put on display. In another, it transforms the role of the funeral director into a profession, complete with training and licensing. Funeral directors have long offered high quality service and dedication that transcends the most recognizable community official.
The family run funeral parlors of the past are vanishing before our eyes as big corporations want in on the one business fact that is guaranteed, death. There is a saying out of the 1950’s that funeral homes last three generations in the family business, with it usually closing with the third generation; then becoming a historical landmark of the city or community. In recent years corporations have started buying independent funeral homes, but they are working to provide the traditional feel while providing a modern approach. Whether corporately owned or not; todays families are bringing new values, preferences and opinions that are changing the world of funeral services. They are thinking outside the box on how to best honor their loved ones. Current trends driven by loved ones are: personalization, advanced funeral planning and purchasing of different packages, the rise of cremation, use of technology, green funerals, and women being the new face of the profession. Death is one of few times love is given and not expected in return. As grief silences us; the funeral itself will be healing, a narcotic regression where we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity of the occasion. Grief has the unending absence that follows the heaviness of our hearts; the relentless succession of moments, the void, in which we confront death and hold the funeral. – written by Erika Johnson