PrimeTime: Not-so-pleasant memories of an old funeral ritual
Whatever the time period, funerals themselves under any circumstances are difficult enough for the surviving family members, but they took on an added effect in those bygone days when funerals began with home reviewals.
A dead body in the living room was not that uncommon. Such were the times. Death was not only shown in town funeral homes or in churches, but also on display in farm houses. Folks today who remember this certain experience can look back on the event and if they choose to be charitable, deem it practical and nice. However, that peculiar pattern of solemn social behavior did not seem nice at the time for the young children involved. For kids forced to both witness and live with death lying in the living room, the whole thing was both creepy and weird, that is, the bringing of the body of the deceased family member back to the farmhouse. And for the next two days, the body was essentially on display for the neighbors to drop in and view, all this prior to a later funeral at the country church.
Bringing the body home was the common model of proper pre-funeral proceedings in hundreds of Upper Midwest farming communities in the years up to and through World War II. Community mores dictated it; it was simply the way it was done. The newly deceased would first be brought to the funeral home in town, the body prepared for burial by the funeral director, then called by the curious title of The Undertaker.
His work completed - and given the then problems connected with embalming and formaldehyde, it was not easy work - The Undertaker would then drive the hearse and the prepared body - now dressed nicely in Sunday best, hair neatly fixed and combed, hands folded together over the stomach - to the farm home. The casket was then carried inside and placed on a high dolly and then rolled into the main living room where it would remain for two days, allowing friends and neighbors to drop in, first to pay their respects and bestow condolences on the surviving family members prior to the guests slipping silently into the hushed living room for their last look at the departed.
The adults in this situation of course knew this ritual well and calmly accepted the whole formula. For their kids, however - and I was once one of them -there was nothing routine for them. It was not only unnerving and spooky, it gave us the willies. Of course we pretended to be unaffected. Ho hum, so there's a dead body in the living room. Who cares? Not a problem. Not to worry, or so we tried to tell ourselves. It didn't work. When intellect and emotions collide, the latter usually wins.
When my Norwegian immigrant grandfather, Lars Lee, died in 1943 at age 87, we kids returned with our parents to grandpa's farm and soon soaked in the whole bizarre spectacle, from watching the elders carrying in his casket - just barely getting it through the narrow outside doorway - to the opening of the same, revealing a laid-out Grandpa whom we had never seen dressed that way before. A white shirt and a tie and a three piece suit? That was not the kind man who always but always wore bib overalls - always with a can of Copenhagen snuff in the bib. That was then, this was now and this strangely dressed man lay there in the living room for two days - and nights.
For us kids, it was bad enough during the daytime but decidedly worse after the sun went down and the gloom of darkness descended quietly and ominously over the mourning farmstead. The morbid atmosphere and the nervous tensions were aided by the winds making the old wooden clapboard house creak and groan with odd and eerie sounds. And then there was the unplanned drama of the lighting. With no electricity, the flickering shadows of the kerosene oil lamps floated and flared around the constricting walls and jumped fleetingly back and forth across the ashen-white face of the body.
In this aura, our simmering kid'' fears progressed to wet-your-pants pure fright. When we had to go by the door to the living room, we did not walk, we ran. Understandably, that whole experience shall never be forgotten.
Now we're elders
As current retirees, we have conversations with others our age who vividly remember their own childhood experiences with at-home caskets. None remembered them fondly. Just the opposite. One woman told me that when her grandfather's remains lay in the living room, for whatever reason, at night his face was covered with a handkerchief. She added that her young imagination ran wild to the point that when she took furtive peeks at the body, she was certain that she saw the hanky moving up and down from his breathing.
Among the more disturbing remembrances revealed was that of an 80-year-old lady who said that at age five, she was not tall enough to see her grandmother in the coffin and so her mother lifted her up for her to see inside, but it did not end there. Her mother then demanded that she give Granny a goodbye kiss on the lips. Seventy-five years later the lady believed she had still had not completely gotten over that trauma.
Wayne Cease, of Bagley, now a retired funeral director, took over the family business from his father who had started it in 1928. He said home reviewals were done for very practical reasons. Funeral homes in the years prior to World War II were small; they could not accommodate large numbers of people, while at the same time farm houses then were large and could handle larger numbers. That simple.
Cease said the sizes of houses after the war became smaller, and also more people began living in apartments; neither dwelling was practical in size for home reviewals. Too small for coffins or crowds. Too small to get a big casket through the front door. He added that one time they could not get the coffin through the door, and so they took it in through a window.
Cease also added that along with the shifting sizes in buildings were shifting attitudes; bodies on display in homes no longer seemed appropriate.
He noted that regardless of the time period, there was and is always the concern about children experiencing or not experiencing funerals, with an ongoing feeling of many parents wanting to shield their children from death. Cease added that he was once one of those children. At age 5, he was not permitted to attend the funeral of his own grandfather, of whom he was very fond.
Among the biggest changes Cease noted in funerals within the past few decades is not only the acceptance ofm but also the desirability for cremation. Cease indicated that before World War II, the closest crematorium to Bagley and Bemidji was in the Twin Cities. No more. Now they're everywhere. Currently almost half of all funerals in Minnesota involve cremation.
The cycle of life may not change; the responses to the end of that cycle have always changed.
Life goes on. I forget just why.