Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Funerals: Some Helpful Tips In Times of Sorrow

19th century children's graves in Frederick, Maryland
Posted to the Pagan Blog Project 2014,Week F

No one likes to think about making final arrangements for themselves or a loved one who has died. It's not an unpleasant task, and it is necessary...and if you don't do it yourself or at least put in your own two cents, someone else will make the decision of how your physical body will be disposed of, and quite possibly what transpires during your funeral/memorial service. Do you want that to happen? No? Then read on for a deeper discussion...

Nowadays the majority of people die in a hospital or hospice setting. In 2010 The National  Center for Health Statistics gathered stats from a sampling of U.S. hospitals and determined that 29% of all deaths took place in a hospital.[] Other reports by the National Institute of Health determined that 23-27 percent of recorded deaths happened at home, while deaths in nursing homes stayed at 21%. []

Just a century ago our families tended to the dead at home. Why has this changed? Culture, for one reason: our lives are industrial vs agrarian and much different than that of our ancestors,e.g., travel modes (auto accidents, etc.) And there is the fact that humans are dying much older than before (often after a lengthy decline). Modern healthcare has dramatically changed toward the use of technology. We have moved death out of the home and into institutional settings.
Death is inevitable, despite our best efforts. Death is merely a transition in the natural cycle of life. In most US states, it is perfectly legal for a family to handle the funeral and disposal of the body themselves as long as all the necessary certificates have been filed. There are rules which apply to this, but it can be done.[] Others are opting for a "green", more natural manner of burial; green cemeteries are gaining popularity across the country. "Green" burial is primarily direct burial within 24-48 hrs. into the ground, with the body clad only in a shroud,or in a biodegradable container. You may have to call the cemetery yourself because this is not yet a popular option in the funeral industry. But what do you do if you aren't prepared to handle the funeral or burial yourself? You will probably seek out a funeral home to take over the task.( Let me interject here that if you are a member of a coven or other group this is a splendid time to discuss the subject of funerals, because as a general rule, not many groups have experience in this area. Getting someone trained to assist members in this area, as a part of a Community or Pastoral Care Committee,would be a true service to your group.)
The larger question is how do you deal with a funeral home if you are Pagan? The truth is that most of these establishments deal 
largely with Christianity when the funeral is of a religious nature (Jews have a tendency to use a Jewish funeral director because there are strict religious laws governing interment.) It is also true that more and more funeral directors are serving those who are humanists, atheists or those of no specific faith; the majority of funeral directors will work with anyone and don't care about your religious preference or lack there of. Because few funeral directors are familiar with Pagan practice, you will need to express your needs and requirements to him/her fully, in writing. If you are a member of a group, it would be wise to ask your clergy/high priest(ess), or other member  to accompany you when you initially meet with the funeral director.

At the initial meeting you will discuss the arrangements to be made concerning the disposal of your loved ones body. While there are many options widely available, the services normally provided by a funeral home primarily focus on two: cremation and burial. Whatever you decide, the Federal Trade Commission mandates that you receive an itemized price list of goods and services provided by the funeral home/funeral director[] and []. Ask what is specifically included in 'package deals', or things such as 'preparation of the body'.(Embalming is rarely required by law. Special situations do exist, however[]. >Do not be ashamed to ask for the least expensive coffin or the bare necessities if you cannot afford what you are shown; nearly all funeral directors can provide a simple,economical alternative to the traditional casket. < (My own grandmother was buried in a simple casket made of pressboard which was lined in white 'satin' and covered in blue damask-like fabric,which was actually very attractive.) If you have concerns in any of the above areas, please be sure to read the next link provided which is a general guide to funeral home ethics and standards:

Also for that initial meeting you will want to bring along basic information about your loved one: full name, any other name under which the individual was know (nick name, magickal name, or title);date of birth; the name of his/her hometown and the town in which s/he currently lived; and age at death. You will also need to supply the names of parents and possibly grandparents; and siblings; and of course a spouse,partner or significant other, and children's names.(Some obits also include the name of a beloved pet or familiar.) If the decedent was a member of a group such as a temple or coven,and it is agreeable to the members, the name of the group may be included (e.g., The Temple of the Moonlight Rose).You may wish to include the names of schools,certificates or degrees awarded or earned; fraternal organizations, etc. A sentence or two about the decedent's favorite activities could be added as well,(e.g. "Jane was an avid knitter and loved making scarves for her friends","Amber studied herbs and made her own incense"). It is not necessary to mention the decedent's faith tradition or spiritual practices, but if you do, this is not the time to be snarky about any former religious affiliation (e.g., including a phrase such as "Jane became a Witch after being rejected by the Baptist Church" is not appropriate and just plain spiteful). However, if you'd like, something like, " Jane was a devotee of the goddess Diana for over thirty years" would be perfectly fine, as long as it is included without fanfare. The funeral director you choose will be able to assist you with the wording/editing of any obituary you may wish to place in the local newspaper. Remember, you may be paying by the word, letter or space, so keep it concise.If you would like to include a picture,take a clear black and white photo to accompany the obituary. ( Note: a death notice is automatically sent to local newspapers. It will include the decedent's name, date of death,place where s/he died, and who is handling the funeral arrangements.) The date and time for any funeral or memorial service will be included, too.The obituary may or may not include the name of the clergy or individual officiating at the funeral or memorial service, if there is one. Otherwise the closing statement of the obituary will be a statement of which funeral home is handling the arrangements.

If you are having any sort of religious ceremony for the decedent, and if you have not done so previously, a member of the clergy should be contacted ASAP. That means your High Priest/ess or Elders, or an ordained member of the mainstream church. This is where things may get a little awkward, particularly if the person is not Pagan or at least Pagan-friendly. If a member of the mainstream Christian clergy is asked to officiate, it is more likely than not that minister will expect to deliver a Christian-themed service complete with readings from the Bible and music from a hymnal approved by their denominational authority.This is to be expected because this is the normal way things are handled in mainstream religions, so don't be offended. You may come upon resistance to anything remotely Pagan being included in the funeral, either from the officiating clergy...or the decedent's family ( if you are a spouse or partner.) On the other hand, you may be delightfully surprised. More and more interfaith ministers,
especially from the Unitarian Universalist Association, are not only accepting of alternative religions, they have experience dealing with the special situations that can occur in planning and execution of such.[] And here's reality: Expect to pay this individual for his/her time. Even if it's small an honorarium. It is only right they be compensated for their time and effort, unless there are other arrangements made or they do it from the goodness of their heart.

If you are solely responsible for the planning of your loved ones last rites, you-and you alone-have the final say as to what takes place prior to and at the disposal of the body. Whom you consult to aid you in planning the funeral/memorial/graveside/scattering of cremains-in the funeral home or at another location-is your prerogative. How you plan the service-what components you wish to have-is also up to you. There are guidelines, but no hard and fast rules. A simple guideline is as follows:

  • Background music while attendees are assembling. If there is to be a formal processional, there may also be music for this purpose.
  • Opening words  of welcome. ( May be from the Funeral Director, Officiant,or a family member)
  • Thoughts on life and death. (Usually a brief homily or talk by the Officiant) 
  • Tribute (memories(eulogies) written and spoken by family, friends or the Officiant)
  • Music for Reflection (or silent reflection)
  • Prayers,readings,etc.( Readers selected from friends and family members,or by the Officiant,who have gone over the material well in advance.Don't just spring this on someone.)
  • Closing words or benediction.( Funeral Director,Officiant or a family member)
  • Music while the Officiant exits,followed by those assembled.

Using a traditional funeral form, those assembled then follow the hearse carrying the body and the Officiant in procession to the cemetery or place where cremains will be scattered. You man not desire to follow this form and have a private interment, or scatter the cremains on another occasion ( or privately). Many times there is a reception following the committal. This may be a catered or potluck affair at a location hired for the purpose, provided by a fraternal organization or religious group to which the decedent belonged(e.g,a volunteer fire department or a coven), or the home of a friend of the family. At the very least, especially for those who have traveled to attend the rite, a beverage or other type of hospitality should be offered.

A few words of warning on scattering cremains: it is not just 'ash' in the bag, there will be some bone fragments and some may be large enough to be identifiable as such. You will be getting 5-9 lbs.cremains, depending on the individual's size. Get permission from the property owner,or a permit from local authorities where required...and please,please,please stand up-wind when you pour the contents of the container out. I'm not trying to be funny here. Check the direction of the wind before you pour and preserve everyone's dignity.
This is by no means intended as an exhaustive examination of the subject of Pagan funerals, it is just a place to jump on, just an overview...there is so much more beyond the scope of this post. I hope it's been helpful.There are many resources available to help with planning a funeral or memorial service; I have found that the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Humanist Movement is a rich supply in particular.One of my favorite go-to books is Illuminata, by Marianne Williamson, because the language in which the prayers and meditations are written, is modern, while the intention and feeling of them are very old. I have included some valuable links from the Internet, and there are many more online. Be aware that some of the following resources do not originate in the US; they are provided here for reference:

Outlines for Rites or Services:

Readings,poetry, etc.:

And finally...This lovely funeral service by Dr. She DMontford:

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