The death industry in our culture is not to service the dead; but, its purpose is to exploitate the grief and to play on the guilt of family members of the deceased in order to bilk them for as much money as possible. This is a billion dollar industry that never has a recession.
There is the transportation to the funeral home, the embalming (now that’s a macabre business,) clothing, setting the hair, makeup, the coffin (that can cost as much as a small car – or a Mercedes if you’ve got the cash,) the viewing, the service, the trip to the cemetery, the plot and perhaps a wake. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
Though some of this may seem necessary, it is all done by someone else – for pay. It is impersonal, and as a result it does not lend to closure.
In our culture we don’t want to be involved with the dead anymore than necessary. There is an unhealthy attitude of dread, disgust and fear attached to the dead – regardless to how close we were to the deceased. Especially for kids, in a time of mass media zombies and vampires, being forced to see a dead person is scary as hell.
|They're comming to get you Barbara...|
Death rituals in different cultures may seem bizarre when viewed from our removed cloistered and cultural mindset, but what is considered normal is a matter of cultural perspective.
In Athabascan Indian villages throughout Alaska, death is viewed as a natural passing. Native people grieve for their lost but they do not have the fear and revulsion of the dead that exist in our society.
Athabascan villages are matriarchal societies: the clan is counted through the mother line. When a death occurs, the women of the extended family bathe and clothe the dead, the men build a coffin which is then decorated by the women. The coffin and body is placed open in the living area of the home, and for the next few days (until the day of the funeral) the whole village comes to visit and to show concern and support for the family.
Beginning the day of the death the family of the deceased is expected to prepare breakfast, lunch and supper for the entire village. The extended family chips in with food and provisions but the preparation and serving is done by the women and children of the immediate family. Visitors come and fill their plates and sit and eat and talk in the room with the body, while the adults and children of the household are busy with the preparation and serving of food and the cleaning up. People, including children, come and go all day and into the night.
There is a constant vigil of the body and the house is always full of people talking and laughing, drinking tea or coffee, and recounting memories of the deceased. The body is never left alone.
By the day of the funeral the family of the deceased is exhausted. There is a Christian funeral of some denomination in a village church or hall before the coffin and body are buried ( In the far arctic the bodies are often kept frozen, either in the village or at Fairbanks, until the ground can thaw enough for the final burial and grave side service.)
|Grave yard in an Athabascan village.|
After the body is buried there is one more service to be performed: usually a potlatch is held.
A potlatch is a ceremonial get together and feeding of the entire village. Butcher block paper is rolled out on the floor of the village hall or meeting place. People bring their own plates and silverware and sit on the floor or on chairs on each side of the paper. The extended family, or group giving the potlatch, served moose head soup, wild meats, pasta salads, berry deserts and other cultural delicacies. Often at funeral potlatches guns, bandanas, and clothing are given away as gifts to the people attending. Potlatches always end with elders speaking or lecturing the assembled; and, at certain celebrative potlatches there is Indian singing and dancing. (It is worth noting that at one time the government, at the urging of churches, outlawed potlatches.)
You have heard that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to bury the dead.
The Athabascan death ritual may seem strange or even bizarre when viewed from our cultural perspective. But the village has its own culture. In the village death is a natural occurrence and dead bodies are not feared. The body of the deceased (we seem to prefer that word to dead) is prepared and viewed and honored by the family prior to the funeral; and by the time of the funeral the family is exhausted from its obligation and homage to the passed family member. There has been support from the entire village, exhaustive labor and there is personal, family closure.
In my next and last post on death and culture I will discuss the handling of death in the Yup’ik Eskimo villages of southwest Alaska.