Funeral home. Funeral parlour. Mortuary. Whatever you call it, you probably only go rarely, and only when summoned to. Like other places of death—ambulances, hospitals, hospices—the necropolis remains marginal in most people’s lives.
I’ve been to a dozen funerals, at least.
At each one, people offered condolences, shook hands, cried, and stood in circles, talking and meeting funeral family, people we only see in times of death.
A couple of months ago, I met some of my funeral family at my grandma’s funeral. After having lived with cancer, she died of it on a Thursday morning. Within hours of her last breath, her body was sent to the funeral coop, where she was cremated. And over the next two days, my grandpa and aunts wrote a death announcement, chose an urn, leased a recess in the coop’s columbarium, and bought flowers.
Once the decisions were made and details settled, I visited my grandpa. Sitting in his living room, the family chatted while he napped, his sleep long overdue. Some family members didn’t approve of the leased columbarium. “Too expensive,” they said from the couch and the chair.
Burial rituals are expensive. So are funerals and post-funeral meals. The death industry is largely a for-profit one, and worldwide we spend billions of dollars on headstones, embalming, cremation, urns, flowers, memorial photos and cards, buffets and post-eulogy gatherings, hair cuts and new clothes, train tickets, and hotel rooms.
Remembering life is expensive. But funerary and burial rituals allow us to mourn, share grief, and receive support.
As I’m passionate about space and place, I wondered how well the funeral home would fulfill this chief mandate of providing a space of mourning and remembrance. How hard could this be? Not much is needed to make such a space work. But observation and eavesdropping revealed a few things this funeral home hadn’t considered.
Old people attend funerals. Do I even need to write this? Seniors don’t like low chairs, just like they don’t like low couches or toilets. Once sitting, a person needs considerable arm strength to get back up. Funeral home managers, buy higher chairs!
Old people attend funerals. You know what else old people don’t like? Stairs! I didn’t see a ramp to enter the funeral home or a ramp to move within the home’s levels, from the main floor to the columbarium below, for example. My grandfather, tired and tied to an oxygen machine, didn’t follow the urn down the stairs to the columbarium. How could he without a ramp?
Children attend funerals. At four and seven, my brother and I were among the only kids at my great-grandma’s funeral. Great-aunts barely camouflaged disapproval when asking about our age. Today children attend funerals. Death isn’t a secret or hidden. So keep a few of those low chairs for the kids, and maybe even let the kids play in a separate room.
People eat and drink. People do so to appease hunger and thirst. They also do so for comfort and distraction. Give the people food and drink, not cheap tea biscuits.
Death isn’t darkness. Although death can be sad and difficult, it shouldn’t be dark, at least not artificially so. The three rooms where wakes and services were held were dark. Just dark enough to tire my eyes, but not dark enough to hide my tears. Take note: people go towards natural light and tire quickly of low-wattage bulbs.
What do you think funeral homes should notice or do to provide comfort, privacy, or whatever else you deem key to mourning and remembrance?