On Tuesday I spoke to about 25 students in Dr. Don Ebel’s Sociology of Death class at MSU-Mankato. I gave them a brief background of my dad’s job as a gravedigger and what it was like growing up around death. But I was most interested in hearing questions and comments from them. I have all this practical experience growing up around wakes, funerals and cemeteries, but little theoretical context about the sociology of death that they’re all studying.
They were inquisitive during the 45 minutes that I was in their class. Among their questions:
- What was the process of digging graves?
- Did your dad ever bury people he knew?
- How did he get paid (by the grave or salary)?
- How does a person become a gravedigger?
We talked about the legalities of having to bury bodies within caskets and vaults, how there used to be a time that cemetery associations did not allow winter burials in Minnesota, and the continual change that keeps moving death further and further away from the home. For example, funeral homes in Waseca when I was growing up there indeed were homes where the funeral directors lived upstairs. Sandberg Funeral Home, in particular, was a grand old Victorian home on Waseca’s Main Street. Seeing today’s modern funeral homes, like McRaith Funeral Home that replaced the Sandberg Funeral Home or Mankato Mortuary’s new and gleaming (albeit sterile) North Mankato facility, makes me a little sad. I think the elimination of a home-like atmosphere in which to wake people does a great disservice to our society.
I recommended to the students Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death (still a classic after all these years) and HBO’s Six Feet Under (can you believe that not one student had seen this show!?).
In the six weeks leading up to my visit, they had been talking about the medicalization of death in our society and now they will move onto the professionalization of death (gravediggers, funeral directors, etc., who work in the death industry). And one of their assignments is to go to a cemetery, study the gravestones, and report on what they can intuit and infer. Jealous! This is a class that I’ve always wanted to take. Maybe I will have time to take advantage of my tuition waiver one of these days!
Richard Gilbert said:
Rachael, have you read Haven Kimmel? Somehow I thought of you and her A Girl Named Zippy when I read this. Don’t know why. I intend to read her followup memoir about her mother, She Got Up Off the Couch.
I’ve seen A Girl Named Zippy on the shelves but haven’t looked at it too closely. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out!
Tracy Lee Karner said:
Have you ever heard of a “living wake?” I hadn’t. Someone I’m close to recently attended a living wake for a fairly young family member who died of cancer less than a week later. It was in the home–people brought flowers, comforted the immediate family, kept vigil, and had the opportunity to say their last words to the dying person.
The medicalization and professionalization of death is an economic thing, perhaps? A way to capitalize (and everything these days, is seen in terms of its marketing potential.) But it doesn’t change we still have to deal with death on a personal level. I think we will always find ways to honor and ritualize the profound grief of losing a beloved spouse, parent, child or friend. When someone professionalizes it, someone else finds a new way to de-professionalize, and personalize it.
This “living wake” sounds fascinating. I’m going to further look into that.
The whole economics of the death industry haven’t changed much since Jessica Mitford wrote about them 50 years ago–that’s why her book remains so relevant today. I like how you say that people will find ways around this professionalization of the industry and do things their own way. So true!
I saw on Facebook that you sent something to Darlene. I’m glad you two connected!
Loretta Ratajczyk said:
Smaller communities may not be aware of living wakes as here in the Twin Cities. Families celebrate the life of the soon to be deceased (present). Some with a party atmosphere!
Amy Kortuem said:
Isn’t it interesting where our expertise comes from?
If I were to do a writing workshop, I would have students write about their parents’ occupations (or lack thereof). I think whatever our parents do for a living influence us and shape our view of the world.
So cool. Can’t help but think your dad would get a kick out of you standing up there answering their questions like that.
I was thinking how much HE would have enjoyed speaking to a class!
Barbara Lawrence said:
What a fantastic course. Your comments on the new sterile environments of funeral homes brought back memories. Growing up in a Northern Wisconsin community, funeral homes always had families, living above them. I babysat five little boys whose home was above the funeral parlor. The families, attending visitations , Could here the putter patter of all those little feet and sense that life goes on in meaningful ways.
Some of my other memories were days spent with my mom and later my mother in law, taking walks through the cemetery, noticing, the gravestones of family and friends. These were not sad walks, but ones that recalled the merits of people’s lives.
I love the idea of little kids running around upstairs in a funeral parlor! Having that “life” in the funeral home I’m sure added lots of warmth.
Walking through cemeteries gives us a great chance to remember people and speak their names.
Loretta Ratajczyk said:
Does this class touch upon the deceased being waked in his/her own home years ago? I remember going to two; one when I was very young. Another memory is walking across the road from our house with my mother to my aunt & uncle’s house when his father died. We all went upstairs and into the bedroom where he was still lying in the bed. I was probably four years old.
I believe our society has santitized death.
I remember you telling the story of going across the road. Was that for Glen Bentley’s dad? What did you think about seeing the body there?
Loretta Ratajczyk said:
Yes, he was Glen’s dad. I remember it was peaceful. I can still see the bedroom. No sheet covering his head like you see on TV programs. For certain I wasn’t traumatized with my first experience of a dead person.