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!