On January 23, I wrote about the transition from in-home wakes to wakes being held at funeral homes. Probably very few among us remember wakes being held in the home (and if you have attended in-home wakes, I would love to hear from you!).
Now, our funeral homes are undergoing transition, too—they are becoming less “home”-like and more like community centers.
When I was growing up, Waseca’s two funeral homes—Kinder Home for Funerals and Sandberg Funeral Home—were located in actual houses. The funeral director lived in the funeral home. Sandberg Funeral Home, in particular, was a lovely late 19th century house on Waseca’s Main Street. If you’ve ever seen HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” that was a little like Sandberg’s (except the TV funeral home was larger).
I haven’t been to real funeral “home” in a long time. In Waseca, the Sandberg home was torn down to make way for a more modern, one-story facility with plenty of parking. The Kinder-Dennis Funeral Home is still in the same building, but extensive remodeling on the inside also makes it look more like a community center.
In the Mankato area, the Mankato Mortuary owners opened a new facility a few years ago on North Mankato’s hilltop. From the outside, it looks like an Arts & Crafts style house:
The inside is quite neat and practical. It has homey features such as comfortable chairs, couches, and paintings on the walls. It’s a big space with a couple of viewing rooms, restrooms, and a large kitchen/reception area. It’s this kitchen/reception area that makes me think of a community center. In my opinion, it’s just a matter of time before people start to hold weddings, anniversary parties, or other open houses at the facility.
I realize that the funeral “homes” of the past left much to be desired—little room for parking, no private space for the family, no private space for kids to be “hidden” away, small restrooms, and no kitchen area to provide refreshments for families who might be there for hours.
But this move to modern facilities seems like another step away from the “home” atmosphere that can make a space inviting and comforting. Today’s funeral homes are becoming ever more sterile and their size and many rooms can create separations.
I would love to see a daring entrepreneur build a funeral home that harkens back to the past. I would love to see a daring funeral director live in the home with his/her family. I would love to see a young funeral director make the choice to stay in a stately old funeral home rather than tear it down to build a modern facility. We lose something important when that “homey” atmosphere goes away.
A Texas friend told me that when her father died they had an at-home viewing and wake. I think that was in the 1950s and she said it was very common. Friends in Oregon rented an apartment above a funeral home while the husband was finishing college in the early 1970s. He was often asked to help transport bodies or move them into the viewing rooms. Our two primary natural life processes, birth and death, have been de-personalized as if we need to be spared from experiencing them.
We definitely are in the process of removing death further and further from our every day lives. With births, though, I think there is a weirdly personal emphasis on it these days! Look at the lengths people will go to send out birth announcements or have what I see as crazy birth experiences. I think there’s a story in there somewhere for me to explore!
Amy Kortuem said:
I don’t think many people today have the fortitude to live in a home where death is so present, all the time. Perhaps even the most daring of funeral directors. As a society, we are so removed from death as a part of the natural life cycle. Where the at-home funeral was once a normal, healing, warm farewell to the deceased, I think people would now consider it “creepy” or “haunted” – don’t you think?
I definitely agree. I remember this great scene from “Six Feet Under” where Nate was in Italy or somewhere and witnessing a funeral. The grief and emotion of the family members was so raw; the women were wailing. He wished we could have that here, but we are encouraged to keep our emotions tamped down and private.
Those are some great ideas at the end of your post. I’ve never been to any home experience other than “get togethers” after the funeral at the home. These are not really wakes even.
I, too, have only gathered at homes after funeral services. I guess that’s what we’re left with today. At least there is some type of home gathering for friends and close family. I think the comforts of home offer something important to everyone during times of loss.