Art by April Caverhill
Each of us has his own rhythm of suffering. —Roland Barthes
The day after her beloved father-in-law died‚ May* sat in the funeral home beside her husband and mother-in-law. Her father-in-law’s body had been transported from the hospital to this place‚ as is common practice‚ right after he was pronounced dead. He was now laid out behind a door somewhere in the building. The funeral director sat across from the three of them and asked if anyone wanted to see the body. No‚ thank you‚ said her mother-in-law. No‚ said her husband. In the Buddhist community of Bangkok where May was raised‚ death is openly talked about from the time that children are very young as a part of the natural cycle of death and rebirth. When someone in the community dies‚ their body is brought to the temple‚ where it will rest for seven to ten days before cremation.
During this time‚ the family and community are welcomed to the temple. The body is dressed and laid in an open casket‚ with one hand outstretched. Each griever can pour a small amount of water in their loved one’s hand‚ and has one last chance to say Goodbye‚ or I forgive you‚ or I’m sorry. In order to provide teaching and wisdom around grief and death‚ the monk speaks every evening to the friends and family that have gathered. Grievers are helped through their sadness with prayers and wisdom‚ and they are given time to see and accept that their family members are truly no longer there.
Grievers are helped through their sadness with prayers and wisdom, and they are given time to see and accept that their family members are truly no longer there.
So when the funeral director asked May if she would like to see her father-in-law‚ even though she was unsure what her family would think of her decision‚ she said that yes‚ she would. She left her husband and mother-in-law in the office‚ and she
took some time to see her father-in-law‚ to tell him that she loved him—something that she was not able to do when he was alive. For May‚ this last visit was essential to her own grieving process‚ and would allow her to move on in the coming weeks and months.
After May and her family left the funeral home‚ they no longer had access to her father-in-law’s body. There was no wake‚ and no chance to see him again before the celebration of life and cremation. He was gone.
May’s experience is not unique‚ and it is not difficult to understand how there could be conflict or confusion between new Canadians coming from non-western cultures and their Canadian friends and families. When we look to the rituals in other places and religions around the world‚ we see that secular North Americans are unique in their hands-off approach. In traditional Jewish culture‚ for example‚ the body is laid out on the floor and covered‚ candles are lit‚ and the body is never left alone until after burial. Muslims traditionally wash and shroud the bodies of their loved ones with clean and scented water‚ and then wrap them in sheets of clean white cloth. It is also traditional Hindu custom to dress and care for family members before cremation.
North Americans have not always turned their loved ones’ bodies over to funeral homes to be embalmed, dressed, and cared for before cremation or burial.
North Americans have not always turned their loved ones’ bodies over to funeral homes to be embalmed‚ dressed‚ and cared for before cremation or burial. Prior to the American Civil War‚ most North American families held wakes and funerals for their dead relatives in their own homes. The bodies were cleaned and dressed by their closest family members‚ then laid out in front parlours for grievers to say goodbye before burial‚ and‚ interestingly‚ to make sure that the dead person actually was dead‚ and was not going to be buried while still alive (hence the word ‘wake’).
After this first grieving period‚ funerals were arranged by friends and family and held at home. In this much more rural time‚ many bodies were even buried right on the family property. This custom was private and very intimate‚ allowing families to grieve their loved ones in their own homes and with their own community. In this way‚ death truly was a part of life in the community.
During the Civil War‚ however‚ soldiers were fighting and dying a long way from home. By the time the soldiers’ bodies made it home again‚ they had already begun to decompose‚ making it nearly impossible for their loved ones to see them again.
Before long‚ leaders in both the Northern and Southern armies began to employ men who were trained as embalmers in order to preserve the bodies and ship them home. Now‚ bodies could be preserved and viewed for quite some time after their deaths—but only if they were prepared by trained professionals. This practicality was the seed that led to a multi-billion dollar industry‚ which sees most North Americans turning the bodies of their loved ones over to private companies to be embalmed and cared for prior to their funerals.
North American culture is such now that the very idea of washing‚ dressing and caring for the dead bodies of our own family members seems nothing short of radical to many people. There is‚ however‚ a growing movement of people who advocate for home funerals‚ believing that their intimacy‚ so similar to that experienced in many non-western cultures‚ can help immensely in the healing process. According to Heidi Boucher‚ a leading death doula in California‚ “We have done a really poor job of keeping the death ritual as part of the life cycle; when families can be involved‚ whether it’s dressing‚ or bathing or putting on the necklace she loved so much‚ these rituals really help with the grieving process in letting go.”
Growing up in a Buddhist community‚ May did experience the death ritual as a part of the life cycle. Not only that‚ but the process of letting go had always been personal‚ highly ritualized‚ deeply ingrained‚ and nearly the same for everyone. There was a script to follow‚ and everyone knew what had to be done.
Contemporary‚ secular Canadian culture‚ however‚ has no definite script‚ often making it very difficult for everyone involved to navigate‚ especially someone who is new to Canada. According to Robin Heppell‚ owner and chief consultant at Funeral Futurist in Victoria‚ there is “more conflict between agnostic families pertaining to the different choices of services since there are so many variables and service offerings to choose from.” He goes on to say that “ethnic or cultural families usually have the benefit of the funeral customs well laid out.”
Going through the death‚ celebration of life‚ and cremation of her father-in-law could not have been more different from the “well laid out” customs that May had known. Where there would have been a week-long wake‚ there was just a quick viewing in the funeral home. Where there would have been a funeral‚ there was a celebration of life in which friends and family told stories about her father-in-law when he was living‚ but did not talk about death‚ or grieving‚ or how to move on. Where there would have been community members present at the cremation‚ there was no one.
It was an incredibly difficult time for May as she tried to navigate these unfamiliar customs while dealing with her own grief and that of her family members. During the period after her husband’s death‚ May’s mother-in-law did not discuss how she felt‚ nor did she begin to make arrangements for how she was going to manage life without her husband. May describes seeing her mother-in-law and knowing that she was feeling deep grief‚ but being unable to help. “If she were my mother‚ I would have put my arms around her‚” she says. May’s husband didn’t discuss his grief or talk much about his father’s death either‚ and it seemed there was nothing May could do except be there beside him when he needed her. After all‚ cultural differences are not everything; every one of us‚ in some way‚ grieves our dead‚ and we all need someone to sit beside us through our grief.
*May's name has been changed for privacy reasons.
Erin comes from Canadian pioneers on one side, and Scottish gardeners and stone masons on the other. She grew up in a small town in the East Kootenays in British Columbia and has now been on the west coast for nearly twenty years. She is a freelance writer and garden designer living in Victoria B.C.
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