I talked to my mom on the phone over the weekend. While she does have a blog of her own, we both like getting the news in person. I got caught up with all the latest from Cedar Creek Township. Unfortunately, some of the news was rather sad. She mentioned a man died while deer hunting. My stepdad had to go to the funeral. Joe’s a veteran of the Vietnam War. He’s active in a number of veterans’ groups and a member of the Honor Guard. As a veteran of the armed forces, a person is eligible to have the Honor Guard attend their funeral, fold the flag and present it to the family and fire off a 21-gun salute in their memory.
The man died of a massive heart attack. The death was totally unexpected and the family didn’t have any last instructions to go on except one. Once he had said someone should shoot his ashes into the forest where he liked to hunt. So, the Honor Guard stood on the sidelines as the family loaded his old shotgun with his ashes. Each relative came up and solemnly shot off a charge in a different direction into the woods.
“It sounded kind of strange at first,” said Joe, “but it ended up being really nice.” It occurs to me the funeral rites we consider traditional were once just ad hoc guesses as to what the deceased wanted. When my brother died suddenly at the age of 22, we were in a similar bind. We ended up cremating his remains because once he had mentioned to me he didn’t want to be “worm food”. Maybe somewhere in the dim mists of the past, some guy mentioned it would be fine with him if they just stuck his body in a box when he died. Maybe someone else requested a brass band or asked his relatives to tell tales about him after he was gone. These things catch on in the world of the here and now. We had a lot of pictures of David, so I scanned them into my computer and had them as a slide show in the back of the visitation area. My grandma liked that so much, we did it again a year later when she passed away; scrolling through the pictures of her life while her beloved B.B. King played quietly in the background.
There are many, many funeral rituals around the world. They are as different as night and day. However, I believe most of them share one common theme: they attempt to fulfill the wishes of the person now dead. However, it is not really for the deceased, but rather for the people who remain behind. Honoring a promise to the dead reflects well on the survivors and it’s one of the first steps of healing in the long grief process.