The Web’s Crappiest Content: Would You Read About Funerals?

The Web’s Crappiest Content: Writing Stinkers

Humor in Posts, It's what's Expected

It’s Tough To Find Good Funeral Humor…

These words may have saved your blog-reading life today.

I’d been working on the follow-up post to my  Scones  piece with some difficulty.

I knew what I wanted to get across- thoughts about the interesting ways cultures deal with funerals and such- but I just wasn’t feeling the message, the delivery, or the way it would make you feel (if you stuck around long enough to finish it at all!)

Whew! Talk about crappy content!

Aren’t you glad I didn’t just hit “publish” and let you fend for yourself? (pause for decision-making thought processing… ok that didn’t take long!) But, yes, I agree.

When I read a totally unrelated article on focusing on how you feel after reading my words, it finally clicked.

That’s the point: You want to take away something interesting, unique and useful, but not a total downer, though let’s face it, there’s only so much we can do with death and dying, right?

I still think the cultural comparison is interesting, even worthy of a post- after all we talk (a lot!) about birth, life, parenting, business, and retirement abroad, but only rarely do we ever mention the different ways other cultures handle the inevitable- and, no, I’m not talking taxes here. I’m referring to the other of life’s two certainties, the “final frontier”.

Americans are notoriously squeamish about talking about end of life issues, and I certainly don’t want to get into DNRs (Do Not Resuscitate instructions) and the like, but I do think it’s interesting how old cultures have evolved in their beliefs and grieving processes.

The funeral I helped with over this past weekend was very interesting. It was a combination of cultures and traditions. I was able to stand as an observer- I was a friend of hers, but only knew of him, so my emotional situation was different- I was feeling her loss as much as profound empathy for a friend.

So I mentally recorded my observations of how an American/Scots memorial went, and compared that to funerals I had been to in Azerbaijan, which were a combination of Muslim and/or sometimes Soviet customs and traditions.

I wanted to answer 3 questions:

  1. How does a “Western” type remembrance differ from “Eastern” (Christian vs Muslim, new world vs old world)?
  2. How does this affect our grief process- does one allow grieving to happen more naturally or stifle the process?
  3. And, lastly, what did I take away that might change how I want to deal with my own or my husband’s final wishes?

What follows are snapshots of thoughts and observations…

Remembering, Sunday Afternoon

It was 12:15, time to go. During the 25 minute drive, I kept thinking about what today would be like. He was American; she was European (Scottish). He was gone, so she made the decisions. What traditions would prevail today, the day of final decisions.

Death and Dying, White Flowers: Symbols of Western Gried

I arrived to the church social hall and found two men in black suits setting up the tables with chairs for the “tea” reception after the memorial service. I wondered if people would sit sedately, or if this would be more like a cocktail party with old friends standing and mingling. Would this be like an Irish wake or more Scots Presbyterian, somber and reserved.

Ladies arrive, friends, and friends of friends, all dressed in black dresses, black stockings, and black heels.  The only contrast was the occasional strand of white pearls.  I was concerned that I should have worn a dress too. Is it proper to be here in pants?

I was bringing my scones and clotted cream, and the best strawberry preserves I could find.

As the platters of sandwiches and fruit began to arrive, I headed toward the kitchen. I had “signed up” to help set up, deciding what went on the tables, and what went into the fridge for re-stocking as the guests came. “How are we going to heat the quiche?” someone asked. “Here are more strawberries.” Flowers would be arriving soon.

Once we got the mountains of food and rivers of coffee organized, I slipped away to join the memorial service in the church itself.

The casket arrived and was being brought in by the pallbearers- eight men, all West Point (Military Academy, US Army) classmates 40 years removed, now clad in the black suit uniform of civilian life, yet forever a Band of Brothers. There was a program, with a picture of him in a full on dress kilt looking splendid in his jacket- he must have been of Scots heritage as well.

As our voices shared hymns and scriptures, as prayers were offered, I drifted off, remembering different funerals I had attended in Baku. Comparing and contrasting the traditions and customs. Thinking back, I remember being startled by the differences in mourning and grieving.

Being Culturally Sensitive

Sensitivity… Not our strongest suit as Americans. Why, I don’t really know. Maybe it’s because America is so big that we forget or don’t learn that there are other cultures around who don’t do things in the same way. Case in point…

When the grandmother-of-the-neighbor-of-my-secretary’s-mother passed, she (my secretary, not the grandmother..) requested time off work to help cook. Say what? I didn’t understand, and I asked her if she was serious. The blank look and her tilted head told me I had just stepped in a steaming pile of cross-cultural cow-pies. (Odd how often we in America use foreign terms to disguise crap- “deep kimchi”, “caca”,”merde!” you get the idea- but, I know I need to be more sensitive, and this would likely be offensive in someone else’s language. Apologies for that.)

In Azerbaijan, as in many Muslim countries, it’s the custom to cook for the family and guests, which often means half the city. It took a lot of preparation, it took a long time to cook, and it took a lot of dishes to feed people.  Women relatives and friends would come. Not that they might “volunteer” to help out; no, it’s what they do. Some would cook, and other women would just wash dishes and reuse them. All day long. Provided they had water available.

Think about this: You know the family will serve more than a hundred of their nearest and dearest. No paper plates, forks or spoons; no plastic cups; no disposable table covers. Everything is china or glass or metal. So you wash. All. Day. Long. Again, and again. Because tradition requires it. It’s who you are.

The Way of Life In A Foreign Land

Old Style Samovar for Azerbaijan funeral-Old school... no electricity here

Old school… no electricity here

We always knew when someone had died: The road was completely blocked with a huge green canvas tent, like the army uses as a chow hall.  The walls are always hung with huge room size carpets; the pavement is covered with carpets.

The men come early in the morning and drive steel pipes into the ground  to hold the dozens of tent ropes, so not only can you not drive down the street, but walking past is treacherous as well.

In addition, there were many times when multiple mourning events were going on in a neighborhood. That’s a nightmare for taxis and drivers with so many narrow one way streets and two or more streets being blocked by funeral tents. Sometimes it took a mile or two around a city section just to get across town. But everyone deals with it; it’s the way of life.

In Azerbaijan, the funeral tents signal the mourning time has come. The mourners begin to arrive. Sometime these are paid wailers, sometimes they are family members or friends who have been entrusted with this task. Samovars are set to fire and when the coals are white-hot embers, the water is scalding; a concentrated tea is steeped- no bag tea for these. The teapot sits atop the samovar and when guests are offered tea, a light ratio of tea concentrate to hot water is poured- it will be this way all day and into the night.

How They Do It In Baku

Sometimes there is Mugham singing, a mournful sound, but usually just food, tea, mourning and wailing. The Imam will come and bless the family and the deceased.

  • Traditionally, when a person is buried (no cremation), the grave is covered with ground, then water is poured on the grave and seven times a handful ground is dropped on it and prayed over.
  • Afterward, all the close relatives of the deceased will stand in a row, and all men at the graveside give condolences (respects) to the deceased. When condolences are given, these words are said: May God have mercy on the deceased. May Allah protect all lives from trouble. God bless them.
  • Significant days of mourning are on the third,  seventh,  and fortieth day, then again at one year.
  • The third day is traditionally the day of the tents, tea and tears.  The spirit of deceased visits home to be close to the souls of relatives. In this case, in order to comfort the spirit of the deceased, “Yasin” from Koran is read, and prayers are prayed.
  • The number “Seven” also has a symbolic meaning as the “time of freeing from evil spirits of the deceased (inkir-minkir). Special prayers and observances are made at 7 days after.
  • Just as tradition offers 40 days of rest after the birth of a baby (to allow the baby to fully separate from its mother and become full of life), it also takes 40 days to be separated from everything in this world. The opinion of spiritual scholars about the link of 40 days with spirit is that during the 40 days the spirit of dead man stays between worlds, a little above the layer of the atmosphere.
  • During the “forty days” period, the spirit of the deceased gets accustomed to this separation by staying away from the physical body. Regardless of the variation of world visions related to “forty days,” in Muslim world this mourning day is marked more extensively than other previous mourning days (3rd, 7th days). Those who participated in funeral are again invited to this mourning day. By going to mourning, participants pay their last respects to the deceased.

Tradition versus Comfort

When my mother passed, I remember shifting into auto-mode: arrange the service, send letters to everyone who wasn’t local to let them know, help my step-father sort through belongings to keep and those to go, deal with the Will and distribution of property.

Grieving wasn’t on the list. There was no time, it wasn’t right to fall apart- tradition said I had to be strong for my step-father and siblings, to be the organizer of details.

As a result, I really lost it at the next funeral I attended (nearly 7 years later), owing to being “allowed” to finally feel (and process) those emotions.

At the service Sunday, the clergyman made a statement that I thought was good.

He said, “Death often causes us to rearrange our mental furniture.”

He said the end of life isn’t comfortable for Americans to talk about, but we need to. We need to consider how it’s done and what it means to us as survivors. We need to “rearrange our mental furniture” to get a fresh start, to see things in a new way, to bring energy to go on.

I like that concept. It works for me… I think about the cultures I have witnessed, lived in and which have become part of me through friendships and memories. I think about my American “mental furniture arrangement” and now better understand that every time I visit a new culture, I need to make room and be willing to do some mental furniture arranging.

New furniture in a new country is part of being someplace different.

Re-arranging furniture from time to time is a necessary part of life, just as the eventual end of life is too. Maybe we can find room for both new and old and gain perspective from each.

That’s my ultimate Life Lesson…

4 thoughts on “The Web’s Crappiest Content: Would You Read About Funerals?

  1. This is an important topic well-handled.It’s very important to be sensitive to cross-cultural aspects of funerals.

    I was thinking about death and funeral traditions this morning. We came upon a funeral in the hill town of Pierrefeu-du-Var today while exploring. The people who gathered seemed so warm. Several smiled at us as we walked up the hill past the church to the overlook. They felt like such an open-hearted bunch that I wanted to walk into the churchyard and make friends. I listened for the bells while I was there but didn’t hear them. The flavor of that funeral gathering made me feel I could live there.

    I miss the funeral bells from St Jacques in Perros-Guirec. Those rang a slow simple tune that made me weep every time. Something as simple as he way the church bells sound can be a deep thread in the tradition of death.

    Keep writing.


    • Alice- Thanks so much for the encouragement. It was hard to know what tone to take, how much would our readers see in the cultural differences. I’m glad that came through in some measure.

      I appreciate you sharing the village scenes. Interesting that St Jacques in Perros-Guirec tolls their bells vs. Pierrefeu-du-Var that didn’t seem to incorporate them. Any idea why? Perhaps a product of being in opposite regions of France, maybe local custom rather than overall tradition?

      My take away from all this was that the “old countries” in Europe seem to have a much better grasp on life, and by extension, death. Their cultures are so old that a human life by perspective is a link in a long chain of events. Whereas in the United States it seems that we live in the short-term now so much that our equilibrium gets upset when a piece is removed from the game board.

      Your new way of life, exploring and discovering a slower pace, sounds… well, I was going to say almost ideal, until I remembered your new “Everything’s Noted” post… definitely not ideal there. But in general, once you have your basics sorted, it sounds like life there has a lot to offer. I hope you get to settle in and enjoy it for a long time.

      Let’s both keep writing- and sharing, yes?



      • Jonelle,

        I think this is ideal. I’m simply uncertain of my ability to navigate this with success. As a French friend of mine commented, he believes I’m looking in the wrong part of France to find France.

        I think a lot about the cultural differences between the “old country” (as my dad calls this) and the “new world”. Although there are very different pieces on each game board (old and new), the “old country” is rapidly catching up with the culture of the “new world”. Different areas are “catching up” at different rates. It seems to depend on their financial utility in the world market. More money potential has them more Americanized.

        They bells sound different. The bells in Peros-Guirec sound older, lower toned and heavier sounding. Here the bells are lighter sounding and swing faster. Perhaps it’s a difference in bells. (?)

        Every life has rough patches to work through. And I’m a determined beaver (from Oregon).

        Yes. Let’s keep writing and sharing. I especially have a lot to learn from your experiences in light of returning to America and processing it all.
        All the best.


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