Wednesday, November 12, 2008

You Can Take it With You

Paper house for burning

They say that you can't take it with you when you die. Well, I'm here to tell you that you can. Many times, families ask me if they can place some special item in the casket along with their loved one. I tell them that not only can they, I encourage people to place something special in the casket- especially children. Children feel loss just as we do, but they are often not as skilled at expressing their feelings. It can mean a lot for a child to place a special toy, or photo, a drawing or a letter in grandma's casket. If there are several grandchildren who'd like to do this, we can even make a moving ceremony out of placing the special items. This helps children acknowlege and work through their grief, and it helps adults too.

Joss money for the afterlife (yes that's LBJ on the front)

I have assisted families in placing many things in caskets; fishing poles, photos, cigarettes and beer, jewelry and handkerchiefs, masonic aprons, blankets, candy and playing cards, even the cremated remains of pets and spouses. Sometimes it's a private thing that no one else knows about, sometimes it's a public ritual, but it always makes the family feel better. They feel that they have done one last thing for their loved one, and that somehow, in some way that person knows it and is smiling.

I know how they feel, because during my work, I feel that I am doing something for the deceased- that I am giving them one last gift of caring. It makes me feel good, and I think that somehow, somewhere, that person knows that they were treated with reverence.

This tradition of sending gifts along with the deceased has probably taken place as long as people were people. The earliest graves that have been found bear traces of tools, flowers, and other items intended for the next world. Certainly the Ancient Egyptians are well known for the lavish gifts entombed with their pharohs. The ancient Greeks placed a coin in the mouth of the deceased to pay for their soul to be ferried across the river Styx.

An ancient tradition that exists to this day is the burning of Joss money or

'Hell Bank Notes'

These are notes used in traditional Asian ancestor veneration to ensure that spirits have lots of good things in the afterlife. These bank notes are well known for their outrageously large denominations and most feature an image of the Jade Emperor, and his Western signature (Yu Wong, or Yuk Wong) countersigned by Yan luo, King of Hell (Yen Loo). The back of each bill usually features an image of the bank of Hell. Some bills will depict famous or mythological people instead.
In Chinese mythology, the name of hell does not carry a negative connotation. The hell they refer to is Di Yu (underground hold/court). Di Yu is a maze of underground levels and chambers where souls are taken to atone for their earthly sins. The popular story is that the word hell was introduced to China by Christian missionaries, who preached that all non-Christian Chinese people would "go to hell" when they died. It was then believed that the word "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife. Some notes omit the word "hell" and sometimes will replace it with "heaven" or "paradise".
These notes often depict different images for decoration or to convey symbolic information. There are several ways to send Spirit Money to one's departed relatives -- it can be thrown to the winds during the funeral procession, left on a grave at any time, or burned in ceremonial fires. -from

Burning paper models - from Mercedes-Benz cars to houses - is a common practice at funerals in Taiwan. As many Taiwanese people believe the world spirits go to in the afterlife is a mirror of the human world, they also believe that the departed require a place to live, food to eat and money. Burning an object at a funeral in the human world transports it to the spirit world, which keeps the ghost of the departed happy and brings luck to the living.
"The tradition can be traced back to the Tang dynasty," says Tseng Kuang-hsing (曾光興), owner of Jixing Paper Art Co (吉興紙藝有限公司).

Beer is an item that is often placed in caskets by loved ones in Wisconsin

My wife has a very specific list of things that she wants to go with her. She wants her purse, a note pad, pencil, pen, Chanel No. 5 powder, compact, lipstick, handkerchief, gum, her pillow, a bottle of water, the New York Times, her shoes, the key to the casket, a small shovel, and a copy of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past- as she will finally have a chance to read it.

Of all the things people send along, and sometimes they are a bit sheepish and ask me if their items seem unusual, the only thing that has surprised me is how many people put mashmallow Peeps in the casket. I never knew anyone actually ate those things, much less loved them enough to take them along to the bosom of Abraham. One thing is for sure, they'll last for a long long time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Peeps? What a surprise! I've heard of beer, bullets, and Playboys...but never Peeps!

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.


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