Sunday, February 26, 2012

Funeral Procession Passes Through Farm, Boys Share Casket

Tractor pays silent tribute to Farmer during procession 

Actual undertaking has occupied all of my attention in the last weeks as the communities I serve said goodbye to some of our oldest and youngest members.  They were all very different services, but like the two stories that caught my attention in the news recently, ritual and participation helped to make them meaningful and healing.

In rural New Jersey, the funeral procession for 86 year old farmer, Jerry Cervenka wound its way through his farm and lifelong home on the way to the cemetery.  The procession is one of the oldest of funerary traditions, and presents a wonderful opportunity for personally meaningful rituals.  In Mr. Cervenka's case, the tractors and farm trucks, many that had been a part of his  daily life for decades, were lined up to pay silent tribute to Mr. Cervekna as he visited home one last time.  Borrowing a page from Victorian rituals, the lead tractor was draped in a black cloth.  
I have been involved in many processions like farmer Cervenka's that took 'the scenic route'.  Sometimes it is a loop around the farm, sometimes a last stop at the lake house or business.  They have been done on the way to the funeral, on the way to the cemetery, or even just a special drive taken the day before services.  In every case, they have been emotionally powerful reminders of what has been most important in life.  
Most notable in these rituals is their physicality.  The mourners in each case believed firmly that the spirit of the deceased was no longer one with it's earthly body, but bringing that body to the special places had meaning, just as carrying that body, or saying goodbye to it does.  Acting out these rituals physically has the power to transform our experience of the spiritual in ways that talking and intellectualizing just cannot accomplish.  This is why we gather physically to engage in ceremony along with the remains of the deceased.    

Stickers adorn the Powell boys' shared casket
In Puyallup, Washington, 7 and 5 year old brothers, Charlie and Braden Powell were lowered into the ground, sharing the same casket.   The victims of their father's murder/suicide, the emotional pain and grief involved was overwhelming for family, friends, and everyone involved.   

Certainly nothing in the funeral service could take away the tragedy or horror of what lead to the boys death.  Looking beyond the way things are usually done and burying the boys together, however, must have provided a level of comfort to the bereaved.  Participation in an improvised ritual, also helped the survivors express their love of the boys with a meaningful goodbye.    
   "A group of nine family members gathered around the casket for a dedication, before the boys’ aunts handed out Lightening McQueen stickers from the movie “Cars” as well as Spiderman decorations to adorn the sides of the casket.
The boys loved the characters, the family reminisced. But on the outside of the casket, only stickers of their favorite heroes were allowed. Villains from the movies on the sticker sheets were set aside in a conscious effort to keep them away from any more evil, even if the stickers only represented fictional characters." -Salt Lake Tribune

In funeral service, it is easy for directors and families alike to concentrate on getting things done efficiently, and demonstrating respect and reverence in familiar ways.  Straying from these norms in creative ways can be daunting and risky, but it has the potential to make the whole service more meaningful and memorable.  
Its easier to just drive straight to the cemetery, or go with convention and bury each boy in his own casket.  We might want to avoid the appearance of disrespect by covering a casket with children's stickers.  It is up to us as mourners, however to make the most of our expression of love; and it is up to us as undertakers to facilitate this expression.  

Please visit these related posts:

Together Forever  

Motorcycles and Mamas: Together Forever, Part 2

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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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