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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: End times: Last rites, rituals
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

    I learned a lot from teachers and colleagues who were cultural anthropologists. For example, we should not dismiss the unusual ways of people from other places or our own ancestors. Established patterns of behavior are not oddities born out of ignorance or superstition but shared solutions to issues of existence. Rituals are not empty forms; they meet deep and recurring needs, personal and social.

    Among the things that are changing currently are end-of-life rites and rituals —  in short, funerals. These include cremation instead of whole-body burial, graveside services rather than formal funerals and informal gatherings of families and friends with no format or message.

    Naturally, there are reasons behind these changes. One being the high cost of funerals. Cremation eliminates the cost of embalming, a casket and a concrete vault. Since many people prefer that the cremains (ashes) be scattered in some personally meaningful area, the costs of burial plot, marker and cemetery care also are eliminated. Simple graveside services also cost less than regular funerals and they seem to make sense when the deceased has few mourners left.

    My "absolutely no frills" paternal grandmother sometimes suggested that at death her remains be taken to the Jim hammock, an area of deep woods once owned by her father, and just left there for nature to run its course. I cannot think of anything less likely. I am so thankful for that funeral. A devastated 17-year-old pallbearer, I needed the opportunity to do one last labor of love for her. I needed to learn how to say goodbye, to learn to bear with unbearable loss. I needed the visible support of a big family and a whole community. Only once since have I wept more tears.

    Before the funeral is discarded like the horse and buggy, certain considerations are in order. Funeral rituals have been around a long time — thousands of years. Abraham bought a burial place for his family in the Promised Land. Archeologists report burials with grave goods among Neanderthal people perhaps 40,000 years ago. Funeral rituals are virtually universal. There must be reasons.

    Funerals make the loss real, give it a sense of finality and that is a necessary part of mourning. They provide a time and a framework for mutual support. They offer opportunities to express grief and grief is an inevitable response to the loss of a loved one. Funerals are the starting points for knitting back together the torn fabric of society — families, friendship circles, churches and communities. I remember my late wife's pledge to be "second mother" to nieces at the death of siblings and she certainly tried to do just that.

    I am familiar with the argument, "Mother would not want a whole lot of fuss being made." (My first, cynical thought is often, "Yeah, you don't want to spend the time or the money.") A better response is that in a sense, funerals are not for the deceased. Surely, a funeral is a time when love, honor and respect are elevated and expressed. But it does much more for survivors in dealing with their grief. The open support that comes from others, the strengthening of ties of kinship and friendship, positive steps taken in the grief process — these and more are positive functions of funerals for those left behind.

    My father had a friend named Sutton, a hunting buddy. His son, Jim, was a star football player at Georgia Tech. Saturday afternoons Daddy listened to Tech games on his noisy battery-powered radio waiting for the announcer to say that "Slim Jim Sutton" had caught a pass. Jim was in the naval ROTC at Tech and dutifully shipped out on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific early in World War II. Like so many others, he was lost when the Yorktown was sunk. Mother was in Vidalia one winter day when a train brought home the body-filled caskets of servicemen who had been killed in the war. There near the tracks was Mr. Sutton, bare-headed in a cold wind, yearning for the body of a son so that he might give him the funeral that could never be.

    Death that involves loss or destruction of the body typically leaves survivors with a deep sense of irreparable loss, one which might be widely shared. Consider the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the destruction of the Twin Towers. The continuing effort to recover and properly inter remains of servicemen killed in various wars is sometimes successful and is always met with deeply grateful family members, even years after the person died. Funerals are important to those who mourn.

    Sometimes the need for a funeral to express mourning goes beyond family and friends to the community, even the nation. Ours has known its share and more. The death and funeral of President Kennedy held my wife and me captive in front of the television, not just because of our own sense of shocked loss but also because it seemed that the whole country was weeping on the street where passed the funeral cortege with its rider-less horse. But, because of the order and the ritual, we also were assured that the nation would heal, scarred but whole.

    It is important that heroes be given honorable funerals. Those who have been served must be grateful to the bottom of their beings for those who served them. When that respect and gratitude die, the fabric that binds together community and society disintegrates. Precisely-performing people in dress uniforms must carry caskets, fold flags, fire salutes and play "Taps." Those who do not find their breath catching in their throats at some part of this solemn ritual ought to wonder why. Funerals are opportunities to honor our heroes and to properly align our souls.

    Some years ago, I conducted the funeral service for B.E. Sikes in Cobbtown. He had mostly grown up out in the country but joined the Army while still in his teens and only returned for visits. The youngster almost immediately found himself in Korea and fought in a lot of places afterwards. He was often wounded and much decorated, but only one of his brothers, also a soldier, ever knew that he was one of the most highly-decorated soldiers ever to serve his country. Then, I knew but that was not what he wanted me to talk about. I just touched on it and spoke of his homecoming.

    The Army sent a crack honor guard, all spit and polish, to carry "Runt's" body and perform the rest of its rituals. There, at home in the cemetery with much of his family and some of mine, I led a crowd in saying a prayerful goodbye. Then, rifles cracked and somewhere down beside a pond a bugler played "Taps" for a quiet hero. It was the funeral for which my grandmother's had prepared me. Funerals are important.


    Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.



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