Monday, June 7, 2010

D.I.Y meets Death.

Make magazine, the glossy magazine dedicated the DIY movement, has a post on its online blog titled “DIY coffin making”.   Unfortunately the Make blog is having problems at the moment so I’m only able to read the introduction and the links to more information.  There are two links given, an article on Salon that inspired the Make blog, and a link to an article from Mother Earth News full of construction details

The article on Salon is short, poignant, with few practical details.  In it the author tells the story of his father’s death and how, as one of his last requests, he had asked his children to build his coffin.  The funeral home did not oppose this, so a coffin is built in an in-law’s garage.  The Mother Earth News article is a step by step general guide, no different than a “build your own garden shed” article.  Practical, simple, and upbeat. 

Historically, most coffins were hand-made and in the frontier days of the United States may have well been built by a family member.  Of course, undertakers, carpenters, cabinet-makers, and others made them as a commercial side-business.  The family would also be responsible for preparing the body for burial.  My grandmother used to regale us grandkids with tales of laying out a dead neighbor or relative.  The custom at the time was to sit up with the dead, and quarters or silver dollars were often placed on the deceased’s eyes.  While it’s tempting to link this tradition to the ancient Greek custom of providing the dead with coins to pay Charon for passage across the rivers Styx and Acheron, the truth (such as truth is) is more prosaic – the coins kept the eyelids closed.  My grandmother commented on how the imprint of the coins would remain visible on the eyes of the dead after the coins were removed prior to laying the dead out.  To lay out the dead meant to lay the deceased in a room of the house, sometimes in a coffin sitting on sawhorses, a table, or chairs.  The body was cleaned and dressed prior to this.  Neighbors and friends would come by to visit the family and close friends would sit with the family through the night.  Someone would “sit up with the dead” all night, keeping vigil.  Folklore has it that this tradition began as a way to ensure that the dead were truly dead.  It seems as good a reason as any, and once again blends the romantic and the practical. 

Because of these traditions there was an intimacy with death.  I suspect death was less often a lingering affair without modern medicine to prolong life in the face of disease or serious injury.  The dead were not theatrically costumed mannequins of themselves, instead, they were the vessel of the departed in a very intimate sense.   The same people who had loved, cared for, and cherished that person were the ones to prepare them for burial and saw first hand the process of transformation as a once living body became a corpse. 

During the 20th century, changes in the American way of death brought about a divorce of life from death.  Gone was the gradual transition from living, to unclean corpse, to cleaned deceased.  Instead one died, sometimes alone, one’s body was whisked away to be embalmed, painted, and restored to a lifelike appearance for a final viewing then burial.  In this change there is a chicken and egg problem – was this change brought about by changes in the culture of death or were changes in the culture of death brought about by this change?  Regardless, the new way of death became the cultural standard, set in law and practice. 

What intrigues me about articles such as the on in Make is the way they represent a change in the way death is perceived and handled.  It may well herald a return to a more intimate understanding of death, and an extended celebration of life in which the participation in the rituals surrounding death provide more ways for the bereaved to express their love, respect, and grief.  Obviously home-made markers in cemeteries fascinate me for the same reason, particularly those which are decorated using adapted materials such as broken tile, bits of mirror, and other objects. 

I’ve gone on an extended ramble here, but I think it is important to keep in mind that the culture of death, the ceremonies, traditions, rituals, and material goods used in memorializing and burying individuals varies throughout history.  As students of cemeteries and the material culture embodied within we can see tantalizing glimpses the past and the way in which people deal with one of the truly universal human experiences, death. 

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1 comment:

Anna Wilder said...

what a neat blog, Jonathan! As a fellow Graveyard Rabbit, I have often pondered on how )or indeed if) I myself would like to be buried. And it's so true: the way a people treats its dead does reflect on how it treats its living.