By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A coffin resembling a cream donut brightened a New Zealand man’s funeral. His cousin has sold dozens of light-hearted, celebratory coffins based on everything from sailing to LEGO® bricks. American funerals vary, but they are usually more solemn.
A coffin maker in Auckland, New Zealand, has gained traction for his personalized, eye-catching coffins. While some have resembled sailboats or packaged chocolate bars, the coffin he built for his cousin resembled a cream donut and was shaped like a hot dog. Its style generated gasps among funeral attendees—followed by laughs. His coffin styles suggest a trend toward more positive, celebratory funerals.
Over the centuries, cultural traditions have become increasingly decentralized as trade ships and aircraft have brought the world to our doorsteps. Death rituals are no different. The diversity of nationalities in North America make for different kinds of funerals.
Which trends have developed in the past? In his video series Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures, Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, said that United States funeral practices can be divided into several distinct periods.
Dr. Berkson cited a popular division of funerals into three periods: the traditional, the modern, and the post-modern.
“As an example of a traditional death ritual, historian David Stannard’s description of a Puritan funeral is helpful,” he said. “According to Stannard, the process began with the washing and dressing of the body at home by family members—a practice that was shared by other Christian denominations, as well as by Judaism and Islam.
“The body was made available for viewing in the home or at church; mourners would gather and prayers would be said.”
Following this, the body would be buried within a few days, at which point mourners would reconvene for further prayer, condolences, and food.
On the other hand, the modern Christian American way of death, which is shared by Americans of other traditions, is largely delegated to specialists, while the family is directly involved only to the smallest extent. These specialists prepare and dress the body, bury it, and arrange the funeral to the family’s specifications—a trend which owes to the Civil War.
Dr. Berkson said that, during the Civil War, families wished for their sons’ bodies to be sent back home. To do this, a Union doctor developed the practice of embalming, which then spread throughout the country and extended past the war.
“As the practice of embalming spread, it began to shape the funeral industry,” he said. “Embalming required special facilities, and therefore gave rise to the funeral home. The undertaker, whose job previously had been focused largely on preparing bodies for burial, became the funeral director.”
The most common structure of the modern Christian approach to death, he said, is a rapid removal of the corpse to a funeral parlor, embalming, institutionalized viewing, and disposal by burial. Jews and Muslims often eschew embalming due to religious tradition.
Ironically, the post-modern period of funerals in America recalls the traditional practices in several ways.
“In an effort to re-personalize death, people are seeking to participate more in the funeral process and the memorialization of their loved ones,” Dr. Berkson said. “This new approach rejects the complete professionalization of death rituals and gives loved ones a more active role. It also moves away from a one-size-fits-all model of funerals to something far more individualistic.”
Post-modern funerals retain other elements of traditional funerals, like prayer and scripture readings. However, according to Dr. Berkson, the focus of the funeral service is more personal and intimate than in the past. He mentioned giving eulogies; telling stories about the deceased; and weaving in music, poetry, and artwork that express the deceased’s personality. He said that these practices not only reflect the nature of the deceased, but also help bring family and friends together to grieve during the preparation and execution of the funeral.
While a cream donut coffin may be a bit extreme for some, it does fall in line with the personalized nature of post-modern funerals.