Historic Funeral Traditions in the News

A spontaneous funeral procession in New Zealand.

A spontaneous funeral procession in New Zealand.

This week in the news, you can find several funeral traditions that have been upheld, from the Catholic wake to the Dakota culture. In addition, one story portrayed a tradition that was upheld in a somewhat non-traditional way. From these stories, you may get some ideas on how you’d like to be remembered as well!

Waking Eunice Kennedy Shriver: The joy of an Irish wake: This is a lovely story, written by MaryEllen O’Brien, that speaks to the homage that Eunice Shriver’s friends and family paid to the memory of this woman upon her death last week. O’Brien also adds another word to the funeral dictionary to describe the wake – a vigil. The wake is what it is, however, and – fortunately – the Kennedy/Shriver clan believes in following tradition, even if it is held in a Catholic church. O’Brien states…

It was said the wake itself would continue all night, in true Irish fashion for this big Irish-American family. It is, after all, those still here who stay awake to tell stories, sing songs, recite poems, and share love. It is in the spirit, and spirituality, of the Celts to mark the passing of a loved one this way. The Irish wake was a bothersome thing historically to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church who went to great lengths to suppress it. All that darned revelry didn’t suit the official idea of the gravitas that should accompany death. But death to the Celts was cause for story, song, poetry and, yes, a drink or two or three or more. It was a party. Try as they might, the long-faced officials never succeeding in wiping out the wake. And still today the tradition carries on, in this land, the descendant of celebrations of transformation from the Old Country.

O’Brien wrote a book, called Living Well & Dying Well (Sheed & Ward, 2001). It was based on research she conducted for her masters thesis on the tradition of the Ars Moriendi, or the “art of holy dying.” It was a medieval “art” of living spiritually well, and thus being able to die a good and peaceful death. Leaving behind no messes, no regrets. Eunice Shriver was honored by several notable people during the wake, and you can watch some of the funeral activities at Shriver’s Web site.

Grace, tradition mark spiritual leader’s funeral: Although Deathcare.com offered some Native American funeral traditions previously, the number of tribes and their traditions are numerous. One way to learn about some traditions, such as those maintained by the Dakota culture, is to keep an eye on news events. This article talked about the life and funeral of William “Ambrose” Littleghost, who died on 1 August this year. Dorreen Yellow Bird writes about this funeral:

I knew Ambrose would be buried in the traditional manner but wasn’t sure what that meant. When I arrived at the Littleghost home the Wednesday before the funeral, the family’s big front yard was filled with cars. They have a two-acre homestead.

Around the back, there were two big, white shade tents – one with the giveaway goods and flowers, another with people sitting around visiting. There also were tables and chairs for visitors. Closer to the lake, a large white teepee was pitched next to Ambrose’s newly dug grave.

Ambrose was wrapped in a buffalo robe and lying atop a scaffold next to the teepee. A sweat lodge was to the right of the teepee, and men and women were milling around waiting for the sweat.

After I offered my condolences, I returned to my hotel room in Fort Totten, N.D. The next day, I was amazed as I came over a hill near the Littleghost’s homestead. The front yard was filled with cars; the “parking lot” spilled out of their yard onto both sides of the road. Not far away, family members were seated near the grave site while the other visitors and I sat near the house.

There was a pipe ceremony with several men participating. And while I couldn’t see other parts of the ceremony because I was so far from the service, I could hear a Dakota speaker.

When it was time to bury him, a color guard and several military people took part. Ambrose was a military man. As he was readied for the grave, the leader called out the names of military men present. The voice was loud. The soldiers answered in turn until the leader called “Ambrose Littleghost,” then waited and called again and again. The mourners were silent.

A young woman in front of me began to cry quietly, and one of the men behind me had tears running down his stoic face. Then, the salute with guns over the grave echoed over the area.

I could see the long, white hair of, I believe, Ambrose’s old friend and fellow spiritual leader, Rick Two Dogs. Anna told me he would conduct the ceremony with help from others.

The casket was lowered into the new grave by rope handled by several young men. The crowd then filed passed the grave, dropping dirt into it. Lastly, we gave our condolences to the family.

Procession a Merry way to go:Finally, a funeral procession reminiscent of the traditional Jazz Funeral caught my eye in this story from New Zealand. While this procession carried many similarities to that New Orleans-type burial procession, you’ll see that few if any members of that procession could claim origins in Africa (see image in link to story). According to the article, Mr. Merry – the deceased – was the events coordinator for the Nelson Arts Festival, an organizer for the Summer in Nelson festival events such as the Lantern Spectacular and the Buskers and Street Theatre Series.

The procession was filled with people who loved and admired Mr. Merry. The church where the funeral was held (Christ Church Cathedral) seems to be a bit off the beaten path, too, in its offerings – so this funeral seemed to fit Mr. Merry in death as well as in life. After the funeral service and procession, a gathering to share memories was held at Fairfield House, which included “music, a shadow puppet show and storytelling.” A nontraditional funeral and wake, based upon traditional formats.

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