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Funeral Festivals in America

Funeral Festivals in America: Rituals for the Living

Jacqueline S. Thursby
Series: Material Worlds
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Funeral Festivals in America
    Book Description:

    When Evelyn Waugh wroteThe Loved One(1948) as a satire of the elaborate preparations and memorialization of the dead taking place in his time, he had no way of knowing how technical and extraordinarily creative human funerary practices would become in the ensuing decades.

    InFuneral Festivals in America, author Jacqueline S. Thursby explores how modern American funerals and their accompanying rituals have evolved into affairs that help the living with the healing process. Thursby suggests that there is irony in the festivities surrounding death. The typical American response to death often develops into a celebration that reestablishes links or strengthens ties between family members and friends. The increasingly important funerary banquet, for example, honors an often well-lived life in order to help survivors accept the change that death brings and to provide healing fellowship. At such celebrations and other forms of the traditional wake, participants often use humor to add another dimension to expressing both the personality of the deceased and their ties to a particular ethnic heritage.

    In her research and interviews, Thursby discovered the paramount importance of food as part of the funeral ritual. During times of loss, individuals want to be consoled, and this is often accomplished through the preparation and consumption of nourishing, comforting foods. In the Intermountain West, Funeral Potatoes, a potato-cheese casserole, has become an expectation at funeral meals; Muslim families often bring honey flavored fruits and vegetables to the funeral table for their consoling familiarity; and many Mexican Americans continue the tradition of tamale making as a way to bring people together to talk, to share memories, and to simply enjoy being together.

    Funeral Festivals in Americaexamines rituals for loved ones separated by death, frivolities surrounding death, funeral foods and feasts, post-funeral rites, and personalized memorials and grave markers. Thursby concludes that though Americans come from many different cultural traditions, they deal with death in a largely similar approach. They emphasize unity and embrace rites that soothe the distress of death as a way to heal and move forward.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4987-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-29)

    Contemporary American funerals often assume the character and roles of festival. That presents a paradox in conflict with traditional perceptions of ritual behaviors associated with death. Human beings characteristically invent and reinvent traditional folklife to suit their contemporary needs. With changes over time in cultural attitudes and behaviors, familiar traditional customs become intertwined with newly discovered or created practices, and new modes emerge.¹ The American character commonly adapts old ways to new, and the United States, a complex civilization made up of its own indigenous people and multitudes of cultures from around the world, has reinvented the response to death....

  5. Chapter One Funerals as Festivals The Irony of Festivity around Death and Its Americanness
    (pp. 30-43)

    There is a striking juxtaposition of mingled emotions in funerary behavior. Grief in sorrow for the absent loved one, and the joy that results from festive reunion and celebratory activities with close family and friends coalesce in the ritual responses to death. The events surrounding mourning, memorial or funeral rites, and burial or cremation require sober reflection and response, but for most contemporary Americans, that restrained period of introspection and sorrow doesn’t sustain itself for long. Our culture, overall, does not keep extended periods of mourning in practice. There is ongoing memorialization and commemoration in many of our varied cultural,...

  6. Chapter Two The Final Passage Rituals for Separating from Life
    (pp. 44-58)

    In a culture as diverse as the United States, the rituals for separating from life are also diverse and distinct. A commonality often referred to lies in the analogy of death and sleep. The living perform the utmost efforts to assist the dying to fall asleep in death as peacefully as possible. The dying very often consciously enter the liminal space between mortality as they have known it, and the ultimate finality of death, with a variety of responses. This still-mortal zone, before the heart beats its last, is a time of acceptance for some and deep resistance for others....

  7. Chapter Three Wakes and Other Amusements Frivolities around Death, Including Humor
    (pp. 59-78)

    At the pinnacle of a sacred ceremony, a christening, baptism, wedding, or funeral, there is, as discussed previously, momentary shared harmony. To laugh aloud at such a moment may be a temptation, but it simply isn’t done. In 1907, just past the Victorian age of dictated social propriety, James Sully wrote that at those very occasions “in which an unusual degree of solemnity is forced upon us” (Sully 1907: 9), we may be very tempted to laugh inappropriately. Peter Narvaez used Sully’s comment along with many others to demonstrate that laughter and humor occur frequently in relation to death. In...

  8. Chapter Four Funeral Biscuits and Funeral Feasts Foods for Hope and Comfort
    (pp. 79-115)

    Throughout the world, funeral rites and associated foods—even feasts—have been a traditional part of behavior associated with responses to the spiritual and sacred nature of death. With elements common to all cultures, foods affirm identity, strengthen kinship bonds, provide comfortable and familiar emotional support during periods of stress, and gently introduce outsiders to lesser-known culinary worlds. There are emotional and socially significant meanings of food, and common foods of the everyday table translate into cultural expectations and markers at signal meals. A common example of that relationship would be the bread and wine present at the lunch and...

  9. Chapter Five Mourners’ Rites After the Funeral
    (pp. 116-125)

    Jacques Derrida wrote reflective and eloquent letters of condolence, memorial essays, eulogies, and funeral orations in response to the deaths of many of his well-known colleagues and contemporaries. His associates were thinkers and scholars of international stature: Roland Barthes, Paul De Man, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, and others. They opened doors to the contemplation and understanding of language, mythologies, and ideological meanings for the twentieth century that continue to illuminate the very lives we live today. Derrida suggested that there are many solutions and responses to what has been called “following the death,” or “on the...

  10. Chapter Six Explaining the Festival and the American Way of Death Saying Good-bye
    (pp. 126-133)

    Americans are pragmatic people, and their views are sometimes so matter-of-fact as to be surprising to observers. I was told recently that in Chicago there is a boulevard with many funeral parlors along one side. Across from the mortuaries there are several restaurants with banquet halls that serve the post-funeral banquet needs. My acquaintance said that people talk about the restaurant they want for their own funeral banquet. She said that after a relative’s funeral followed by a dinner at one of the nearby halls, her sister remarked that she was not impressed with the meal and felt it was...

  11. Epilogue Looking Forward
    (pp. 134-141)

    It takes time to let go of a loved one. Some individuals firmly believe that bodies will be resurrected through the power of God; some people believe that bodies will be revived through the power of science. Some believe that the physical body will somehow be absorbed into a greater, universal whole; others believe that as long as people retain memory of living individuals, the metaphorical spirit of the departed individual lives. There is a folk belief that living memory of an individual lasts for about one hundred years. That is, at most, the longest time those living at the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 142-145)
  13. References
    (pp. 146-154)
  14. Index
    (pp. 155-158)