North American Death Rituals and Funerary Practices

North American Death Rituals and Funerary Practices

How urbanism affects funerary practices and death rituals?  If urbanism is affecting death rituals, we need to know in what way?  Is it adversely, beneficially, or perhaps neutrally? Funeral practices are evolving because of their urban or rural status. With this information, funeral directors can better serve the general populace through the grief process.

Urbanism is more than a sum of many people in one location, but rather a combination of factors that produces a distinct phenomenon.  Density and diversity of population are the main components of urbanism. First requirement for urbanism was the size of population. Large amounts of people in one location meant there were more variations of cultures and religions present. Sheer numbers, more racial and ethnic diversity is present in urban areas. Because there are so many urban individuals one person cannot know everyone. The sheer number of people present in urban settlements prevents deep interpersonal investment and results in what is deemed as “superficial” relationships. 

Around Portland metropolitan area there are contemporary funeral homes and crematoriums. The Oregon Historical Society and the Oregon Mortuary and Funerary Board have been invaluable venues of information for cemetery statistics. Because of the large number of people in small quarters and from diverse origins, urban dwellers are exposed to many different practices, and eventually attain a tolerance or an endorsement for those practices. A traditional funeral, like those common to the East Coast, Deep South and Midwest, includes a period of visitation (where mourners visit the dead and ascertain the reality of death), a funeral eulogy, and a procession to the grave plot located in the cemetery to inter the dead. 

Urban dwellers also have different funeral needs than their rural counterparts. Urban populations have a higher percentage of ethnically diverse residents: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, the list goes on. The corollary of that fact is that Caucasians in the United States are generally Protestant. Therefore, rural funeral needs are homogeneous and the funerary options are less diverse. For example, the Islam faith decrees the necessity of the body touching the soil when buried. In the United States, federal law states that the body must be enclosed in a box for public health reasons. Obviously, a conflict existed here. One local cemetery in Portland resolved this problem by placing the body in the casket but removed the bottom slats of the coffin upon burial so that the body would touch the soil yet be enclosed by U.S. standards. Many funeral homes in Portland would accommodate different funeral needs but the majority requested them in urban areas because a higher number of diverse individuals reside in urban settlements. In Portland, Lincoln Memorial Park and Funeral Home has a section for Buddhist burials; likewise, Finley-Sunset Hills Mortuary accommodates Muslim patrons. Another type of funeral needs stem from the type of death the disease experienced, and the subsequent grieving needs of the family and friends. In urban areas, residents experience higher rates of homicide, suicide, and AIDS. 

Some funeral homes provide brochures or refer survivors to support groups in the case of a specialized death. Whatever the response from the funeral home, it is clear that the higher rates of alternative types of death occur in urban areas because of the heterogeneous, large community found within and subsequently funeral directors in urban communities are presented with different funerary needs. Finally, urban funeral customs differ from rural ones because of the larger corporate funeral service presence.

Two major trends will present themselves within the next twenty years. Indeed, some are already present in Portland. They are space, and the impact of new applications of existing or invented technology. Space for urban cemeteries will be an even bigger problem than it is now. Abroad in England, the authorities of the densely crowded nation have authorized the re-use of graves, meaning that more than one individual will reside in one grave and will be stacked upon one another. Cemeteries have got permission from surviving family members of the plots with related deceased to exhume the remains from grave plots in order to deepen the graves to house at least six more sets of remains, making a total of seven per plot.

Different funeral options are available in urban areas, that higher percentages of the urban population choose alternative funerary practices, that urban dwellers have different funeral customs than rural residents, and that corporate funeral homes have a stronger presence in urban areas, it can be concluded that urban funerary practices are different from rural customs. The conclusion is that funeral practices in urban areas are altered precisely because of the urban environment.

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