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Funeral and Memorial Practices - How Will This Person Be Remembered?

cemetery markers web grave

For many centuries, grave markers have served as the primary physical reminder of a life lived. Grave markers and cemeteries have undergone dramatic changes since the mid-1800s. Four places of interment existed in the United States before the nineteenth century: isolated pioneer graves; family farms; churchyards; and potter's fields (for the indigent). In his book, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (1991), D. C. Sloane traces the history of the American cemetery including the advent of the rural cemetery of the early 1800s, with its winding lanes and ornate headstones in a natural garden setting; the development of the lawn cemetery, which became popular following the Civil War, with its park-like landscaping and prescribed markers; and the establishment of memorial parks in the 1920s and 1930s, which all but removed the impression of death from the premises by requiring semiuniform flat grave markers that do not interfere with the suburban landscape. (The use of flat markers lowers maintenance costs because lawn mowers can do the work that was previously done by hand). Each type of cemetery reflects the prevailing ideas about the appropriate balance between nature and art, ownership, community inclusiveness, and the relationship between the living and the dead.

Grave-marker inscriptions have also followed trends. Up until the eighteenth century, most burials occurred in churchyards in small towns. Churchyard epitaphs functioned as constant reminders of the transitory nature of human life. "The most common epitaph was 'Where you are now, so once was I. Where I am now, so you will be"' (Jackson and Vergara, 1989, p. 10). By the mid-nineteenth century, Victorian epitaphs reflected more emphasis on the self. "Individual responsibility for the salvation of one's soul, which to some degree supplanted the dominance of the mother church, led to highly individual expressions of faith and grief. . .and a new preoccupation with the grieving family left behind" (Brown, 1994, p. 4).

Contemporary choices for epitaphs run the gamut from simply stating name and birth and death dates to explanations of genealogy and reflections of the decedent's past times. Examples of the latter include the following epitaphs found in a Midwestern cemetery, "I'd Rather be Drag Racing" and also "World's Greatest Trucker" (Brown, 1994).

Aside from grave markers and monuments, there are many other ways in which loved ones have been memorialized both in public and in private. Obituaries continue to notify the community of a death and convey the impact of someone's life and death for the family and community. Memorial photographs of the deceased remain important private possessions, although seldom shared outside the immediate family. Mourning jewelry containing pieces of hair from the decedent was popular in the Victorian era. Today, mourners can purchase a locket containing the cremated remains of a loved one.

Information technology has facilitated changes in memorialization. Video memorial tributes, with family photos set to music, are available through funeral homes, and virtual cemeteries are found on the World Wide Web.

P. Roberts (1999) reports that the emerging Web cemetery is akin to a combination epitaph, obituary, and cemetery. "These sites provide a place to leave words and symbols memorializing the dead among tributes to others who have died" (p. 337). Visitors can leave virtual flowers or stones at markers, and they can sign a virtual condolence book as well. One visitor left this comment at a Web cemetery: "A wonderful idea for one to remember their loved ones. In cyberspace they are everywhere and no where and can be remembered by all" (Roberts, p. 356). Another cyber-visitor wrote: "Thank you for providing me a place where I can go for solace and comfort.. . .I never dreamed I would receive such gratification through cyberspace" (p. 346). Greater use of Web-based memorial practices (and other aspects of final arrangements) are sure to follow in the coming decades as the World Wide Web continues to transform life, and death.

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