You may have noticed that I haven’t written in a bit. I suppose it could be called a writer’s block but perhaps it was more. In the last two weeks, there have been eight of our friends and acquaintances who have passed away. Two of them were from our immediate neighborhood – which, in our rural area, means they lived within a mile or so. Obviously, we are at the age where we should expect this … but so many in such a short time … just doesn’t seem real. But it is. So we are left to process this sad news.
As with many other things, death is not treated the same way it was when we were growing up. Most funerals were held within three to five days. People lives were disrupted … but it was something that was expected from time to time, something that was important to do. Now funerals (often called memorial services) can be held weeks or months later – in great part because of the time needed for cremation but also making it more convenient for people to attend. The memorials can be scheduled on days convenient to the family. Some simply choose not to have any service or memorial. Further, some deaths are simply not reported publicly (except, of course, to the government).
Having no service or ‘service at a later date’ is the part that is difficult to process. For me, a funeral or memorial service is the place where your heart acknowledges what your brain knows. It is final; there will be no more conversations with that person. There will be no more joking around. There will be no more hugs. The funeral or memorial services becomes the official start to the grieving process.
All of this started me thinking about the past. Growing up Lutheran, funerals were a social event. No one was rejoicing because someone had died but they had learned to make the best of it – by preparing a substantial buffet-style meal that was served after the service.
Most of those attending the service would go to the cemetery for the burial service that followed. The ‘Church Ladies’ (members of one of more Ladies Aid groups) – all dressed in their best aprons – would hasten to the church basement (social center of the church) to set out the pot-luck lunch.
Each lady brought one or more dishes to share and each had a job. The whole process worked like a well-oiled machine. Rows of tables were covered with cloth tablecloths (not necessarily matching) and folding chairs were added. At the serving table, plates and silverware (not paper or plastic) were placed on one end of the table (the beginning of the line). Food dishes were lined up next, including the main dishes – hot dishes, scalloped potatoes, tuna salad, ‘dead spread’ sandwiches (ground up bologna or ham with pickle relish or ground up pickles and mayonnaise), green Jell-O with raw shredded vegetables mixed in, and other various salads. Next came accessory food – bowls of pickles, olives, buttered white bread – face-up. Then came desserts: glorified rice, red Jell-O with fruit cocktail and whipping cream (what we always referred to as funeral Jell-O), and a variety of dessert bars. Finally, at the end of that table or at another nearby table, egg coffee and water or milk was served. (Egg coffee, common in Scandanavian churches, is made by adding a raw egg to the coffee grounds before brewing, making a potting-soil-like mixture. The egg helps to create a milder brew, removing the bitterness.) The church ladies made sure the bowls were kept full. For a kid, this was a bonanza! Most of the time, the adults were busy talking so it was easy to take as much as you wanted – especially from the dessert end of the table. I’m sure that is how I came to love lemon bars.
After everyone ate and spent time visiting (no hurrying out the door), the ladies cleaned everything up and ready for the next time their services would be needed. It was clear that many of these ladies had become life-long friends – I suspect in great part from their service at funerals, weddings and other church events.
Rules and regulations for food service often no longer allow people to bring food to gatherings such as this. Lunches are catered or families and friends go to a restaurant or have a family gathering at home. The rules are intended to eliminate food poisoning but they also eliminated a big part of the social aspect of a funeral or memorial service … the church ladies working together and the fellowship of those attending – both important in building the social fabric of the community and an important step in the grieving process.
I wonder … did anyone think about the unintended consequences of these changes?
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll return!