How We Say Goodbye
Next week on the 30th I'll be going to a funeral service for a family friend who died this past weekend. Until now I haven't known anyone in Germany I was close with who had passed away so I have yet to attend a funeral. B and I got to talking about funerals here and funerals back in America. In Mississippi funerals have definite customs, some of which differ from funerals in other parts of the US outside of the south. Germany also has customs but the only ones I'm familiar with are the ones for this region. I know they can vary according to the part of Germany you're in or whether you live in a village or small town or a city.
Here's a little compare and contrast.
Cremations aren't as common in Mississippi as you would find in Germany so burials take place within just a few days. Often there's a viewing the day before the funeral itself. In Germany if the person is cremated it's not unusual to have the funeral service (the ashes are buried - you may not scatter or keep the ashes) three or four weeks after the death.
Food is a key thing after a death in the south. After someone has passes visitors come immediately bearing hams, casseroles, cakes, pies, vegetables, fried chicken and so on because the grieving family can't be expected to cook. They also can't really be expected to eat but that's okay. Folks will be visiting for days and they need to be fed so very little will go to waste. When I lived in America I always had a "funeral casserole" in my freezer, just in case of someone's sudden passing. If it went unused within six or eight weeks I'd eat it myself and replace it with a fresh one. I even kept them frozen in containers that I would not expect to have returned to me because a grief-stricken family cannot be expected to keep up with Tupperware and casserole dishes.
And I'll just go ahead and say it (and if you've ever lived in the south, you know this is true): funeral food is fantastic. I used to believe that ladies of the south saved their best cooking skills for church suppers and holidays but I now believe the best dishes are funeral food.
Where I live in Germany, funeral food plays no real part. Descending upon the grieving family isn't done so there's no need to bombard them with food they won't be eating anyway. However it is fairly common for family and close friends of the deceased to gather after the funeral at a restaurant to have a luncheon together or perhaps just have coffee and cake. I'm not sure if beer is consumed at these post-funeral events but it is Germany after all, so I wouldn't be surprised if that's so.
Visiting the grieving family after a death in the south starts almost immediately. First will be the closest of relatives but by the next day friends, more distant kinfolk, folks from church, work friends, former neighbors and working right on down to the girl the deceased sat next to in the third grade will show up, food in hand of course, to convey their condolences and perhaps have a helping of Miss Mamie's peach cobbler and oh is that Miss Nelly Harper's hominy casserole?
In Germany visiting isn't quite the same sort of event. Very close friends may visit or call but it's not the days-long gathering that you'd find in the southland. The funeral services won't be for weeks anyway so personal contact is often saved until that time.
Letting folks know about a death is the same in both countries - death notices in the newspaper are key. However in my hometown getting the news out fast is important. If you die on Tuesday morning your obituary will be in Wednesday morning's paper, which is good since your viewing will probably be on Thursday and your funeral is on Friday. In our family's Bible there's a newspaper clipping of my great-grandfather's death notice. As the article put it my great-grandfather "dropped dead at approximately 7:15 this morning"...his death notice was in that evening's newspaper. In the south another means of letting everyone know that not only has someone passed but the family is accepting visitors (and food) is the sign that's placed before the deceased's home by the mortuary that with the word "FUNERAL" in large letters along with the admonition that quiet be kept in the vicinity. Please do not drive like a bat-out-of-hell or get up a game of kick ball in front of this house - people are grieving, telling stories and eating angel biscuits and ham.
Bringing or sending flowers for the deceased is important in both America and Germany as are sympathy cards. However a major difference between sympathy cards in America and cards in Germany is in Germany, money is often included with the card. I was aghast when I learned of this custom because the idea of anyone in America giving the grieving family money can at best be described as tacky if not downright insulting while here where I live in Germany not including money in a sympathy card would be unthinkable. No one may bring you a casserole or a cake but including money to help pay for the cost of things or the after-funeral luncheon is just how it's done.
I have seen German funerals on TV if it was something newsworthy and I have to say that the attire of the mourners was sometimes a bit casual but then I've also seen people show up for their murder trial wearing baggy jeans and a sweatshirt. In contrast in the south, wearing the proper clothes to a funeral is required or else folks will talk about you for years. However exceptions are made when necessary. I recall that one man showed up to my father's viewing wearing a pair of overalls but they were his best pair so we felt pretty honored by that. And the gentleman was wearing his town hat and not his work hat.
B and I were heartbroken to hear that our friend, Norbert, had passed. He was a good person - always helpful to us and so kind. Every time I think of Norbert I can picture him at our wedding reception dancing and singing loudly and having a great time.
Regardless of the customs we use to commemorate one's passing, I can only hope that Norbert left this world knowing he was very much loved and admired by those who knew him and that he'll always be missed by us.