Corpse in the parlour

Charles 9 Comments

In the Kokomo Perspective, Don Hamilton writes: 

Back in the early 1940s, they had funerals in the homes. A relative would die, and their casket would be placed in the corner of some room in the house, so that visitors could come and pay their respects. Most of the visiting family members would spend the night with the dearly departed laid out in the next room.

To a boy of 10, this was not pleasant, especially at night when going to the bathroom required a trip past the deceased in the darkened room.

Shadows danced across the casket, cast by the moonlight and the blowing leaves from the trees outside the window. The dim lighting could play tricks on your eyes and make it appear as though the person in the casket was starting to move. You talk about hot footing it across a floor. I ran to and from that bathroom as fast as my 10-year-old feet could carry me.

 I remember when the widow lady next door died. Guess what? My brother and I slept upstairs, and our younger sister slept downstairs.  Her window was directly across from the window where the neighbor’s casket could be clearly seen.   Well, it wasn’t long before our sister (Becky Beane), was yelling for dad. My dad, in turn, yelled for me and made me go downstairs and sleep with my sister.  I, of course, had to sleep closest to the window.

I got the courage to look over toward the neighbor lady, all dressed in black and somberly laying with her arms neatly crossed. Just as my imagination began to soar, my sister touched my leg with her toe. I know she did it to scare me, and it worked.   It seems funny now, but it wasn’t then.

I am not sure when they stopped the practice of having the body of a loved one displayed in the home, but I am glad that they did.  



  1. Charles

    Interesting. Many in the reformist/radical wing of the Good Funeral Guidership are all for keeping the body in the community as far as possible, family sitting with it etc. Maybe there are two sides to this, as with so many other things.

    Remember President Reagan. “I don’t want any more one-handed advisers. They say to me ‘on the one hand, Mr President…but on the other hand…'”

    I won’t be one-handed, I’ll just say that it all depends what people want and feel, however much we think it would be “good for them” to have Granny in the living-room.

    Whilst we do and should take people by the hand and seek to help them towards what they need, as well as what they want, it’s worth noting that people do also know what’s good for them, at least, sometimes they do!

    Sounds like this little chap as was would, back then, rather the family bodies were down at the funeral parlor where they could be visited and said goodbye to, without scaring the kids.

  2. Charles

    Totally agree!
    It might, of course, have helped if someone had taken him into the room in daylight, talked to him and so on…but at the end of the day we are there to help people to have what THEY want, not what we want. That means helping, supporting and advising people who want a home funeral. That is their right and it is a disgrace that some elements of the funeral industry have hoodwinked them into thinking it isn’t. But it is a right, not a duty….and we are also there for those, currently the majority, rightly or wrongly, who don’t want that.
    Perhaps gently encouraging people to take control of the funeral is, at the moment, more important than encouraging them to take control of the body unless that is something they clearly want to do. The presence of children in the house is, of course, part of that equasion!

  3. Charles

    Wise words Jenny. (and not just because you start off by agreeeing with me!)Taking control of the funeral seems to be the central concept, from which the rest leads on; and this is harder to do if we ignore our mortality and hardly ever think and talk about the ending of life.i.e. to take control is hard if it all comes as a total shock and surprise. After all, it only sometimes is totally unexpected.

  4. Charles

    I do hope that you mean me Gloria, when you talk about the reformist/radical wing. If not, I need to up my game, but presuming it is, I would like to say that for all our encouraging family to spend time with the body, it is just that; encouragement. It is by no means compulsory. Our mantra is honesty, appropriateness and participation, but the greatest of these three is appropriateness.
    And I take your point Jenny, that we are there to give people the funeral THEY want, but let’s be honest, often they don’t know what they really do want. I know that every time it’s happened to me, all I wanted was for whoever had died to not be dead.
    And do other people really know what’s good for them Gloria?
    Damn, only me then…

  5. Charles

    Quite right, Rupert. Hence the importance, as we have said before, of takng sufficient time to talk, and more importantly listen to families. Active listening is a skill. It involves hearing what people don’t say as well as what they do, and picking up on things that sound like they are not important but are. Now if that were included in a Dip FD course we might be getting somewhere 🙂

  6. Charles

    Right, Ru, people don’t know what they want, mostly. When you look closely, (and hopefully manage to get them to look too,) they aren’t even aware of why they’re having this weird ritual called a funeral at all other than because they think it’s expected, so how could they know? It can often be like teaching people the rudiments of a foreign language, barely enough so they can carry out a crucial duty in a foreign land with its foreign laws and foreign customs; a duty whose driving power is, as you say, wishing it wasn’t happening at all.

    How on earth could you know what you want, unless you’ve given it quite a lot of thought beforehand? At least people should read the phrase-book; better still, talk the language every day – I know I’m an enthusiast, but my family are completely at ease with my funeral ideas, which are on the fridge door (and on this blog somewhere, if anyone’s interested).

    Would you agree that the best funerals are the ones where people aren’t afraid because at least the idea and the reason for it haven’t hit them out of the blackness like a doodlebug?

  7. Charles

    Hmm, not sure that I do Jonathan. Sometimes yes, but they can also be the most complacent. I find the best funerals are the ones in which we have all arrived at the reason for the funeral together, after a lengthy, painful but hugely enlightening journey. The ‘Ah, I get it” moment.

  8. Charles

    Complacent, yes; thanks Ru, I hadn’t thought of it like that; sometimes I listen to people’s accounts of funerals they’ve arranged and cringe at the presumption of its all having been the right way of doing it because it was wanted, without consideration of its effects.

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