The Crowded Casket, More Than Dead Being Buried In Casket

March 19, 2010
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imageWe CAN take it with us?

Since the beginning of burials, man has often gone to the grave with company. These days, funeral directors grant most requests: a shotgun ? a case of beer ? a bottle of Jack Daniels ? some favorite cigars ? golf clubs, usually putters ? a clarinet ? a tool belt ? homemade wine ? Oreo cookies ? hot peppers.

?Out here, everyone gets buried with their cell phone,?? said Noelle Berman, a family counselor at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. ?Cell phones. Blackberrys. Wii Consoles.??

?Nowadays, you have the TV remote,?? said Bill O?Leary, a Philadelphia funeral director. ?That?s like the hottest thing.??

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Centuries from now, what will archeologists make of all these buried artifacts? What will it say about us?

?Certainly in the ancient world, in many cases, all we know about an individual is what was buried with them,?? said Ann Brownlee, acting curator in charge of the Mediterranean section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. ?We learn about their status, their occupation.??

The third floor of the Penn museum contains all sorts of examples. Some artifacts from ancient Greece seemed to have been manufactured expressly to be buried. Archeologists found that small-denomination coins sometimes were placed between the teeth of the dead at the time of their burial. The theory was that the coins were to pay Charon, the mythical boatman, to ferry the deceased across the river Acheron. Whether the coins were silver or gold or ?pseudo-coins?? made just for the burials offered more clues to status.

Children?s burials in ancient Greece often contain miniature vases, probably used as toys while the children were alive. One artifact at the museum is a Terracotta jointed doll from the third century B.C.

But what of our current tendency to bury our toys with us? What will that say about us?

?We?re becoming more secular,?? said Robert Schuyler, associate curator of Historical Archaeology, who is currently studying the modern period, that is, the last 500 years. He notes that traditional religious burials discouraged the addition of non-religious artifacts. ?You see that on gravestones, too. They?re becoming more personalized, with jokes, pictures of cars.??

And burying TV remotes?

?I?m sure Puritans in New England or Quakers here would not bury those kinds of items,?? Schuyler said. ?They would find that foolish.??

Of course, the dead don?t necessarily know what?s being buried with them. Inside the casket, inside jokes are common. When it?s hard to let go, burying something personal can be a way to carry on the conversation with the deceased.

?One time, a guy asked if he could stay while his buddy?s casket was being closed,?? said Bill Hagen, another funeral director from outside Philadelphia. ?He?d written a check for a million dollars. He tucked it in his buddy?s suit jacket. He said his friend always wanted to die a millionaire.??

The guy stayed by the casket until it was sealed, Hagen added, to make sure ?that check would never be cashed.??

?Here, a lot of people are buried with their jewels, their furs,?? said Berman of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. ?I?m originally from the East Coast. In L.A., it?s much more appearance-driven ? both the living and the non-living. Here, the women are very concerned with what they?re going to look like, even when they?re dead.??

Talk about your ultimate denial of death. Unless you?re going to be re-born in some form or fashion, what?s the point?

?I?ve discouraged people from burying valuable jewelry,?? Hagen said. ?I talk to them about how it would mean something to children and grandchildren.??

But he won?t fight the issue, he said.

?I buried a woman with an awful lot of very valuable jewelry,?? Hagen said. ?The husband said, ?Listen, I appreciate your concern. I bought these things for my wife. No other woman is going to wear them.??

Adornments like this can be a form of denial on the part of the grievers, an insistence that the body should not be unencumbered.

?I think it almost suggests that people do believe we?ll meet again ? don?t know where, don?t know when,?? said Vincent Graziano, a funeral director in Mamaroneck, N.Y. ?They believe you?re going to be in a better place.??

A lot of mourners put loose change or small bills in the casket.

?You shouldn?t be broke up there?? goes the theory, Graziano said.

Graziano just published a novel, Die Laughing. It?s set in Little Italy, in 1971, he said, about the son of a funeral director who wants to become a standup comedian. His father wants him to join the family business. So he does both. He also becomes involved with the mob. One of the subplots is how after a robbery of a Brink?s truck the money gets shipped to Italy in a mother-in-law?s casket.

imageThe subject of burial does lend itself to comedy. An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm was called ?The 5 Wood.?? Larry David saw his own borrowed golf club in his friend Marty Funkhauser?s father?s open casket. Larry was appalled and maneuvered to switch clubs. His plan worked, but when the switch was discovered, Larry was kicked out of his country club.

Real life can be just as off-beat, if often more endearing.

?Grandma was 97,?? Berman said of one recent Los Angeles burial. ?She loved bubble wrap. They would buy big sheets of bubble wrap and let her pop it. They put a sheet of bubble wrap in the casket.??

Or this one: ?A woman had saved all her love letters,?? Berman said. ?When she died, a friend paid to have a grave dug next to her grave, with all the love letters in there.??

?One time, a guy put a watch in his wife?s casket ? it was 15 minutes ahead,?? Hagen said from Philadelphia. ?He told me how she was always late. He didn?t want her to be late for her own funeral.??

Grief-stricken family members aren?t always thinking clearly when granting burial requests.

?People will put in their will that they want a dog?s or cat?s ashes put in there with them,?? the funeral director said. ?One guy, I still can?t believe this. His wife already had died. He?d always told his kids, when he died, he wanted his dog?s ashes buried with him. But he died unexpectedly.??

The dog was still alive. (This could have been an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.) The grieving children still wanted to honor the request. ?They wanted to have the dog put down,?? Hagen said.

The funeral director quickly talked them down from that. ?They said right away, ?What were we thinking????

Whatever you put in the grave today could end up in a museum centuries from now, and could be all that future generations know about us.

Said Brownlee of the Penn Museum, ?It?s kind of terrifying, isn?t it???

Article By: Mike Jensen last wrote for Obit about World Series nostalgia.

Source: Obit Magazine

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