Cemetary Hopping

Cemetary Hopping

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While I was never one to like being around dead people, specially 'sittin up with em' . . . still, I have encountered many of those who have assumed room temperature.  I always figured they had their place and I didn't feel right encroaching on their space!

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The story was told about how abrupt some folks are in delivering the news about a death.  Sometimes it's just better to say "Granny has died than to attempt to soften the blow.  For example, consider the following story:

Lenny went on vacation and asked Bobby to watch over his house. About a week later, Lenny calls home and asked "How's my cat?" Bobby hesitated and sadly told Lenny his cat died.  Lenny was heartbroken and quite perturbed at Bobby.
"What?!  You shouldn't have broken the news to me like that!  You should have done it slowly.  The first time I called, you should have told me she was on the roof.  The second time I called, you should have said there was no way to get her down.  The third time I called, you should have told me that you tried to get her off the roof, but she fell down and died," explained Lenny.

Bobby apologized and went about his day.

About a week later, Lenny called again and asked "How's my Granny?"

There was a long silence and then Bobby replied.  "Well, she's on the roof."

How do you say it?  I mean, that someone has died?  Here's a few we know:

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Passed, passed on, or passed away
Gave up the ghost
Kicked the bucket
Didn't make it
Met his Maker
Bought the farm
Augered in
Cashed in his chips
Deader Than A Doornail
Tagged and bagged
Graveyard dead
Taking a dirt nap
Went Extinct
He's Juggling Halos Now
He Just Got Stamped "Return To Sender"
He's Past His Sell-By Date
You stab em, we'll slab em
Assumed room temperature . . .

My favorite is "He's inspecting Turnips with a ladder."

But when speaking of death, the dead or dying we have a tendacy to not say what the obvious is.  For example - sittin' up with the dead.  That used to be a pretty common practice in the pre 1960's.  Even then when publicized in the paper they just didn't use that phrase.  Instead, they would write "the body will lay in state at the home of Mrs. XYZ."  It still did nothing to make it sound less bizarre.

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Even though "sitting up with the dead" has been absent for the last sixty years, a new phenomona is taking root and that's the practice of preparing the body of a loved one at home and keeping it until they have closure, run out of money for the dry ice to cool the bed you are resting on, and/or ready for the mortician to ply his trade. (Yeah, you're right.  I do have a macabre way of saying things sometimes . . .)

Even in the late 80s, a few families were still practicing the ritual of bringing the body of a loved one back to the home so they could stay up all night with it before the funeral the following day.  The communities that seemed to still adhere to this practice tended to be up in the mountains where old traditions die hard.

But the new wave is catching on!  Especially in Fruitifornia.  One reason is because it costs so much.  Another phenomona which is gaining speed is cremation.  Heck, for a mere $1,000 you can be cooked to being well past well done then planted anywhere you like, or at least, anywhere the person saddled with the task of disposing of your ashes wants to put you - including the toilet.

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In decades past, many smaller rural communities had no access to a mortuary or funeral home.  The tasks of preparing the body for burial and constructing the casket were done not by a mortician but the community members themselves.  According to Southern newspaper columnist Emily Sells, this was a common practice in her small Tennessee town of Highland Mountain.

The men did the building of a casket, and the job of lining and dressing the inside as well as the outside of the casket was done by the women.  The material used for the building of a casket, the labor involved, including the sewing, the batting and fabric used, was not something the family of the deceased person paid for.  It was all done without any expectation of money exchanging hands.  Neighbors helping neighbors was a way of life then.

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It's hard to imagine, in the mobile, disposable society we now live in, that this kind of concern for your neighbors was something upon which you could rely.  But that's the way it was.  And not so long ago neither.

Man!  How America has changed since then!  Here's one for ya.  Web sites exist that show you step by step how to build your own coffin ahead of time.  That's the ultimate DIY project.

So what about sitting up with the dead?  Why did families do this?  Again, much of this took place before the commonality of funeral homes.  After the body had been washed and dressed (embalming was very rare), it would be laid out on a large table or wooden board.  If the weather was warm, a veil might be placed over the body to protect it from insects.  Or someone might have the task of manning the fly swatter to take care of such things.

(It seemed, when I was growing up, that this was the type of important job only I could do . . . fortunately my attention span only lasted about two minutes).  Sitting up with a dead body had a practical purpose as well.  Along with flies being a problem, rodents could be an issue if the body was left alone overnight.  So along with being on insect watch, you had to be on the lookout for mice (or worse).  Drat!  They wouldn't let me bring my BB gun to shoot those pesky flies off the ceiling or rodents what might bother the cold one on the bed.

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Embalming came of age in the Civil War.  Some smart money saavy docter done went and thunk up a new way in which to get into the pockets of the rich folk of dead soldiers.  "Would you like to have the body of your dear beloved hero shipped home so you can bury him with honor close to the family?"

Who wouldn't fork over hundreds of $$ to some greedy company during their time of sorrow and grief?

"Yes"  would be the reply.  "For a measley $50 for officers and $25 for an enlisted man he could make it happen.

Holmes earned national acclaim when President and Mrs. Lincoln held a funeral at the White House for their beloved friend, Union Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth.  According to Mrs. Lincoln, Ellsworth's body appeared, "natural, as though he were only sleeping."  The handiwork of Holmes, Ellsworth's body brought him overnight as "the father of modern-day embalming."

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After that, Holmes' services were in high demand and he began selling his embalming concoction for $3 per gallon.  Some embalming fluids, considered trade secrets during that time, contained creosote and even mercury.

Holmes accepted a commission as captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and performed his trade first in Washington and then directly on the battlefield.  After each battle, he would erect an embalming tent to tend to the dead.  His embalming table was crude and often consisted of a wooden door resting upon two barrels.

When the embalming was complete, the body was placed in a wooden box usually lined with zinc.  On the lid appeared the name of the deceased along with his parents' names.  Inside were his personal belongings.


During the Civil War, Holmes embalmed more than 4,000 bodies.  His colleagues followed suit when they saw how much money could be made. Unfortunately, Holmes's "nontoxic" embalming fluid continues to pollute soils near 19th-century cemeteries to this day.  And what happened to Holmes when he died in 1900?  His final request was not to be embalmed!

See what an industry sprang forth?  A simple wooden box now became expensive because it was line with zinc, had the occupant's name on it and was certified 'safe for shipping.'  In case you were not aware, the funeral process has doubled many, many times.

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As the war continued and embalmers were in high demand, those figures rose to $80 and $30, respectively.  Feeling he could make even more money if he worked in the private sector performing the same duties, Holmes realized he was onto something and resigned his commission.  He then began to charge $100 per embalming.

Ever wonder where the ritual of sending flowers to a funeral came from?  Sometimes the deceased, for several reasons, could become . . . a bit fragrant.  The aroma from the profusion of flowers around the deceased helped mask the odor.  So all those flowers did more than look pretty.

Other traditions accompanied sitting up with the dead.  A friend still remembers how, when his great-grandmother died in rural Kentucky, that the family sat up all night with her body.  The mirrors in the room were covered.  Why?

The tradition of covering a mirror with a cloth when someone dies initially goes back to ancient times.  When a person had died through violent or suspicious circumstances all the mirrors in the home would be covered immediately by cloth.  The reason for this was the belief that a returning spirit could use a looking glass as a portal. — (taken from "The Weird World of Death.")

Many things around the house became associated with death.  In the early days the body was prepared at home then transported to the place of planting.  Ever wonder why a ladder was suspicious?  Ladders have always been associated with superstition even in the present day.  As we all know walking under one is deemed to be unlucky.

However this is thought to go back to the time prisoners were sometimes hanged from the top of a ladder.  It was believed that their spirit would then linger within the space created by the ladder and prop.  Therefore it was unlucky to walk underneath as you would encounter the evil spirits of the executed prisoners.

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Finally, who wants to cook when you're in your grieving stage?  Usually that practice was done by the community, and is still practiced to this day by churches especially.  We even joke about that sometimes.

An old man is lying on his deathbed with his children, grandchildren, and older great-grandchildren all around, teary-eyed at the approaching finale of a very long and productive life.  The old man is in a terminal coma, and the doctors have confirmed that the waiting will be over within the next twenty-four hours.  Suddenly, the old man opens his eyes and croaks: ""I must be dreaming of heaven!  I smell your grandmother's strudel!"

"No, grandfather, you are not dreaming.  Grandmother is baking strudel now."

"I know I will never have another taste of her delicious strudel after this one.  Could you please go down and get me a piece?", the old man begs with what is left of his final breath.

One of the grandchildren is immediately dispatched to honor the old man's last request.  After a long time, he returns empty-handed.

"Did you bring me one last piece of your grandmother's delicious strudel?" the old man plaintively queries.

"I'm very sorry, grandfather, but she says it's for the funeral."

I'm guessing that joking about the death of someone is the way most people throw off the heavy load of grief.  Here's one we can all relate to:

What's the difference between a dead lawyer in the road and a dead snake in the road?  A snake has skid marks in front of it . . .

Most famous embalming picture, the picture most successful in embracing the practice of embalming?  Here it is:

President Abraham Lincoln


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