Insulation from Mortality Hampers Grief Support

You Can Run But You Cannot Hide

Why do we avoid talking about terminal illness and dying? Death will happen. We know this abstractly but give it the cold shoulder. Our discomfort with talking about death undercuts our ability to support people who are grieving. It also entices us to behave aimlessly. The truth is we’re closer each day.

People in mourning feel as if others are suddenly allergic to them. And we homicide survivors are approached with considerable clumsiness, avoidance, and what I call automatic “bumper sticker” condolences. Our supporters often don’t know how to act, what to say, or what to offer. Instead, people walk on eggshells around us or avoid us altogether.

This is all the more strange when you consider that we, as a culture, are obsessed with true crime. We follow docudramas, attend CrimeCon, subscribe to true crime podcasts, and devote books and scholarly journals to the subject of serial murderers. Yet, when a homicide happens in real life, most friends, coworkers and neighbors retreat, get tongue-tied, and are just plain klutzy.

Is one reason for this ineptitude caused by our insulation from mortality? Let’s compare.

Natural Death in the U.S. Before 1800

There was a time when people criss-crossed death. It was as anticipated as birth. This was especially so if they had a farm with livestock. They didn’t have a choice. In fact, during Colonial America, forty percent of children did not survive until adulthood. Half the pilgrims died during their first winter in the New World. Most households were multi-generational, so it was not unusual to see the youngest and the eldest in the family pass away. Many townspeople became annoyed with hearing death toll bells ring because they were so frequent.

There was no room for death deniers.

Life expectancy in the late 1770s (internationally) was only 40 years for men and 35 for women.  Stillbirths were common and so was maternal mortality while giving birth. Around the year 1800 in the U.S. about 25 women per 1,000 died during childbirth. Their odds didn’t drastically improve until the 1940s. (Today it hovers around 0.1/1000.) Historically sepsis infection was a common reason for the death of the mother. 

There were many other reasons for an early death. Contagious diseases and opportunistic infections killed millions in Colonial America before 1900.  Smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, cholera, yellow fever, tuberculosis and dysentery were the leading illnesses.

In time, cancer, stroke and heart disease caused more deaths than disease. This remains true today. That’s because people started to live long enough to die from degenerative conditions.

In the 17th century, the murder rates for adult colonists ranged from 100 to 500 or more per year per 100,000 adults. This is ten to fifty times the rate in the United States today.

Drinking water was not purified. Refrigeration did not come along for residential use until the 1880s but because electricity was needed, it wasn’t common in sparsely populated areas until the late 1930’s – less than 100 years ago.

Surgery also contributed to early mortality. It was primitive and often performed on the patient’s dinner table without adequate lighting, instruments, or antiseptics by so-called “surgeons” without formal medical training. Even a minor laceration could prove fatal without antibiotics.

Cities on the Eastern seaboard had a curious practice of exploding gunpowder in the air to supposedly increase oxygen.

And then there was the simple matter of misinformation about hygiene. In Colonial America, it was widely believed that water spread disease so regular bathing was discouraged.

Although soap had been invented centuries earlier, it wasn’t until the Civil War that it became more available. Since lye was an ingredient, it was messy, smelly, hot work. And the fire under the pot had to keep boiling for a week! Manufacturing and marketing of commercial soap finally began with Ivory Soap in 1879.

And we can’t forget about the insects’ role in early death. They carried dysentery, E coli, meningitis, malaria and encephalitis and were free to enter homes and businesses until window screens were available in the 1870s.

There were many threats to life in Colonial America. Living into one’s 70’s or 80’s was rare. There was never an option to be insulated from death. It was just a part of life.

Preparation of the Body

The frequency of death and the absence of professionals in the death care industry meant that close friends and relatives took turns caring for the dying in their own homes. This activity was referred to as “laying out.” The majority of the time this task fell to women and older girls.

It was common for adults or entire families to take turns watching over the body for the first 24 – 48 hours to make sure it did not awaken. (That’s where the term “having a wake” started). There was no embalming yet, so fragrant flowers, rosemary, and candles were often used to mask the odor.  Those objects remain a part of funerals today, but more to create a sense of relaxation.

It was rare for anyone to be buried in their own clothing because they were all handmade and cloth was expensive. Instead, the “layer-outers” put the deceased into a loose-fitting “shroud” just before burial. It opened in the back much like a hospital gown.

Grief

Grief was openly shared in years past, even in front of children. The critically ill were not sent away. There was no hiding or sugar-coating the truth. The local carpenter, probably someone the family knew, built the custom wooden coffin on an as-needed basis.

And as for the family in mourning, it was common for them to wear simple black clothing or black armbands.  It was a discreet way to show respect for the dead and communicate their grief to others.  Without drawing too much attention it solicited support and said, “Give me some leeway here, I’m in mourning.”  The wearing of black clothing, black armbands, or a black draped porch railing was carried out for at least a month. When someone saw black cloth draped on the porch with shutters closed they knew it was a temporary “funeral home.” The swathed material subtly announced that respectful behavior, quiet, and increased privacy were expected.

Early Customs Surrounding Grief and Death

It was customary for families to stop their clocks at the time of death as a show of respect. They would start them up again sometime after the funeral.  Likewise, families often covered mirrors to remind people that this was not a time for vanity. Other families covered mirrors to make sure the soul of the deceased wasn’t trapped in it.   

Another tradition was to remove painted portraits of the deceased, turn them around, or cover them up. This was to avoid “locking eyes” with the deceased while in mourning which was thought to cause possession.   

When the time came to remove the body from the residence, they were sometimes carried out feet first to prevent them from “looking back” and disturbing others. In other regions, this same position was thought to bring bad luck and they were carried out head first.

Funerals: Swift and Simple

Funerals in the Puritan era were more social than religious.  There was no mandate to have clergy present.  Everyone involved was expected to be reserved and respectful and do nothing to draw attention to themselves either in behavior or appearance. So clothing would have no shiny buttons, lace, ruffles, or other adornments.

New England pioneers regarded death as a gateway to another world, where one’s soul passed into eternity.  The body was a mere “husk” to contain the soul

In the 1600s funerals were usually small, quiet, fast and held at the gravesite, or in private residences. Participants had to be invited. The service, if there was one, was likely delivered by someone who knew the deceased quite well but most of the time nothing at all was spoken.  Silence was preferred to distinguish the process from Catholic funerals which their ancestors had traveled across an entire ocean to escape.  If the deceased was of high standing in the community, words were more likely to have been delivered.

It was a high honor to be a pallbearer.  It wasn’t unusual to have six to eight men and older boys take part.  When a man died, a man led the procession to the graveyard.  When a woman died, a woman did so.  Until the late 1700’s no burials were allowed on the Sabbath.

By the 1800s it was more common to have a large feast after the burial.  Anyone who discovered the body was given an extra generous amount of rum or homemade beer.

In time, memorials became more elaborate, formalized and costly.  The professions of undertaker and casket maker began. The Civil War had much to do with this because there was a sudden need for many caskets, funerals and for the embalming of soldiers who died in battle. They did not want to be buried on enemy turf. The preservation of the body allowed more time to organize a service, perhaps get them back from enemy lines and notify relatives.

Cemeteries

Pioneers and ranchers set aside part of their land for a small family cemetery. It contained the remains of stillborn offspring up to grandparents. Churches in towns often donated an open nearby field for a community “burying yard.”  It was rather plain. Volunteers helped maintain it on an as-needed basis. This included digging the grave.

Gravestones were literally that – stones that marked a grave, some of which had simple carvings.  One was placed at the head and another at the feet.  In time simple wood markers were used, but did not last long.

The unfortunate woman deemed to be a witch had no graveside service or burial.

As years passed, the community took pride in their cemeteries.  It became commonplace for people to gather there.  Farmers would allow their cattle to graze among the graves because it was believed that graveyard grass was sweeter.  This practice also “delivered” fertilizer for the plantings.  This is when a split rail fence around graveyards came into being (to keep livestock from roaming).

Over time, many communities began to encourage the planting and care of elaborate gardens in these fields to attract visitors. There was a desire to bring the living and the dead together. Wandering paths, reflecting ponds, and fountains were added. Artistic monuments and small mausoleums were erected. These freestanding, above-ground buildings could hold one or several caskets. Many had elaborate grates and copper doors with stained glass windows. Some of the well-to-do owned tombs, a few of which were beneath churches. 

Many larger, urban cemeteries began to enclose the grounds with elaborate iron fences and have visiting hours with a locked gate. Groundskeepers became full-time jobs with backhoes and sophisticated sprinkling systems. Some cemeteries even added beautiful, chapels with slate floors, chandeliers and stained glass windows. They ranged in size from standing-room only to elaborate structures that could seat many families. Community members were encouraged to use these chapels for weddings and baptisms as another way to bring the living and the deceased together.

In time the feasting and celebration following a funeral became known as “a wake” (replacing the original meaning of the term where relatives watched for signs of life in a recently deceased person.)

The Outsourcing of Death Care

It wasn’t long before cemeteries became a family-owned business and were developed outside the city limits where land was cheaper. Today, cemeteries (like funeral homes) are being cobbled together to form corporations.

Not so long ago family-owned funeral home businesses were sold for three to five times their annual revenue.  Now it’s seven to nine times.  The new corporations inflated prices. Example: caskets may be priced at 500% over wholesale (so go to Walmart, Costco or Amazon to order one instead!).  The largest provider of funeral goods and services is Service Corporation International out of Houston Texas.  This conglomerate grossed $ 4.1 billion in revenue in 2022 with its network of 2,000 locations in and outside of the United States.  It is now expanding to own crematoriums, columbariums, probate services and estate sales. (See post of August 28, 2023 for more information.)

Today most people do not wear black funeral attire outside the funeral and are not treated with deference in the grocery line. This adds to the mourners’ sense of isolation and shields the reality of death from public circulation.

We’ve become so insulated from natural dying and death that it’s treated like an emergency even when it is expected. If a loved one dies at home there is often a sense of shock, confusion and doubt. Survivors often want or believe it’s necessary to remove the body immediately. The nearest of kin will often call 911, a hospice worker, a funeral home, or a crematorium. In most cases, an expected death can be slowed down to give the next of kin some additional time with their newly deceased relative before they say goodbye and have them removed.

Paradoxically, we are now living longer and with less pain. Yet, death anxiety has grown.

In 2014 drive-through funeral visitations started in various regions of the country. They look and operate much like a drive-through bank.  People pull up, put their car in neutral, drop a card in the metal slot, sign the guestbook and pull away without saying a word. This practice robs the grieving family of even awkward condolences.

Now that’s what I call insulated.

For more detailed information and for other resources, please refer to my book What Now? Navigating the Aftermath of Homicide and Suicide, available now on Amazon.

Click this Amazon link:   https://www.amazon.com/What-Now-Navigating-Aftermath-Homicide-ebook/dp/B0BXND9DQR

I’m Jan Canty. Psychologist, author, podcast host, speaker…  and homicide survivor.

I am passionate about finding ways to support and help other so-called “homicide or suicide survivors.”

No one should have to go through this kind of loss… but if you do, I want you to know… YOU ARE NOT ALONE! 

You aren’t crazy. It’s not your imagination! Society does not know how to comfort us. Fortunately, we know how to comfort one another.

Check out my books and get tools and resources to help you or someone you love!