This past Friday and Saturday, I went to the calling hours/wake and funeral, respectively, of a loved one’s mother, a former primary school teacher. I have been to wakes and funerals before, but these were different – the majority of the community was in attendance. When I arrived at the wake, it appeared that it wasn’t only close friends and family, but seemingly the entire population of my little town instead. I turned to my friend who I went with and asked him why there were so many people, and his response was simply: “she was a teacher.” His answer sparked a magnitude of questions that I will explore in this post. As the wake commenced and our visit was over, I drove home, questioning the many practices and ritual ceremonies we have to celebrate and remember our dead. The performance of celebration and memory are two concepts that intertwine, and I consistently find myself referring to them in everyday life. During my drive back to school, I questioned the social barriers that allow for such large or small celebrations of death. Because of her status as an educator, the lives she touched spanning a 15-year career called for a large celebration. If her status was that of a working-class member of society, would the turnout have been as large as it was? Probably not. But what does it mean to celebrate death as a community?
Death, according to Roach, “[c]annot be understood as a moment, a point in time: it is a process.” When we follow Roach’s lens of looking at death, it becomes evident that ritual ceremonies that commemorate the deceased (i.e. funerals) work in symbiosis – they allow for people to pay respects while simultaneously dealing with their emotions; and people deal with their emotions in a plethora of ways. For example, at the wake, members of the family and the community were asked to wear a piece of attire imprinted with polka-dots, the deceased’s favorite pattern. This request by the family to wear certain garments aids in the performance of memory and celebration of death by having the members in attendance show their support for the deceased. As well serving to the performance of memory, it also unifies the body politic, removing social stigmas represented by attendees of the funeral. Roach writes, in the context of funerals, that they are “[a] breeding ground of anxieties and uncertainties about what the community should be[.]” Ritual ceremonies serve to bring together a family and/or group of people close to the deceased; however, they also highlight the fragments of a hierarchical society. The use of polka-dots unifies the community and serves as a form of agency that allows for the equal celebration and remembrance of a loved one.
Woven between the fabric of celebration and remembrance of the deceased lies a class struggle that is pertinent in understanding why we celebrate our dead, but the level of subjectivity is complex and must be further developed in a blog post of its own. Though, in this post, it is important to understand the methods of unification and that classism does, indeed, affect the rituals and ceremonies instilled as a cultural norm.