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Funeral Festivals in America

Rituals for the Living

When Evelyn Waugh wrote The Loved One (1948) as a satire of the elaborate preparations and memorialization of the dead taking place in his time, he had no way of knowing how technical and extraordinarily creative human funerary practices would become in the ensuing decades.

In Funeral Festivals in America, author Jacqueline S. Thursby explores how modern American funerals and their accompanying rituals have evolved into affairs that help the living with the healing process. Thursby suggests that there is irony in the festivities surrounding death. The typical American response to death often develops into a celebration that reestablishes links or strengthens ties between family members and friends. The increasingly important funerary banquet, for example, honors an often well-lived life in order to help survivors accept the change that death brings and to provide healing fellowship. At such celebrations and other forms of the traditional wake, participants often use humor to add another dimension to expressing both the personality of the deceased and their ties to a particular ethnic heritage.

In her research and interviews, Thursby discovered the paramount importance of food as part of the funeral ritual. During times of loss, individuals want to be consoled, and this is often accomplished through the preparation and consumption of nourishing, comforting foods. In the Intermountain West, Funeral Potatoes, a potato-cheese casserole, has become an expectation at funeral meals; Muslim families often bring honey flavored fruits and vegetables to the funeral table for their consoling familiarity; and many Mexican Americans continue the tradition of tamale making as a way to bring people together to talk, to share memories, and to simply enjoy being together.

Funeral Festivals in America examines rituals for loved ones separated by death, frivolities surrounding death, funeral foods and feasts, post-funeral rites, and personalized memorials and grave markers. Thursby concludes that though Americans come from many different cultural traditions, they deal with death in a largely similar approach. They emphasize unity and embrace rites that soothe the distress of death as a way to heal and move forward.

About the Author

Jacqueline S. Thursby is an associate professor in the English department at Brigham Young University.

Reviews

"A fascinating study of American resilience and community spirit at times of bereavement. Jacqueline Thursby reveals with wit and sensitivity how American funerals have become celebrations of life, instead of lamentations of death, at which loved ones mend torn relations through sumptuous banquets, heart-warming memories, and gregarious laughter. She demonstrates with exquisite detail how the restoration of communal ties among the bereaved stands central in contemporary American mortuary rituals, irrespective of their cultural, ethnic, and religious differences."—Antonius C.G.M. Robben, editor of Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural

"A welcome discussion of the varied rites that surround death in contemporary and historical America."—Journal of Folklore Research

"A large percentage of Americans in modern society are culturally illiterate in community expectations regarding death rituals. Jacqueline S. Thursby's cross-cultural treatment of current practice provides a primer for Americans hoping to respond appropriately when friends from diverse backgrounds and belief systems are in mourning... By placing today's community and family expectations within the context of their own cultural and religious heritages, the monograph is an excellent introduction into funerary literature."—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"Intriguing. . . . Explores some of the most significant and unique of our methods of dealing with the omnipresence of death in our lives."—Studies in American Culture

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