Over the past twenty years, I’ve done the same as a lot of other moms: served in the school cafeteria, organized the used-uniform sale, worked on countless fund-raising committees and festivals. But one by one, the volunteer commitments that came with school-aged children trickled out, and I decided it was time to look for a new service opportunity.
According to the church website, the Altar Society is the “oldest continual organization in Holy Cross Parish.” The members clean the church twice a month, cook and serve meals for residents at the Stephen Center, and organize and serve at funeral luncheons. I called and asked that someone from the Altar Society contact me next time they needed a hand at a funeral luncheon, and I got the call just a couple weeks later.
Serviceable attire seemed in order, and in deference to the occasion, I opted for plain dark pants, a simple (and easily washable) blouse, and sensible shoes. I was glad for the comfortable shoes by the end of the day.
I arrived at the church hall around 10:00AM and was greeted by Elaine, the Altar Society member in charge of organizing the luncheon any time a funeral should happen to fall on a Thursday. When that happens, it is her responsibility to round up four or five other women to help with the luncheon. She also makes calls to organize the food. She explained that the main dishes are sometimes catered, but an array of salads and desserts are brought in by volunteers the morning of the funeral.
Elaine introduced me to the other volunteers, Betty, Marge, and Vi, venerable, white and silver-haired women, all. Marge leaned on a cane, and Elaine herself had a chair in a corner of the kitchen to rest on from time to time because of her heart condition. Having been one of the older parents for the last few years, I found it vaguely gratifying to be the youngest person in the crowd again. I think there was even a moment of self-satisfaction, congratulating myself on how useful I would no doubt be to these frail, elderly ladies.
Elaine asked Betty and me to set the tables in the church hall while she and the others got started in the kitchen. There were a hundred expected at the luncheon, which would fill the hall almost to capacity. We got our supplies from a cupboard, and with a wheeled cart, went around to each table setting out white paper place mats, napkins, utensils, cream and sugars, and vases of artificial roses.
We set the round tables as quickly as we could, and I thought about the tradition of the funeral and the funeral luncheon. From earliest records, we know that people have long held ceremonies at which they gathered to acknowledge the end of a life, the last milestone. From culture to culture, the funeral ceremony and customs differ greatly, of course. A funeral may or may not include a service or blessing from religious leaders, followed by a traditional burial, while in some cultures, cremation is typical. In Arabic countries, the deceased must be buried immediately, but the family entertains mourners at home for several days.
I once learned about something called “sky burial” from one of my composition students, a young woman from Nepal. She explained in her essay that in her country, the ground is solid rock, so burials are not possible. Fuel is scarce, so cremations aren’t possible, either. The final deposition of the body includes taking the deceased to the top of a mountain, where religious leaders eviscerate the body in a ritual way so that it can be more easily consumed by animals and vultures.
But no matter how different the funeral services, most cultures have something in common: the repast. Sometimes called a “repass” or “collation,” it is the gathering of friends and family after a funeral service. It involves a meal and can be either at the home of one of the family members, at the deceased person’s church, at a civic building, or funeral location.
According to SciGuy Eric Burger, the tradition of the funeral lunch has been documented as far back as 12,000 years ago in the Stone Age, and other cultures such as the Romans, Greeks and Vikings also had similar activities. Now as then, family and friends gather to grieve, to celebrate a life, to come together in the most basic and necessary of human ways, sharing a meal. It’s archetypal. We eat. We affirm life. We move forward.
Back in the kitchen, the organizing and serving of the funeral meal was in the capable hands of the elder women, probably just as it was at the cave man funerals. Marge and Vi were cutting up deli meat and cheese and organizing it decoratively on trays. Today the bereaved were to eat sandwiches, a simple meal, but there was still a lot to be done.
Betty and I busied ourselves setting out bowls and platters of donated potato salad, macaroni salads, bean salads, and frothy Jell-O salads. We set out chips, pickles, condiments, and bread. We made up pitchers of iced lemonade and water, and brewed gallons of coffee. We cut five different kinds of iced cake into squares and placed them in colorful alternating rows, lemon, two kinds of chocolate, white, and gingerbread, on decorative platters.
Two portly funeral directors and a young, handsome one came down the back stairs to let us know the church was filling up. “Almost a hundred,” they confirmed. They sat down for a quick snack of coffee and cake that Elaine had set out for them, and then they headed back out to usher the mourners to the cemetery. After a short lull, it was time for lunch.
Betty, Vi, and Elaine served the sandwiches and salads from the kitchen pass through, and Marge asked me to join her at the cake table to serve coffee while she poured the lemonade, and water. The pace was hectic, and the water pitcher was heavy, but Marge poured steadily, even while leaning on her cane. I doled out hot coffee from a spout, feeling guilty that Marge had taken charge of the more strenuous task.
When the entire group of mourners had been served, we workers made up our own plates and carried them into a little alcove where we sat and had our lunch.
“One of the reasons I’m here, I am hoping to meet some new people in the Altar Society,” I told the group, and they all agreed that serving at funerals was a good way to meet people in the parish.
“Just about everyone passes through here sooner or later,” observed Marge philosophically.
“So, why do you all serve at funeral lunches?” I asked them as we munched on our sandwiches.
“My mother always served at funeral luncheons,” offered Vi. “So I’ve always done it, too.” The other ladies nodded.
“It’s in the works of mercy,” said Betty. “Feed the hungry and bury the dead.” There was another murmur of assent.
“It’s a kindness to the families, and they’re always very grateful,” added Elaine, and as if to illustrate her comment, some family members leaving the luncheon made a special point to stop and thank us.
I chewed on those thoughts as I finished my chocolate cake and lemonade. In her article “When Women Start Saying No to Church Activities,” Sheila Wray Gregoire describes funeral lunches as a sexist burden, another task foisted off on women. She advocates everyone pitching in extra money for a catered lunch, rather than expecting women of the church to cook and clean.
Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with saving time and labor, and there are no doubt plenty of people who would rather donate money than time, and that’s all well and good. But then I remembered how pretty the squares of cake looked on the platters. There was a personal, human touch that gave beauty and dignity to that simple lunch that no meal out of a Styrofoam container could match.
Besides, society is changing. In The Art of Manliness, Brett McKay points out that although it is true that women do most of the volunteering for funerals, “there’s no reason the modern man can’t also lend a hand.” As if on cue, Elaine’s husband, Al, appeared at the kitchen door to assist with the clean-up process.
I went from table to table offering coffee to the few remaining mourners, while Betty began picking up trash, wiping down tables, putting away the salt, peppers, creamers, and plastic bouquets. Back in the kitchen, the five of us made short work of cleaning, washing dishes, and putting away food. Al carried out the trash, mopped the kitchen, and vacuumed the hall. Except for the short break to eat, we had been working for most of five hours.
Even with my comfortable shoes, I felt a moment of weariness, and I almost sat down in Elaine’s chair in the corner of the kitchen. Then I noticed Vi, delicate and small-boned as a bird, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I leaped back up before my backside actually touched the chair, hoping she hadn’t noticed.
“You should sit,” she said with her sweetest smile. “You look tired.”