Written by Rick Trejo, Licensed Funeral Director
The summer morning began with a telephone call to a new family. I talked with her about pictures for the video, and she said that was why they called us. She had visited a few weeks prior and was impressed with the tribute video shown at the chapel. We agreed on a time to meet and complete funeral arrangements.
When the family arrived, I had a Last Will and Testament thrust into my hands. Not being a lawyer, I was not sure what I was supposed to see. The family said, “See this?” and pointed to the section I was supposed to read. It said something about an American Indian service. I sat down, looked up and asked what I could do to help them.
The family said, “Your receptionist said you just had an Indian service yesterday, so you tell us what we need to do.”
I said, “Yes, we did just hold an Indian service, but that family was from the country of India, they were not native American Indians.”
Their faces turned to looks of disappointment. The woman sighed and said, “My husband had specific ceremony requests regarding his American Indian culture. Now we won’t be able to do what he wanted.”
I asked them “What are the requests your husband made?”
With some hesitation, the family said that her husband had wanted to have the service held at his “farm” in the Hocking Hills.
I responded “Why not? We can do that.”
The silence was deafening. With a more hopeful tone, additional requests followed. Could the service be held outside at dusk? Could an American Indian priestess lead the service? Could the family have a bonfire at the service? I replied to these and all their requests with “Yes”.
Working together, it was decided that we would have visitation in the small cabin located on his secluded property in the Hocking Hills. Then pallbearers would move the casket out by the fire circle for an evening service. We even reviewed unique details for this special location such as the anticipation of heavy dew and mosquitoes.
Those earlier looks of disappointment had been replaced with faces filled with relief and joy! The stepson’s partner told me they liked our “can-do” attitude. The wife said she had been convinced that there was no way that we would even consider doing such a service. How pleased they were that their loved one’s wishes would be fulfilled!
We arranged to take a full set of equipment to the cabin including: lights, flower stands, sign-in table, tissues, baskets for memorials cards and special memories notecards, picture boards, casket biers, etc. We tried to think of everything.
The day of the service, our team arrived to set up the main room of the cabin for the visitation just as if we were in a traditional funeral chapel. On a table, set up a few feet from the open casket, Indian artifacts and family pictures were displayed. Our team stationed ourselves both inside and outside of the un-air-conditioned cabin welcoming guests and directing folks to the different venues.
At dusk, pallbearers carried the casket outside to the fire ring. Family and friends gathered together under a star filled sky. An American Indian priestess led the service with prayers and chants. She lit a fire stick that gave off a pungent smoke. The fire stick was passed around the circle to each person and they could choose to say a few final words of farewell. As the service concluded the only sounds heard in the wooded hills were the wind gently blowing and the crickets chirping. The man’s stepsons presented a final salute. They walked a short distance over a ridge and fired muskets. The report was tremendous and echoed across the hills.
Our staff had continued to assist the family beyond the planning of the funeral service. We meet with the cemetery management to inform them of the deceased’s cultural heritage. The following morning at the graveside service the family was so pleased and proud because there was a large tree near the grave.
The key to the success of creating this healing experience was listening to the family. Once they shared the specific wishes for the ceremony their loved one requested, the challenge simply became the logistics. A tribute they anticipated would not be possible was made a reality. The participation by family and friends at the funeral ceremony was beneficial for everyone. The family thanked us again and again for creating the perfect service.
Michael is a sixth generation funeral director and is president of Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service.