Baltimore is a city where traditions pass slowly. And customs associated with death are among our most tenacious.
Today is the Christian feast of All Saints, when the sainted dead, known and unknown, are honored. Tomorrow is All Souls' Day, the commemoration of all the faithful departed.
"In the old days, if a frost had hit by the first of November, we'd have hundreds of orders for flowers," said Stash Filar, the third generation of his family to operate a florist business in East Baltimore. "People want fresh flowers for their family's graves."
Even though there's been no killing frost in the city, Filar still has orders for 500 to 600 arrangements that will be placed on graves, particularly at St. Stanislaus Cemetery on Dundalk Avenue, where the Franciscan fathers will celebrate a mass at 2 p.m. Sunday in the mausoleum.
Many families who still keep the old customs will be present. The ceremony once included an elaborate walking of the cemetery paths. When one path crossed another, the priest incensed the spot and doused it with holy water. The four corners of the burial ground also were blessed. On a cold and blustery November Sunday, the sight of the black-robed Franciscan priests walking the cemetery's roads in procession was a sobering sight.
Many Catholics all over the region still write down the names of their deceased loved ones and place the lists on church altars so the prayers of the living may help the dead.
"The theological basis for the feast [of All Souls] is the doctrine that the souls, which on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or who have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, almsdeeds, and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass," says the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Throughout the year in Baltimore, the customs associated with death and funerals are observed in ways peculiar to the region. Some may consider these hopelessly old-fashioned, but in matters of death, tradition and emotion win out.
Baltimore has distinct tastes in flowers for funerals that are unknown in other parts of the country. Perhaps the city's greatest affection is for what florists call the "set piece," an elaborate, free-standing arrangement that takes an easily recognized shape.
Older families often order a "bleeding heart," a red carnation or rose floral piece shaped like a heart, with red ribbons and miniature carnations made into a tendril-like piece that extends out the side. The heart also can have a crack purposely fashioned into the flowers. The arrangement symbolizes the sorrow of the occasion.
Commemoration of death can have its lighter moments. If the decreased enjoyed fishing or the pleasures of hard crabs, families will have floral fish or crab arrangement at the coffin. If the person was a big traveler, there are carnation suitcases. Also popular are bingo cards and bingo chairs, as well as vacant chairs rendered in flowers. The owner of a large North Avenue garage specified in his will that he wanted a complete scale model of a 1948 Ford at his wake. More common are floral crosses and pillows.
A floral telephone with the receiver off the hook is another Baltimore favorite. This set piece carries the motto, "Jesus is calling" or "Jesus has called."
The heavenly gates ajar in carnations and mums also is popular. A broken circle or broken floral wheel has deep symbolism. This is traditionally furnished when a family suffers the first death of a child.
There are as many variations of funeral customs in Baltimore as there are ethnic and racial differences.
Black families will sometimes request a blue, white or beige veil placed over the open coffin of the deceased. At the funeral, a full obituary of the person is read and copies of the life story are distributed -- and saved -- by the mourners.
At Advent Episcopal Church in South Baltimore, the Rev. Richard Bryant wears black vestments for funerals and has unbleached pure beeswax candles lined up by the coffin. The candles have a peculiar orange color and are used only for requiems.
The city's small Serbian community in southwest Baltimore keeps a small table with a decanter discreetly to the side of the coffin. A visitor pays his or her last respects, then has a small ceremonial drink to the deceased. The Lithuanians often serve a large post-funeral breakfast at Lithuanian Hall on Hollins Street. Many churches have committees for post-funeral lunches and dinners.
And, on the way to the graveyard, many families tell hearse drivers to make a slight detour around the home of the deceased so he or she can go one last time around the block.