Tradition defies heat as families mourn

September 03, 2002|By Connie Cone Sexton | Connie Cone Sexton,ARIZONA REPUBLIC

PHOENIX - David Wright stood in the shadow of the giant Italian cypress at the Mesa City Cemetery and mopped his brow.

It was just after noon and 103 degrees in the shade. Conservative beliefs and family tradition had put Wright into a dark suit that day.

Black was found among bright colors at the graveside of 3-month-old Knowledge Davon Williams Jordan. Wright moved his handkerchief from palm to palm.

"I could have worn something cooler but it wouldn't have felt right," the 42-year-old Phoenix resident said.

Despite summer's intense heat, many of those headed to graveside services in Arizona still don dark colors.

Even those who opt for lighter wear say they'd rather suffer through the heat than not attend a final goodbye.

"There's a strong cultural element to the importance of the graveside service," said Mike Hoyt, field operations director for the city of Glendale, Ariz., which runs its own cemetery.

Cemeteries and funeral homes provide what comfort they can during summer months, even to the point of specifically telling family members they don't have to wear black. They encourage mourners to have something to drink before heading to the grave.

Often, immediate family members have been so overcome by grief, they've had little to drink or eat.

For those who forget, water and paper cups are at the gravesite. Cemeteries also often have ice machines and fill 5-gallon water containers at the burial and some roll out coolers containing bottled water.

For shade, cloth or metal canopies are wheeled over the gravesite and chairs face away from the sun.

But even those who hate the heat may not notice when they're dealing with a death.

"Some people become a little numb to the elements because they're numb with grief," said Dan Salter, general manager of Greenwood Memory Lawn Mortuary and Cemetery.

"I think people should take precautions and even carry water with them if they feel they need to," he said. "If they feel overcome by heat or emotion, they need to sit down," but grief can dull their senses.

Some family members or friends of the deceased who are most susceptible to the heat go to the gravesite anyway. They think they have to be there.

Salter, who lost his son, Ryan, 25, on Jan. 28, 1998, said just acknowledging the death by attending a visitation or funeral service can be enough.

"We know there were people who didn't go to the grave and we understood," Salter said.

"People will understand if you can't take the heat."

That was certainly how Phoenix resident Shirley Burrier felt the day her husband, Floyd, was buried. He died June 22, 1990, and his service was four days later on what stands as the hottest day on record in the Valley.

"It was 122 degrees," Burrier said. "We went to the graveside after his service and it was so hot that day. I know it was too much for some people."

Still, she couldn't imagine not being by her husband's side as he was buried.

But she didn't wear black.

"I wore something my husband liked. It was a light-colored print dress, a go-to-church-on Sunday dress."

Although you won't find funeral workers tbese days being so casual, things were a bit more lax in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

"On May 1, we could take our coats off and we'd wear a white shirt and dark tie," said Paul Messinger, chairman of Mes- singer Mortuary in Scottsdale.

"And on Oct. 1, we'd put our coats back on."

In the 1950s, a new funeral director came to town and was aghast, saying the practice hurt the industry.

"So now the coats stay on, even during the hottest of summers," Messinger said.

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