In the last post, I wrote about the personal loss of our dear Uncle John. I want to share with you my observations about the differences between two countries and the way that funerals are handled. Honestly, there are more similarities than differences, but there are just a few that do stand out.

In many countries, you have the option of purchasing funeral insurance where you pay a small monthly fee. But the difference is that in The Netherlands this insurance does not just cover expenses, it also does all the work. These companies take care of all the preparations for the funeral and are not just there to provide cheaper rates. When you have purchase insurance and eventually die, your family will meet with a representative from the company and make all the plans together. This representative will then take care of everything, from the funeral home, the church, the casket, the obituary and the burial or cremation. This company takes care of the whole thing, so that the family does not have to deal with all these individual worries. If you do not have funeral insurance, then you will go directly to the funeral home and pay full price. The interesting twist in this country is that the company does all the work, IF you have insurance.

The formalities are pretty much the same: calling hours and a church service. If you are having a cremation, you can have an extra service (which is what we had with Uncle John). This was the final step in our two days of “mourning” and it was quite personal and moving. The calling hours are similar to the ones in America. It was held in a large room, where there was an open casket and the family stood to one side to greet all the visitors. Once people had been greeted, they could sit down and have a cup of coffee and tea. Most people stayed the full time visiting with friends and sharing stories. This also gave the family a good chance to have long chats with friends. The next morning was the church service and from there people drove to the crematorium. There was a theatre where we all faced the casket, but this service was all about the family sharing their personal stories and hearing music that reflected Uncle John. This was very emotional and it just seemed so perfectly done. At the end of this service, people were invited to another room to have drinks and sandwiches. Once again, people had a chance to visit and to greet friends and family. All of this was taken care of by the insurance company, the planning and the expenses. This was all part of the “package”.

The most unique thing about Dutch funerals are the invitations. People receive a printed invitation in the mail and that is how they know about all the ceremonies and dates. There is a paid obituary in the local newspaper, but as is the Dutch custom, most people do not come to a funeral without getting an invitation. The invitations are professionally printed and naturally, have to be done very quickly. The family is responsible for addressing the envelopes and getting them to the mail box in time. There are special discounted stamps for a funeral and the postal service will deliver these invitations the next day, if put in the mail box by 5pm. The invitation is basically informing people about the death and giving them all the information about the funeral services. And I stress again, it is rare to show up at a funeral without getting an invitation, but it can been done. The invitations are also part of the insurance package.

Even though this is a small country, the regions of the country could have different traditions for a funeral. But basically, the funeral is to respect the wishes of the deceased and to reflect that person’s life, and that is universal, isn’t it?

Through this whole process, I met a lot of really nice people who loved Uncle John. When I met them, I felt I was getting to know him a little better each time. Sometimes, when I greeted the men, I could see Uncle John in them and that was a comfort too. Funerals allow you to cry in public and that is a good thing, I think.

There was a funny moment at the calling hours. We had all lined up to greet the first arrivals, and to my right were our two children. They both turned to me at the same time and said “Jane, when the person comes up to you, put out your right hand and shake it. That is how we do it here.” I looked at them and laughed “do you actually think I don’t know how to shake someone’s hand?!” They shyly looked at me and said “well, we didn’t know if Americans used the same hand as we do.” I think we all needed that moment.

Finally, I will share one beautiful moment with you, if I may. On the morning of the funeral, the family gathered at the funeral home to have a last farewell with Uncle John before the casket was closed and taken to the church. We were a variety of ages, from 12 to 74, and we were all hit with many emotions. Before the casket was closed, we took all the get well cards that had been on Uncle John’s hospital room wall, and placed them in the lower part of the casket. Uncle John loved those cards and when a visitor would come, he would say “look at all my fan mail”. So we all laid these bright and colorful cards in the casket and said goodbye one last time. Then, we as a family, closed the lid (I confess that I struggled with this moment) and then the flowers were put on top. He was now ready for his last drive through his beloved town of Borculo.

Recommended reading: BENEDICTION by Kent Haruf. I absolutely adore this writer. If you have not read his previous novels, please get them asap. He writes about the simple and yet troubled life, with such clear characters. You believe that these people could really be living in Colorado. His latest book is character driven and just it just flies. Enjoy.

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  • Carol  On August 18, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Very interesting. I had some difficulty with the idea of invitations in the USA. For one: I was a mess when my mother died and to think of trying to address invitations would have been a disaster. Second, I’ve seen people come into a funeral home that I hadn’t seen in years. Didn’t even know they were still alive. Those people would be left out in the cold. Also, I’m not sure about the insurance. There’s a good side to it, but many bad points too.
    Thank you for sharing this, Jane. I enjoyed reading it.

  • Jean Langley  On August 19, 2013 at 1:14 am

    I had a similar comment to Carol’s. Do people need an invitation to the wake? I’ve been in both situations, both as a relative of the deceased, and as a visitor to a wake. In both cases, it was an opportunity to learn about a connection their family member or friend had but didn’t know about, or an opportunity to share some insight or a story or even just an introduction about my connection with the deceased. I think it enriches the experience on both sides.
    At funerals, though, I’ve rarely attended one where people get up and speak, and if there’s a reception afterwards, I can see why the family would want only people they invited, especially if it’s at a restaurant or hall.
    I liked the idea of putting Uncle John’s cards in the casket with him.

  • inke  On August 19, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    My condolences for your loss, Jane. I read your own obituary for your Uncle John, beautiful. The obituaries in the newspapers are a way to reach people whom couldn’t get a written invitation because they have moved or are for any other reason out of touch with the deceased. There is not always a diary with up to date adresses available. ( I know my own mother had little slips of paper with names EVERYWHERE! In books, in drawers, really everywhere. )
    This way they have a chance to say goodbye and pay their respect to the family and friends. After the service, when visitors, invited to coffee, tea and cake have paid their respects to family and friends, the family , close friends and neighbours usually gets together at home or in a restaurant to have a meal together and a drink to remember the one who left.

  • Pied Piper  On August 20, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    I’ve been meaning to comment on your posts but my work blocks them. Anyway, been meaning to send you a note because of Prince Friso’s death (which saddened me a lot). I didn’t know you were burying your own Johan. My deepest condolences to you and yours. It’s been said that civilization began when man learned to bury its dead. So true, as we remain the only specie who goes through the rituals of a funeral without the intent of serving the corpse later for dinner. Or maybe in some areas we do.

    I’m one of those death hags – I found fascination in funerals (except my own parents’) – and there is a really quaint indie movie you should see. It’s called “Restless” about a kid who attends strangers’ funerals. His only friend was the ghost of a kamikaze pilot, until he meets an equally quirky girl played by Mia Wasikowska. The Jackson Browne song “Fairest of the Seasons” (sang by Nico) was one of the most haunting scenes – especially since I have that little-known song in my iPod.

  • janeduttonutrecht  On August 20, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    hello Pied Piper, great to hear from you. thanks for the movie tip, I love the sound of it. as for Prince Friso, he was buried the day after we came back from Uncle John’s funeral. The royal family made a big deal about being very private about this funeral and the press and locals were very respectful to their request. He was a very private man, and it is such a sad story, especially when you see his young wife and children.

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