An accordian, Hershey candy bars, a bottle of brandy, Kleenex – as a funeral director, Pat Feerick has seen a variety of items chosen by family members to stay in their loved one’s casket for the burial or entombment.
In fact, his father was buried with a long putter and golf balls.
“At Christmas, I always gave my dad golf balls that said Mr. Pipeline on them because he hit the ball so straight. I put all those golf balls in with Dad because there wouldn’t ever be another Mr. Pipeline,” he explained.
Feerick, co-owner of Feerick Funeral Home in Shorewood, said, “People know the spirit moves on, but putting things into the casket gives the family comfort. They feel that the item was always Mom’s or Dad’s and should stay with Mom or Dad.”
Letters are a common item, he noted, and sometimes the writer will ask that the note be placed in the loved one’s hands before the casket is sealed.
“It can be healing to write those words and helps the person feel closer to the deceased,” he said.
Sometimes cultural traditions dictate objects. Feerick cited a Chinese custom that involves placing money with the body.
Tucking everyday items, such as reading glasses, into pockets is sometimes requested.
“One family wanted Kleenex put into the coat pockets because the man always kept Kleenex in his pockets,” he said.
The most unusual item packed inside a casket that he could recall? The deceased’s treasured accordion.
Buried with treasures
Casket makers have responded to the desire to stow special objects inside by designing models that feature an inside shelf, or a small drawer that can be locked.
Mark Zimmer, owner and funeral director for Zimmer’s Westview Funeral Home and Cremation Care Center in Sheboygan, said the drawer is usually used for holding letters or photos.
“Sometimes people want to put in other small objects, like a deck of cards,” he said. “We’ve even put doughnuts in there.”
Because it can be difficult to imagine a loved one without a certain signature item, the
family decides to place them together one last time.
“It’s whatever is important to
the family,” Zimmer said. “Mom
always carried a purse, so they will want to place a purse in the casket, or maybe it’s her favorite quilt she made.”
Jeff Kleczka, funeral director for Prasser-Kleczka Funeral Homes in Milwaukee, recalled that one family placed a fork in the casket because it was a common phrase in the household to save your fork for dessert, and is also a reference to the belief that there’s something even better yet to come.
“We often see families put things into their loved one’s casket,” he said. “Fishing poles and lures, cookbooks or pool sticks – the items chosen have meaning. It’s a final gesture, a way for the family members to pay tribute to that person.”
Elaine Litzau, a funeral director for Krause Funeral Homes in Milwaukee and New Berlin, said, “Wedding rings, rosaries and Bibles are common. We often see drawings made by the grandchildren, and anything Packers, or other team memora
bilia. The more unusual times included a six-pack of beer and a bottle of whiskey.”
Sometimes a person may indicate an object when pre-planning the funeral, Litzau said, but most often the items are thought of by the family.
“I bring it up when discussing the arrangements,” she added. “Many people find comfort in sending their loved one with something special.”
Fr. Ralph Gross, pastor of St. Bruno Parish, Dousman, and a canon lawyer, said that he wasn’t aware of anything in church documents or church law that prohibited items from being placed in a Catholic’s casket.
“I’ve had some interesting things (placed in caskets) over the years,” he said, recalling that a deceased member of one of his previous parishes was a “big Harley guy.”
“He was buried in his Harley gear and hardware. They even put a plastic Harley in there,” the priest said.
Fr. Gross takes a pastoral approach when families wish to place items in the casket.
“Oftentimes, they write letters. We human beings need to say things. It might be ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you.’ It’s important for the living to do that,” he said.
The priest said that the items family members place in caskets usually represent some meaning in the deceased’s life.
“We place rosaries in people’s hands,” he said. “This is a manifestation of their faith. It is
there for us to see.”
Other objects also speak to the
person’s life, said Fr. Gross, an avid golfer who expects “someone will probably put golf balls in my casket someday.”
“This is what the person enjoyed; it contributed to their happiness,” he said. “Many things give us joy, and God is a part of that joy. For the living, the family says this is something that speaks about what kind of person the deceased was.”
Fr. Gross noted that he does what he can to help families deal with their grief, and that “in 41 years as a priest, I have never, ever stood in the way of these things (being placed in the casket).”
A brochure written by the Archdiocesan Council of Priests, “Catholic Funerals – Frequently Asked Questions,” does not specifically address the topic, but does explain that a person’s ashes cannot be mixed with the cremated remains of other individuals, pets or objects.
If there are questions, the family members can ask the funeral director, the parish or contact the archdiocesan Chancery Office.
Theft of items
with monetary value
When valuables are placed in the casket, they unfortunately have the potential to become targets for theft.
Recent examples of thefts from a corpse include an employee at a cemetery in the Green Bay area accused of stealing an electric guitar, valued at $2,000, from a casket in September, and an Eau Claire woman accused of stealing a ring from a deceased woman during the visitation held at a funeral home in Menomonie, in August.
The decision to keep an object inside the casket that has monetary value, or even high sentimental value, is something the funeral director typically will discuss with the family.
“For example, I will ask about the person’s wedding ring because sometimes the family so associates it with Mom or Dad they want it to stay in the casket, but they may want to consider passing it down as a family keepsake,” Feerick said.
If a family chooses to display something with great sentimental or dollar value, “we always ask if they want the item returned before the casket is closed,” Zimmer said. “If an item of value is to remain in the casket, we will have a witness with the funeral director see that the item is inside when the casket is closed.”
Kleczka noted that a family member concerned about valuable items could be present as the casket is being closed, “but this can be very emotional.” He cites the important roles trust and communication play between the funeral director and the family to ensure that their directions are followed.
Zimmer suggests that when selecting a funeral home, the family inquire if a representative from the funeral home stays with the casket until burial or until the crypt is closed.
Funerals are life
Interring loved ones with special mementos is an example of the trend to personalize funerals, Zimmer said.
“As baby boomers plan for their parents’ funerals, they want it to be different than the cookie-cutter funerals of 20 to 30 years ago,” he said.
Videos depicting the individual’s life, and display tables with items representing the person’s hobbies and work are common at visitations today.
“I tell people to bring in as much as they can for the displays. We want to honor each part of a person’s life,” Feerick said. “It can be anything and everything – from saddles to shot glasses filled with scotch to bowls of gummy bears. The focus is on celebrating the person’s life.”