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I always thought that funeral home clocks were simply a matter of public relations, advertising, good will and a convenience to the community. Boy was I wrong!
I discovered that it was no mere advertising agency’s thinking that it would be a good idea to put a clock on funeral home buildings. No, there was and still is a profound symbolic message to the combination of the ticking clock and the work going on inside the mortuary, a message that was no fortunate accident of public relations.
The great psychologist Rollo May writes on page 49 of his book. “Existence”: “The confrontation of death gives the most positive reality to life itself. It makes the individual existence real, absolute and concrete. Death is the one fact of my life which is not relative, but absolute, and my awareness of this gives my existence and what I do each hour an absolute quality.”
Dr. May is right and we all know it, but we also live in a terribly death-denying time and culture, and it is not getting better. Being carefree, thin, beautiful, blissful, wealthy, etc. are much more attractive to people these days than heeding Dr. May’s message, the message those clocks on funeral home buildings also convey.
Years ago, when people would pass the undertaking parlor, mortuary, funeral home or embalming company and look at the clock, the meaning was clear: The minutes of my life are ticking away with every tick of that funeral home’s (death) clock, and someday, someplace, sometime my clock, my time, is going to stop.
This unspoken message connecting time with death was so powerful that in 1876 Henry Clay Work composed the grand old song, “My Grandfather’s Clock.” The lyrics are devoted precisely to the theme of time and death. Remember the words:
My grandfather’s clock Was too large for the shelf, So it stood ninety years on the floor; It was taller by half, Than the old man himself, Though it weighted not a pennyweight more. It was bought on the morn Of the day that he was born, And was always his treasure and pride; But it stopped short Never to go again, When the old man died. Ninety years without slumbering Tick, tock, tick, tock, His life seconds numbering, Tick, tock, tick, Never to go again When the old man died.
I remember singing at the top of my lungs in the 1950s when I was a schoolboy and our class would sing this great old song. At the time, I had no idea what the words meant, but I do now.
The symbolic meaning of combining time with death which is so elegantly and gently and silently done by putting a clock on a funeral home building sends a message, a terribly valuable message to every generation: There is an urgency to live your life now and to the fullest because your time is not limitless; your time will end. Life is fragile and each second that ticks by is gone forever and all the money that Warren Buffet might have cannot purchase one second of it—time is the most valuable thing in life. Time if fleeting, and so is life. It is here now and then gone in a flash. We ourselves are here now and then gone in a flash.
It is well to remind ourselves in funeral service sociology that in Orthodox Judaism when someone dies the family will do two things immediately. They will cover all the mirrors in the home, and they will intentionally stop all the clocks. Time symbolically stands still, for a while at least, and then time moves on. This is a powerful message about life and death.
So my good friends in funeral service, the next time you look to see what time it is and the clock you are looking at is on the funeral home building, take a moment to reflect what a precious gift our time on earth really is. What a novel way to teach personal death awareness –simply putting a clock on a funeral home building. Whoever thought that one up was wise.
I also want to thank my colleague who called me with that question. Mighty interesting stuff! Well, anyway, that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.
Tick, tock, tick, tock.