Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Regional customs

Today I bought a copy of the Allentown Morning Call and went through it, page by page. I was looking for something specific, and I didn't find it, or anything like it.

What I was looking for was a memorial ad for someone who died a year ago today. In my local paper, the Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice, there are several of these in each day's paper, usually a small block maybe two inches by two inches (or larger) with the words "In Loving Memory Of", the name of the deceased, the date of birth, date of death, maybe a brief poem, and the name of the person or people who have placed the ad. Often these are placed on the anniversary of the person's death, sometimes many years after they have died. Sometimes these take the form of "Happy Birthday in Heaven" and are presented on the deceased's birth anniversary.

As I said, almost any given day will feature one or more of these ads in the Citizens' Voice. But I didn't find a single one in today's Morning Call. I thought that was somewhat strange. Then I got to wondering: does the Morning Call ever have these memorial ads? Or is this something peculiar to my local area?

Allentown is located about seventy miles south of Nanticoke. Nanticoke is at the southwestern end of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton corridor, a series of major and minor cities and communities that form a long band with tapered ends that runs diagonally along Interstate 81 from Carbondale in the northeast to just beyond Nanticoke at the southwest end. I have always thought of this as the heart of Northeastern Pennsylvania, but there are those who think otherwise.

Allentown is located in the Lehigh Valley, a major agricultural and post-industrial region bordering on both New Jersey and the Greater Philadelphia region in the southeast. Ethnically, culturally, it is a world away from Northeastern Pennsylvania. A few years ago, in a now-closed bookstore, I saw a book of cartoons about the peculiar habits of Northeastern PA called "If You've Ever Gone Trick-Or-Treating in a Bar..." Next to it was another book called something like "If You've Ever Trimmed Your Grass with Scissors...", showing someone using scissors to clear the weeds between their sidewalks. This was a book of cartoons about the peculiar habits of people in, I believe, York, PA. I flipped through the first one (which may have specifically been about the Wyoming Valley) and could relate to almost everything that I saw. I flipped through the second, about a community more than 130 miles away, and I could relate to almost none of them.

Regional customs exist almost everywhere. Part of the trick of fitting in in a new place is to recognize, adopt, and master these customs so that you do not unconsciously announce your other-ness to the locals. On the other hand, it is the height of provincialism to assume that your own regional customs are universal and the norm everywhere, even if the region from which you come is a major metropolitan area.

So what is the case with memorial ads? Are they something peculiar to Northeastern Pennsylvania? Are they unheard of in the Lehigh Valley? Are they something that the rest of the world might look upon as morbid and mawkish, and perhaps a touch ghoulish? Or are they perhaps an ancient custom that other parts of the world have simply forgotten?

Does anybody know?

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