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How We Die: Examining Burial and Funeral Traditions in West Virginia

Exploring the Honors EXCEL Project of Raven Forshee

By Stephanie Golden, Honors Student Ambassador

Raven Forshee headshot

Raven Forshee is a junior biology major and religious studies minor from Huntington, West Virginia. Raven is currently in the Honors EXCEL Program. Her project “How We Die: Examining Burial and Funeral Traditions in West Virginia” explores why people have the burial and funeral preferences they do.

“Why is it that some people are choosing to purchase 20 plots at a time in a cemetery owned by the city versus being buried in the backyard versus being cremated and having the ashes stored or scattered?” Raven asks.

This question is not a simple one to answer. Raven will attempt to address this question by researching the social, economic and religious factors that contribute to peoples’ funerary decisions.

Raven’s interest in the topic is largely rooted in where she grew up. In Huntington, there is a large cemetery called Springfield Cemetery that covers multiple acres and is “smack in the middle of a residential area.” According to Raven, some of her childhood friends had parents that would buy twenty or more plots at one time for them, for any children they would have and for the generations to come. 

She went on to describe something she observed in the neighborhood that her grandparents live in. It is a normal neighborhood where you will find residents driving minivans, walking their dogs or taking a morning jog. However, in this neighborhood there is one house that stands out, with a family cemetery taking up half of the backyard. 

This sharp contrast between the huge, city-owned cemetery and the tiny backyard one is what inspired Raven’s project.

The Research Process 

During her first semester of the Honors EXCEL Program, one of her out-of-classroom-experiences (OCEs) was sitting down with a funeral home director in Morgantown. He offered to connect Raven with other directors across the state. By speaking directly with funeral service providers, she will learn more about the traditions and preferences for funeral procedures throughout West Virginia. 

Raven is researching under the guidance of her Honors EXCEL mentor, Alyssa Beall. Beall is a teaching assistant professor in the religious studies department who specializes in religion and popular culture. Beall is planning to connect Raven with a variety of religious figures throughout the state, whether a Christian priest, a Jewish rabbi, an Islamic imam or a Buddhist monk. Talking to religious leaders will provide valuable insight on how religion presents itself in each region of West Virginia and how it impacts individuals’ decisions when discussing death and burial.

When asked which factor she believed would have the greatest impact, Raven said, “I feel like economic factors are going to play a huge role, especially when looking at more remote and rural areas in West Virginia where people don’t have a very high annual income. Alongside that, another really big factor will be sociological — what everyone else around them is doing.” This is where the aspects of family and community come into play.

A Unique Pairing — Biology and Religious Studies

It isn’t often that you come across a student pairing a STEM major such as biology with a religious studies minor. Raven’s stepdad had a role in this. He had taken religious studies courses in the past and encouraged her to try one out. Raven took Religion 102 as a general education course for Honors credit, and ended up loving it enough that she decided to minor in religious studies.

“We think of religion in our world as a one-dimensional thing. We go to church on Sunday, and then we go home, but in reality, its connections to the world are incredibly deep,” Raven said.

Raven pointed out how prominent religion is in society today. We see religion projected through certain laws, what is shown on television, the holidays people are given days off of work for, and in some countries, what you can and cannot sell or consume in public.

According to Raven, biology and religious studies are a great pair because “you can’t live in a world without science, but you also can’t live in a world without religion.” They are more intertwined than we think, and both have a huge influence on people she said.

Raven hopes to go into research after graduating from WVU. She has been looking into some M.D./Ph.D. programs for her post-undergraduate work. She hopes to practice and research medicine at the same time. Ideally, she would work and research at a teaching hospital where she could help patients and the next generation of doctors by researching more useful and cost-effective treatments.

Outside of the Classroom

Raven Forshee posing in front of Woodburn Hall, one hand on her hip.Raven Forshee posing in front of Woodburn Hall, both arms extended and one leg in the air.

Raven serves in several leadership positions for organizations on campus. She is the treasurer of the WVU Medicine and the Arts Club, the secretary of the WVU chapter of the American Association of University Women, and the community service chair of Alpha Epsilon Delta, a national health pre-professional honor society. In her free time, she enjoys crocheting, reading sci-fi and thrillers and watching scary movies. She considers herself to be a horror movie buff and enjoys breaking down the plots of the films. She also recommends anything written by author Riley Sager, especially his novel titled “Final Girls.”  

Raven in Ica, Peru.

Applying to the Honors EXCEL Program

Raven is just one of many students currently involved in the Honors EXCEL program. You can be too! Applications are open for second-year students with 3.4+ GPAs through April 1. Learn more here