A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the difficulties we have in balancing the needs of diverse people in memorials and funerals. Then, as part of the “Forward Thinking” series I am running with Libby Anne, I asked the blogosphere to answer the following question: “If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?” In this post we have lots of interesting responses!
A lot of the posts talk about the importance of telling stories. Self-described Jewdhist, Shira Coffee has a wonderful meditation on how our lives are stories and how important it is for us that, like all stories, have good endings:
we are the narrative of our lives.
I do not mean this metaphorically. I mean to say that selfhood — that quintessentially human experience of being a unique, enduring individual — is the output of a suite of brain modules that reduce the unremitting, overwhelming stream of sensation, thoughts and interpretations into a linear series of events organized along a chain of causes and effects… or in other words, into a narrative. I don’t have a story; rather, I am a story, or at least a series of drafts of a story. (I guess it’s not a fictional story, or at least not wholly fictional. Some parts are likely truer than others, but I probably can’t tell which are which.)
A “good” story needs to make sense. That’s the point of all our storifying, really. The future is terrifyingly unpredictable, but by understanding the past, we hope to be prepared. At the same time, a good story should not be too predictable, because that’s boring. And so, ideally, we want a story that is full of interest and suspense, but which finally — at the moment of death — makes sense.
Think about the great death scenes in history. Think of Jesus suffering on the cross, Buddha reclining beneath the sal tree, Socrates gesturing with one hand while, in the other, he holds aloft the cup of poison. Their deaths condensed all the details of those men’s lives into a single, comprehensible and indelibly memorable moment. This wrap-up, this instant of perfect intelligibility is what we long for, I think, for ourselves and for everyone we care about.
In Meaning in a Time of Mourning: Secular Celebration of a Life Well Lived George Waye of Misplaced Grace talked about the value of emphasizing how when we die our personal impact continues through those we leave behind. A story about his grandfather’s funeral unites this theme beautifully with a cautionary tale about the inadequacy of having eulogies from people who did not know the deceased personally and the difficulty of having clergy give eulogies for secular people, and to them:
During the eulogy, the Minister recalled this story of my Grandfather and the magic tricks. Being the rhetorical magician that most Ministers are, he took the moment to try and teach us a faith lesson about how a man can be so close to the beauty of religion without ever actually expressing it in words. The Minister seized upon this moment, telling us all that here was a man who loved the mystery- who embraced the illusion; here was a man who saw that there was something more to things than what lies at the surface. Isn’t that what faith is about?Isn’t it about trusting that there are reasons that lie beneath everything that we see, even when it is not visible to the eye?
There was a part to the story of my Grandpa and his magic tricks that the Minister had left noticeably absent from his retelling. The reason I liked those tricks was that after frustrating over so many of the solutions, and admittedly solving very few of them on my own, my Grandpa would show me how it was done. He would slow it down, take special care to make me aware of his hands and what they were doing- and expose the illusion as just that: an illusion. My Grandfather loved the mystery, yes. What I want to think he valued more was watching me solve the puzzle; he wanted me to look past the surface and see that there was no magic there other than what he had wanted me to see. I like to think that my Grandfather did much to train my mind to break an illusion down into simple, explainable steps and not get caught up in what seemed to be the implausible.
Maybe this Minister thought that in a moment of grief that none of us would give much thought to what can only be described as the worst analogy ever. Maybe he thought it was just a cute segue from a personal story to the conciliatory platitudes of his faith. I wanted to laugh. I thought to myself that my Grandfather had played one last sleight of hand that day- he had let a rhetorical magician build an illusion; he watched as I carefully examined the sleight of hand and exposed the trick. My Grandfather respected illusions, but he always wanted you to be in on the sleight of hand.
In Love After Death (But Not Like In Ghost), Matt Recla of Exiting Christianity wants a lot more honesty and a lot less platitudes:
A ceremony in celebration of a life should include high and low points that remind us of a common humanity. Pleasant memories should be spoken from friends and family. (If the person was not a happy or pleasant person, or came to an unplanned end because of poor choices, then an honest assessment of his or her life is in order, without condemnation, but also without sugarcoating. In other words, don’t do it like that creepy Robin Williams movie where he splices peoples lives together on film.) Objects the individual loved, such as songs, paintings, pictures, movies, experiences, could be experienced by those gathered as a way of affirming the validity of the individual and our love for them. Also importantly, set aside a time for silent reflection, and a brief time for conversation, perhaps among smaller groups, about the deceased but also a candid assessments of one’s own feelings, actions, and reflections in light of the event shared by all present.
Many or perhaps most of these things are already done. What could be left out is the rhetoric that accompanies the ceremony for the deceased, an understanding paradoxically achieved by saying we don’t understand. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows the initial inadequacy of any explanation to compensate for the loss. Resorting to platitudes about only God knowing the reason for a death, a “death-for” God, in other words, refuses to confront the fragility of life and the certainty of death. It instead explains it with the indefensible. An openness, instead, both to the vulnerability of our love and the tenuousness of our existence with reference to the life of the deceased provides the opportunity for a non-sectarian solidarity and a more authentic commitment to our own lives.
In Creating Spaces for Collective Mourning, Libby Anne of Love Joy Feminism argues for focusing on what all mourners shared, the life of the deceased, and separating off religious ceremonies of remembrance from those where all are in unison:
Perhaps someday, if our country continues to become more religiously diverse and less substantially Christian, we could work toward a norm where this is one large communal funeral focused on celebrating the life of the deceased alongside smaller religious funerals. This would allow everyone to come together and share what they have in common without sacrificing what they hold differently as well. In the meantime, it’s always possible for friends or family members who feel alienated from the official funeral to hold their own, more private memorial services.
Now, remember what I said, above, about collectively grieving together through a focus on the life of the deceased rather than on where he or she is now? Well, that’s all well and good—if everyone gets on board with it. That works just fine until a relative tells a grieving girlfriend that her fiance is now burning in hell. Or until the twentieth time someone tells a grieving parent that her child is “in a better place now.” I think it comes down to respect. If I respect others’ rights to grieve in their own way, they need to respect my right to grieve in my own way as well. It also comes down to intent. Comments about how the deceased is now burning in hell are obviously born out of ill-intent while comments like “he’s in a better place now” may be painful but are probably not meant as such.
Speaking of this excellent idea of separating the different components of mourning and reflection out and giving them each their own space, the local Buddhists that Lana of Widening Ground discusses with great pictures) have fascinating practices that she details before giving her takeaway of what she would incorporate were she designing rituals for mourning:
Because I am a Christian, I found it interesting that I could participate in their funerals so easily without feeling too uncomfortable. I think here are the main reasons, and some of this would be easy to implement in North America too.
1. Celebrate the life. One thing that I enjoy in Asia is that the life is celebrated. In addition to food, I’d like to see Americans make the time to socialize, hang out, and share the stories to the family most at loss. I am an introvert, but I still see this as a very important time for healing collectively.
2. Have a designated place for prayer. Prayers are private, but nonetheless an important part of a Buddhists funeral. In the western world if family and friends are split between secularism and religious, or simply different religions, I think having a time of prayer before or after the ceremony would be sufficient, or perhaps an area of the room during the visitation where this can be done. I would still not be against a short prayer at the funeral of a religious family, but if a family is secular, I would see no reason why his or her religious family or friends could not adopt a time of silent prayers separate from the ceremony much like the Buddhists do.
3. Have a separate time for teaching. The part that makes me most uncomfortable at a Buddhists funeral is the time when the monks come and teach because we are expected to bow face down. It makes me uncomfortable, but its easy to skip because its not part of the cremating ceremony. In the western world, if a family is split in their religious and non-religious beliefs, its possible that we could adopt a separate teaching time though in all honesty evangelical Americans would be more reluctant to attend anything extra. In short, I’d be inclined to just skip sermons altogether, but if a religious teaching and sacraments are important, then family could have a religious ceremony separate.
4. A time for sharing the life. Share the life at the funeral. If the person was a Christian, share about how that impacted his or her life. But we don’t have to add a sermon to do this. I am a Christian myself, but I find the idea of someone using my death to talk about heaven and hell appalling. Focus on my life, and comfort those who were left behind. Back to point number one, I mentioned celebrating the life first because I think my loved ones would want to hear from everyone who knew me and had stories about me, not just those in the ceremony.
In Death and Ritual, JT Eberhard of What Would JT Do? is resistant to the idea of rituals, because of the ways we all grieve differently, but has urgent advice about how to prepare for death and how to let others grieve in their own ways:
Battles are often won long before the first shot is fired, by strategists who scour the environment beforehand and manipulate the conditions to give them the greatest advantage. It doesn’t guarantee victory, but it seriously ups the winning percentage. People dying, when it’s not sudden, is that way. Don’t wait until someone dies to set yourself up to grieve – do it in the weeks beforehand. When my grandmother was dying of cancer, I drove home every weekend I could. I thanked her for helping me to attend college, and said all the things that came to my mind (even I struggle with that sometimes). I told her I loved her repeatedly. I sat at the side of her bed and hugged her during her few waking hours every day.
That way, when I went to war with my grief, it was on my terms and with as few unknowns as possible. Pre-planning doesn’t mean you’ll always win, or that grieving will be easy, but it’s a heaping dose of emotional anesthetic.
Always grieve on your terms, and if someone you know is grieving and their terms are not yours, let them fucking be.
The atheist Ed Brayton of Dispathes from the Culture Wars was also not a fan of rituals so instead he rose to the occasion of addressing the difficulties of balancing trueness to one’s own views with respect for the views of others, including the deceased. He did this by recounting his eulogy for his vaguely theistic mother and stressing that a funeral is no place for offending anyone or sparking a fight:
I don’t remember my exact words but they went something like this: “I would love to think that I will someday be reunited with her, and with others I have lost. Unfortunately, I don’t see any good reason to believe that I will. I’m sure many here do believe in such a future. But there is one form of immortality that we can all believe in. She will live on in the lives of her children and grandchildren and her many friends. I will think of her every time I hear a Barbara Streisand song (her favorite singer) or drive by a Bill Knapp’s (she loved one particular dish they served). Her grandchildren will think of her every time they go fishing and bait a hook, or every time they bake a pie, just the way she taught them to do. Regardless of whether a heaven awaits us, we all live on in the lives of those we touched while we were alive.”
Rachel at Ripening Reason defends the role of rituals:
I certainly don’t advocate a return to the strictures of formal mourning; I can’t imagine many women would find draping themselves in black crepe for a set period to be their preferred expression of grief. However, I think we may have lost something useful in allowing some of these procedures to fall away. The point of wearing mourning clothes was to signal to intrusive people that they should back off and not make inane comments like, “What’s wrong, did your dog die?” I’m not sure that mourning clothes and black armbands are going to make a comeback, though, and I’m dubious that their original intent would be respected.
However, I think there are still lessons to be learned from the protocol of the past. As Emily Post observes, the purpose of etiquette is to smooth social interactions, and navigating etiquette during mourning can be stressful for both the bereaved and their sympathizers. Although some of the protocols she describes are archaic, and some are completely nonsensical, she repeatedly emphasizes consideration for grieving people. I think consideration for the bereaved should be the guiding principle for mourning practices.
In the debate over whether funerals are for the living or the dead, I side with the living. I do think that the wishes of the deceased should be taken into account, in particular with regards to whether they would desire a religious or a non-religious funeral/memorial. Even so, I think this is important for creating a fitting setting for people to process their grief, rather than ushering the deceased’s immortal soul into the afterlife.
In Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, though an atheistic critic of religion, Eudaimonic Laughter argues for keeping most of what is currently found in his home country’s religious approaches to funerals because “if there was ever a time to be conservative it’s a funeral”:
Funerals aren’t for the dead, they are for the living. And, as may surprise people given my other posts mentioning the Anglicans in this blog, I think that the Church of England has its dispatchings about right (and if you are in a position to be married by the CofE it also does good matchings – pity that the current belief is that only some should be allowed to get married).
Why, and what does a good funeral need?
A good funeral marks an ending. It needs to be a little out of the ordinary to enable people to symbolically pass a threshold – and at the same time it needs to be partially familiar in order to not produce a vast sense of unreality. And it should definitely be a communal thing with people around to confirm, and to support.
And Lou Doench at Raising Hellions also explains the logic behind having rituals:
- Structure and institutions help. Grief can be crippling, especially in the case of sudden tragedy. Much ink has been spilt I’m sure about the problems of the funeral home business, and we Atheist and Secular folks have had our own problems with organized religion. But on this subject they have us at an advantage. They have plans. Forms to fill out and checklists to tick off. At a time when survivors are certain to be distracted, there is immense value in having an experienced hand about to say “Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of anything that you feel you can’t”.
- Remembrance is part of ritual. We are suspicious of ritual in the secular community, as we should be when it comes wrapped in superstition and fear as it so often is amongst our religious brethren. But there is value I think in crafting a sacred narrative in remembering our loved ones. There is no reason that ritual need be superstitious. At Dad’s funeral, what stuck with me was not so much the prayers and readings, but the long line at the visitation, people waiting for hours to shake my mothers hand and tell us a little story about their connection to him. That’s a form of ritual. I remember the hundreds of photos of him, not all of them brought by us, that’s a ritual as well. At Glando’s wake we played his favorite songs (as well as some of his songs) and lifted drinks to him and told old stories. That’s a ritual as old as beer.
- Be prepared. This is the hard one. Not in the zen way that we should all be prepared for “the hammer to fall” as Freddie Mercury taught us. But be prepared in the practical sense. Passing away may make your life infinitely easier (and shorter), but somebody is going to have to fill out a bunch of forms when it happens. What happens to your remains, your property, your collection of used bandages… all of that is someone else’s problem now and it behooves us to prepare them for that eventuality. Write a will, it will make everyone’s life easier. But beyond that prepare yourself and your loved ones. Back to the thrust of Raising Hellions, talk to your kids about death in a constructive manner before they have to deal with Nana (or you) in a box. That’s a bigger subject than this bullet point though
In mourning Adam Lanza, Marta Layton of Faith Seeking Understanding talks about the importance that we respect the needs of mourners, even when they are mourning those who have done terrible things:
In fact, if I could offer rules for a good approach to death and grieving, rule #1 would be this: mourning rituals should be designed to accommodate mourners’ needs in proportion to how affected they are by the death. That sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple. If it’s your brother who has just died in a way that (rightly!) makes other people uncomfortable, your need to mourn your brother trumps their need to have their discomfort addressed. I’d even say that in the immediate aftermath of the situation, the mourners’ needs trumps the value of speaking truthfully. This is not the time to speak harsh truths, unless this will help the people most affected.
And let’s add a corollary: as much as the casual onlooker might want to find gods and monsters in tragedies like this, those closest to the deceased are under no obligation to provide them. When we hear of six-year-olds gunned down in their classroom on the other side of the country, we long desperately – so desperately! – to convince ourselves this won’t happen in our kids’ schools. And one of the easiest ways to do that is by thinking the murderer is somehow exceptionally bad, so much so that no one we know could ever act like that. I get that. But I also get that those distant onlookers’ existential angst pales beside the real, intense pain of losing your mother and brother, and the Lanzas’ needs come first. They also know the killer better than you do so may have some insight you lack; or they may simply be in shock and not be able to face the reality of the situation. In the immediate aftermath, I think that’s okay. Anyway, it’s good for us to face that existential angst over our lack of security head on. Sacrificial lambs should really be a B.C. kind of thing.
For me, rule #2 rests on my religious beliefs, but I don’t think youhave to use religious reasoning. I’m a Christian which means I believe in an immortal soul that survives the body’s death. But I’m also a Protestant which means I believe that soul goes to heaven or hell or purgatory or nothingness or whatever – I’m definitely wrestling with different theories of hell, but that needs a post of its own – and wherever it goes, it goes there right off. It’s also a big Protestant thing that you’re not supposed to try to communicate with the dead in any way. In light of that, rule #2: Funerals are for the living, not the dead. Whatever funeral you give Adam Lanza, it’s to help those left behind, not him. So those people grieving for Adam shouldn’t feel embarrassed or guilty that they can’t approach the funeral the way they think he would’ve liked. This is their party, it’s their way of memorializing him and coming to grips with what happened. But it’s for them, not Adam.
Finally, Editor B was inspired to start a blog to participate with us! In Death Ritual, he lays out a formal ritual:
Let the body of the deceased be placed in the earth in its natural state, to return to the earth. Through the process of decay, the body will have new life in other organisms.
Let a flame be kindled. Take a pinch of earth from the burial site and scatter it to the wind. If there are tears, let them mingle with the earth.
Let a song or a chant go up. Choose a favorite of the deceased or anything the group deems appropriate. A good example is the Fates Chant by Alan D. Stillman, based on the poem “Twist Ye, Twine Ye!” by Sir Walter Scott.
Let the living share stories to remember the deceased.
Thank you all so much for these thoughtful contributions. It was a delight curating them and I was tempted to just reproduce numerous of them in full, they were so rich. I hope readers will go back through and click on the links and read more about each person’s experiences and their ideas going forward. There wasn’t room to do justice in most cases to the multiple things going on in each post.
Today, Libby Anne has a new prompt for all of you to answer on your blogs and in our comments sections: What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex? Write up your advice and send it to lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com with “Forward Thinking” in the subject line for inclusion in the February 18 post-Valentine’s Day “Forward Thinking” round up!
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