Forward Thinking: How Can We Mourn Together?

Dan Fincke has announced the second subject of the Forward Thinking project he launched with Libby Anne and it’s one that hits very close to home for me. I’ve had to deal with the question of how to address religious questions at funerals where there is a mixture of views among those who mourn. Dan sets up the question:

Fortunately, in intimate conversations and small groups, we can find those with whom we can each have the kinds of conversations that suit our own emotional and intellectual needs and desires best. But this still leaves a problem: what should we do when we are mourning collectively? Because an important part of many people’s individual and personal confrontations with death are the public ceremonies and rituals that mark it. And many people want to hear only words of comfort, while many others might find these ceremonies to be hollow tepid formalities if they don’t confront the harsh realities that are really concerning them. Some people want to focus on death and while others want to focus on life. Some people want to banish funerals and dirges and replace them only with memorial parties.

One might say, “well this is simple, let everyone just grieve differently and in their own way.” But this is precisely the problem: when we come together, our group ceremonies cannot simply do that because they will invariably bring together people who grieve differently and who are there to remember someone who may have wanted to be grieved even differently than they are inclined to…

So if you were writing the template for collective mourning, understanding the mixtures of people from different traditions and temperaments who would inevitably be present, what would your template look like? We might need multiple templates and I would be one to argue that we should have norms that allow for a fair amount of individual customizations of templates for different individuals, families, and other groups. But what sorts of values do you think should be central to the template? What sorts of rituals for what sorts of purposes would you want to preserve or create?

In short: 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?

I’m going to avoid answering that question in much detail because, quite frankly, I don’t think there can be a single template for everyone. A deeply religious person is going to mourn, and design the rituals that surround mourning, differently from an atheist. And that’s okay. But what happens when there are both among the mourners? This is a question I have had to deal with in very real ways.

I have written before about the death of my mother, who died 16 years ago, a year after getting a lung transplant. I gave the eulogy at her funeral. And I knew that I would have to address the subject delicately. My mother was a very vague theist. She believed in a higher power of some undefined sort and she believed in life after death. I, obviously, do not. In my eulogy, I tried to find some common ground. 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.

My father is now 77 years old. He is in relatively good health and I expect and hope that he will live many more years. He is an atheist, but he is married to a Pentecostal. A few months ago I had a dream that he had died and my stepmother and I got into a big fight because she wanted a religious funeral and I thought that was inappropriate because he was an atheist. I told my dad about that dream and he agreed that it was quite realistic. But he told me not to worry about it and not to fight over it. “I don’t care what goes on at my funeral,” he said. “I don’t plan to be there.”

I expect that I will give the eulogy at his funeral as well, whenever it happens (if I can hold it together; I managed, just barely, to get through it at my mother’s funeral, only breaking down at the end, but I think it will be far more difficult at his). And I will try, again, to express my views (and his) without offending anyone else or sparking a fight. A funeral is not the place for such things. And regardless of how we may mourn differently, we will all be mourning. And that will be a time for supporting and loving one another, not for petty arguments.

I don’t know if it’s possible to design a mourning ritual that would satisfy everyone. I doubt it’s even worth trying. But I think it’s important as individuals that we give others the consideration of allowing them to mourn in their own way. Did I answer the question? Not really. But it did provoke a great many memories and a bit of thought.

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