Let me state right up front that I think GetReligion readers are going to have very strong feelings — positive or negative — about the following “Column One” feature from the Los Angeles Times. It ran under the following double-deck headline:
Serving life at the altar of death
Student morticians learn to use their own grief and fear to lead others to solace.
Why the strong feelings? We will get to that.
The story opens with the dreams and nightmares of mortuary science student Amber Carvaly, then offers this summary:
Carvaly, 27, has experienced her share of loss — a great-grandmother, a cousin who took his life, an uncle who died in a car crash, fathers of friends in high school — nothing inordinate but meaningful nonetheless, and she is afraid of what lies beyond the last breath.
But fear is what drives her. Somewhere amid the smell of formaldehyde, the sweet taste of energy drinks and pages of anatomy, accounting, counseling and law, she is searching for a profession and an identity that will transcend the ephemera of daily life and show her how to live undaunted by mortality. She believes she has found it.
“There is something beautiful about being part of the ritual of death, performing the most ancient of jobs. … We can’t appreciate life without appreciating death,” she says. “I want to help people realize this.”
What is interesting about the story is that it asks literally no journalistic questions about the Big Questions about suffering, death, grief and life after death. It’s pretty clear that this is not part of the job, even though the job is to help people “appreciate death” and to cope with it. All solace is, in the end, essentially secular.
This is pretty striking, when you consider the role that religion plays in almost all cultural discussions of these topics. Even the funerals of many or most fervent non-believers are likely to touch on the fact that they do not believe. Death is just one of those ultimate topics.
It’s fascinating, in a way. This approach is an interesting angle for a news story and I am sure many GetReligion readers will appreciate that.
At the same time, others are going to be uncomfortable. Some may think that the Times missed a great opportunity to contrast the secular with the sacred, as opposed to dealing with both the secular and the sacred in, well, a totally secular manner. The story, in other words, cries out for other voices, for contrast, for competing visions.
When faith does show up, this is what we get:
Room 222 is like any other college classroom: concrete walls, stained ceiling tiles, a mouse-gray carpet and more than 60 desks arranged in narrow rows. Glenn Bower pushes open an accordion screen and rolls to the front of the room a metal casket, painted autumn gold.
“So,” he asks, “how many of you have familiarity with a Catholic funeral?”
Out of nearly 40 students, a few hands rise, and Bower, 44, director of the mortuary science program, begins his lecture on the funeral Mass with a few props: vigil candles, a Paschal candle, an altar, a kneeler and the casket.
The lessons are often pragmatic. Undertaking is a trade, and this is a vocational school. Students learn different ceremonies — religious and secular — and are taught a language of gestures and niceties meant to cast a consoling light upon loss.
Let’s say that again. These students are “taught a language of gestures and niceties meant to cast a consoling light upon loss.”
The rites are, after all, a language of symbols. The worshipers provide the content, not the technicians.
Still, is that all there is to this trade for all, or even most, of its practitioners? I sense a missed opportunity in this story.