Faith-free solace after death and loss

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mollie

    I kind of had the opposite of strong feelings with this story — it just didn’t leave me with any feeling at all.

    And considering that my mother’s family was in the mortuary business, it’s not hard to get me interested in an article about morticians.

  • Mike

    This is one mess of a story. It’s like a bunch of bits and pieces sewn together under one headline. Is it about the mortuary school? Is it about students who choose this profession to deal with their own fears of death? After reading the entire piece, I came away with no better insight into the students or appreciation for the school. I agree with Mollie: This piece doesn’t leave me with any feeling at all.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Both comments here I agree with as far as no “feeling” coming through the article. Could it be the writer has deep psycholigical fear of death and like so many, when faced with the ultimate topic of death, went cold emotionally and handled the situation by focusing on funeral mechanics and rubrics (like so many people do.)

  • Jerry

    Terry, I think you missed the boat when you asserted there would be strong reactions. Or at least strong reactions in the post. My dominant reaction is sadness at the missed opportunity. The article tip-toed right to the edge of including religion but stopped short:

    “This too shall pass,” it says, the wisdom of Solomon that has helped her through the years.

    Surely there could have been a short paragraph following up on that quote.

  • Judy Harrow

    In some ways, a mortician is like a military chaplain on a small base. Whatever their own personal beliefs may be, they have to serve at least the logistical needs of people of other religions. Even religions that they may think are flatly wrong. For that reason, it behooves morticians to become familiar with the procedures and paraphernalia of all religious groups that exist in their area. In reality, their own beliefs are irrelevant to the helping work they do.

    (In the big cities, some funeral homes may have specific religious affiliations, which allows them to specialize. But a training program does not know where its graduates will eventually wind up.)

  • Suzanne

    Interesting answers are also given in the comments for this article, posted by tmatt, which one easily concurs with: on both points being noteworthy. Something’s missing and the military chaplain viewpoint, which I tend too agree with the military chaplain perspective. As the article focuses on the occupation, not venturing over and into religion, but only that of necessity in performing the mortician’s job in being there but not being there. Better said, seen but not heard: in preparing the physical body for viewing and burial. It’s not that of proselytizing religion to the bereaved family, friends, and visitors who attend the funeral services. But in having compassion and being a good listener. Religious beliefs are owned solely by the mourners and not that of the practicing mortician whose service is appreciated by everyone in life on earth.

    Suzanne McMillen-Fallon, Published Author 2011
    “Freedom is known in the enlightenment of wisdom.”’sWritings.html (currently not active)
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  • sari

    The reporter could have inquired about each student’s religious beliefs to provide more of a context for their choice of profession than loss of a loved one. At the same time, as Suzanne pointed out, once outside the big cities (and sometimes in them), local morticians’ clients represent a wide range of religious beliefs.

    Here in Central Texas, for instance, one mortuary handles most Jewish and Mormon deceased; a second has a contract with a synagogue that maintains ground in a different cemetery. When we dealt with sudden and unexpected death, it helped that the funeral home staff were already familiar with our customs, many of which differ markedly from those of other faiths. That was *not* the time to explain why we refrain from embalming, fancy caskets or viewings–customs, btw, avoided by most Jews across the spectrum of observance.

    This comment stuck with me— “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.” Jewish tradition considers preparation of the dead for burial to be the highest form of charity–charity which can never be repaid. Trained volunteers prepare the body; others sit vigil, so the deceased is never alone. Neither job is for everyone–some lack the stomach for it, but most people who perform it feel uplifted afterward.