One way to look at online mourning in America

Every now and then, GetReligion readers send us the URLs for stories that they assume we will dislike — often because of the actual religious content of these pieces.

We are thankful for these links, of course. Keep them coming! However, it does seem that many people struggle to understand what we are trying to do here.

There are all kinds of things that go on in the world of religion that, viewed from my perspective as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, give me (as we would say down in Texas) the heebie-jeebies. However, that is basically irrelevant when trying to figure out if a team of journalists took a hot-button or simply fascinating topic and did a good job of telling the story of the individual or group at the heart of it. Of course, it’s also important — if there is controversy or simply enlightening debate about these topics — for journalists to do a solid and accurate job of dealing with other viewpoints.

This brings us to a fascinating and touching “On Faith” story that ran in The New York Times the other day.

On one level, the story focuses on what happened when musician Paul Cebar of Milwaukee began sorting through the keepsakes left behind by his 83-year-old mother in the days and weeks after her death. He was looking for a slide viewer of 3-D photos from her wedding. Instead, he found a scrapbook with “Snap Shots” written on its wooden cover.

This steers readers toward the deeper subject of the piece, which is the role that online memorials are playing in an age in which Americans are seeking new ways to express grief and to redefine how they express their own personal beliefs and approaches to — here’s that word again — “spirituality.”

Dorothy Cebar received a Roman Catholic funeral, in keeping with her faith. And Paul Cebar, though he had not been a practicing Catholic for many years, followed the liturgy with a familiarity that soothed him. Yet the ceremony also left him yearning for something more ineffable, some spiritual communion with his mother, some continuing conversation between the mourner and the mourned.

When he found the photographs of his mother, it turns out, Mr. Cebar also found the answer to that quest. From those pictures, he has created an online memorial on his Facebook page. There in cyberspace, Mr. Cebar has found solace and community, the equivalent of a formal religious ritual, like a wake or shiva or a memorial service.

You can hear the thesis statement and a pull quote served up by an all-knowing voice of authority coming, can’t you?

The custom that Mr. Cebar almost stumbled into is being more widely practiced, and not just when fans of a superstar like Whitney Houston post their tributes and heartaches on social media sites. These sites provide a longevity and global reach for noncelebrities that no memorial book, no poster board of snapshots, no eulogy, however eloquent, can possibly equal. In an era when religious practice is often rooted in personal acts of spirituality rather than in fixed, denominational rites, Facebook can host a new kind of congregation.

“When someone dies, you want everyone to know this life so that he or she did not live in vain,” said Denise Carson, author of “Parting Ways,” a book about innovative end-of-life rituals.

“Our fear of this person fading from our memory triggers a life review of all the moments shared together,” she continued. “Memories of the deceased dump from our subconscious into our conscious mind. It can be overwhelming. Social media gives us a platform to organize our reflections. Now we have a stage online to transmit these life stories. And we have a place that allows us to share and connect with others in our hour of grief.”

Note that Carson actually argues that this online memorial is emotionally and, perhaps, even spiritually superior to some traditional forms of mourning — such as a eulogy. However, note that she does not claim that cyber-mourning can replace actual religious rites and experiences.

It’s true, for example, that millions have mourned Houston online. Then again, thousands watched — through streaming, online video — the four hours of music, preaching, prayer and praise in her real funeral. The question is whether any of that could have taken the place, for her mother and loved ones, of the flesh-and-blood bonds there in the pews of the New Hope Baptist Church there in Newark, N.J.

So here is my question for GetReligion readers. This is a fine story about a very real trend. There is no way to ignore this side of the post-denominational, DIY (do it yourself) religion culture in which we live. I totally get that.

However, once the Times has introduced the views of Carson, wouldn’t the story be strengthened by a voice from the world of traditional faith? It’s clear that the online-memorial trend is real. The question is whether, in fact, cyberspace can replace the ties that bind that put human flesh, concerns and compassion behind the expressions of grief. Right?

The story includes two points of view. However, only one of them is given a chance to speak.

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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.

  • Jerry

    I have to ask what “voice from the world of traditional faith” would constitute the other opinion. There are many more than two since theoretically any of the following could be the perspective of that other voice:

    Religious people who believe that online mourning replaces religion with a secular rite.

    Religious people who believe that online mourning is OK if it’s an adjunct to religious mourning.

    Religious people who believe that excessive mourning is a sign that you don’t really believe there is a heaven and the deceased is there now.

  • carl

    The story has a relentless undertone of “Religion as soothing balm.” In other words, the operative assumption is that religion’s primary function in this matter is to ease pain, and help survivors ‘process’ the death. The truth behind the ritual doesn’t matter so long as the ritual binds the wound. It’s a strictly utilitarian view that allows spirituality and a facebook page to be equated with religion and a funeral. “Whatever works.”

    Focusing on a man’s life after he dies is not the same as focusing on your own mortality because that man has died. A funeral has two important functions. To help survivors accept the death of a loved one. To remind survivors that they are one heart-beat from that self-same coffin, and so should be prepared. The second perspective is totally absent. This is not surprising since people generally don’t like staring into the face of their own impending death. It is this second function that is not performed by nostalgic musings over photographs of a life now gone.

    carl

  • sari

    The article might have been strengthened had Dorothy’s religion been addressed in more detail than this:

    Dorothy Cebar received a Roman Catholic funeral, in keeping with her faith. And Paul Cebar, though he had not been a practicing Catholic for many years, followed the liturgy with a familiarity that soothed him. Yet the ceremony also left him yearning for something more ineffable, some spiritual communion with his mother, some continuing conversation between the mourner and the mourned.

    Not being Roman Catholic, I can’t say whether it has other rituals and traditions to honor the deceased. My religion, for instance, specifies periods and degrees of mourning, which help transition the mourner back to normal life. Does the R.C.C. have similar customs? Exploring them would have given both breadth and depth -and- would have addressed readers’ curiosity. I don’t see the necessity or even utility of bringing other faith traditions into play; they’re irrelevant to Paul’s predicament.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    “I don’t see the necessity or even utility of bringing other faith traditions into play….”

    ****

    Not my point at all. My point is that the role of religious rites in death and dying needs to be discussed from the side of traditional religion — since the expert quoted has, in effect, raised that issue.

  • sari

    I still think that the article only necessitates information from the Roman Catholic perspective, since that was the family’s stated religion. One cannot extrapolate one religious belief system to all. And, the article addressed the afterwards, not the funeral rituals, unless there are none post-internment. Religious rites in dying and death address both the person who is in the process of dying and those who are left behind, but are generally limited to a very short span of time. Mourning rituals address the period when the shock wears off and reality sets in.

  • Fr. Dale Peterka

    I was surprised to learn that there are only two purposes for holding funeral services, and that neither of them has any reference to the Resurrection (His and ours).

    The Catholic funeral Mass was revamped 40+ years ago. The old Gloom and Doom funeral was replaced with a celebration of death as temporary interruption of life and that eternal life continues after death, thanks to the redemption Jesus brought us.

    Lots more to be said on this subject…

    Fr. Dale in Cincinnati


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