Creating Spaces for Collective Mourning

Last week Dan Fincke introduced this prompt for Forward Thinking:

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? 

This isn’t a topic I’ve thought very much about, or had much experience with, but I’ll try to pull together a few tentative thoughts nonetheless. Funerals, even more than weddings, can be complicated when there are people of a variety of religious beliefs, and lack thereof, all grieving together. Death is so very final and grief so very profound that the comments of others can easily become a slap in the face.

My husband Sean and I have talked a bit about what sort of funerals we would like and how we would like to be remembered when we die. One of the biggest challenges in thinking about this is that both of our families are still very religious—his, Catholic, and mine, evangelical. Some of our family members know that we do not believe in God, but others don’t. This means that were one of us to die in the near future, that funeral would likely be absolutely fraught with tension and likely anger. It wouldn’t be pretty. It’s therefore fortunate on a whole bunch of levels that we are both young and without health problems.

In considering Dan’s question, I think the solution to problem of grieving together with those of other beliefs is to collectively focus on the life that was lived rather than on where that person is now. Sure, we can each privately consider where we think he or she is now, and we can also do so collectively with others who share our beliefs, but when we grieve with those who have a variety of beliefs, I think it’s best to collectively focus on what we can come together on—i.e., remembering the life that was lived. Or at least, that’s the ideal.

If I were putting together a funeral for Sean, I would want it to focus on his lived life, and on how he impacted those around him. I would want the focus to be on the ways his legacy can serve as an inspiration, and on keeping his memory alive. I would do this using pictures and video clips, shared anecdotes, readings from his favorite sayings or inspirations, and so forth. Oh, and there would be music, of course. It would be a time for collectively remembering a life well lived.

I am of the opinion that a funeral should, as the fallback position, be in keeping with the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of the deceased, and also in keeping with the wishes of the deceased. If the deceased was religious, the funeral should also be religious; if the deceased was secular, the funeral should also be secular. This holds true even if the next of kin organizing the funeral does not share the beliefs of the deceased—for instance, if it fell to me to bury my father, I would want him to have a funeral in keeping with his religious beliefs.

I think, though, that in real life it often becomes more complicated than this. If the deceased was an atheist and all of her family was evangelical, would it be wrong for them to hold an evangelical funeral? If the deceased was an evangelical and all of his family were atheists and agnostics, would it be wrong for them to hold a secular funeral? I say that this is complicated because it brings up a bit of a question: Who is a funeral for? The deceased, or those still living? I think the answer ought to be a combination of both, because while a funeral is only experienced by the living, it would dishonor the dead to not think about his or her wishes. But life is frequently complicated and messy, and doesn’t always conform well to what we may lay out as an ideal.

And this is where it starts to be complicated, because there will be atheists who will be uncomfortable at a religious funeral, and religious individuals who will be uncomfortable at a secular funeral. But I would argue that whether you are an atheist attending a religious funeral or a religious individual attending a secular funeral, it falls on you to not cause a disruption or make a scene. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t really see a funeral as the appropriate time to make a fuss. If it’s just too hard it’s likely possible to pay your respects privately and not attend the funeral itself, or to step outside during difficult parts.

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.

When I think of this whole business of respect and intent I think of an exchange that took place between Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, an atheist, and Fred Clark of The Slactivist, a progressive Christian. Shortly after announcing that he was ill, Ed said the following:

At the same time, though, I’m not offended by it. When someone says they will pray for me, or even makes a suggestion like Jack made, I take it in the manner in which it is intended. They are only meaning to wish me well and I gratefully accept it in that spirit. I may tell them that I don’t think it does any good, but they already knew I thought that. So who really cares? Wish me well and I will thank you for it, even if the form isn’t what I would prefer.

Fred responded as follows:

I’m wishing Ed well and letting him know that he’s in my thoughts.

(I could also tell him I’m praying for him, but he probably already knows I’m doing that. So who really cares? I prefer to wish him well in the form that he would prefer to hear it.)

The trouble is, of course, that not everyone is going to be respectful, and not everyone is going to mean well in the first place. It’s the ones who will say, at a funeral, that the deceased is burning in hell that I don’t know how to handle. And yes, believe it or not, that does happen. I suppose at some point you just have to put up boundaries to protect yourself from others’ negativity, especially coming at a time as raw and vulnerable as a funeral.

So, what are your thoughts? How would you answer Dan’s question?

Stay tuned for Dan’s round-up post of responses this Monday.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gordon

    “And this is where it starts to be complicated, because there will be atheists who will be uncomfortable at a religious funeral, and religious individuals who will be uncomfortable at a secular funeral.”

    I was a christian the first time I went to a Humanist Funeral and it was the best, most personal, most heartwarming and most meaningful funeral I had ever been to. I had always found christian (Catholic) funerals to be overly focused on Jesus rather than the deceased. I also disliked how there was an implicit element of guilt for your own grief. After all, you’re supposed to be happy and believe you will see the person again.

    • Cathy W

      If you thought Catholic funerals were overly focused on Jesus and made you feel guilty for your grief, you’ve obviously never been to a Baptist funeral… that, on steroids (“No eulogy. If I have to do a eulogy it meant I didn’t know he was saved, and I know he was saved, so let’s talk more about how he’s in heaven with Jesus”), plus an altar call. And then a Baptist friend of mine lost his father, an Episcopalian, recently, and he said he found the highly ritualized format of the funeral to be cold and emotionless. Anecdote, not data, but I think it might be safe to say that no one ritual will make everyone happy.

      The one generalization I can draw, I guess, is that a funeral needs to leave space for everyone to feel what they’re feeling. Don’t tell me I can’t be sad; don’t tell Pastor T that he can’t be happy Grandpa was saved and gets to be with Jesus.

  • machintelligence

    I say that this is complicated because it brings up a bit of a question: Who is a funeral for? The deceased, or those still living?

    I would bias it in favor of the living. The dead don’t care (or are at least not in a position to complain.)

    At my mother’s memorial service the minister was told in no uncertain terms that it was to be a celebration of her life. So no preaching! My mother was moderately religious, but none of her children are.

    • Eamon Knight

      That’s the paradox, isn’t it? Funerals/memorials/whatever-you-call-em are *for* the living but *about* the deceased. And I think simple honesty requires that we respect (as in “pay our….”) what that person’s life was really about, what their story really was, not crammed into someone else’s ideological framework. I’ve been to a a couple of funerals where I was not in alignment with the deceased’s (and their family’s) religion, which meant I did a certain amount of internal eye-rolling. But I still felt that they were *honest*, that they represented the deceased person fairly, and I can endure an hour of mild irritation for the sake of old friends.

  • luckyducky

    I come from a family of funeral home directors and a well established expectation that “you go to the funeral” so I’ve been to more than the average number of Christian funerals (lack of opportunity for other types). In my experience what makes the difference:

    (1) A presider who knew and cared about the deceased — it makes it far more likely the funeral will be a celebration of the deceased rather than a exegesis on afterlife/salvation/grief.
    (2) Food (and preferably booze) at a real wake. I think the funeral meets some need we have for ceremony but the actual mourning and healing takes place over a plate of casserole (with a beer). Many cultures have gatherings like this as a central part of their mourning. Stale cookies and burnt coffee 20 minutes after the funeral just don’t cut it in my opinion. Revive the potluck** that was really central to my childhood experience of funerals but not nearly as much so as an adult. If that can’t be done, spend money on food (and booze) rather than the casket.

    **Okay, I understand this is a relic of the alter ladies era where homemakers made an extra casserole or cake and dropped it off at church as they went out to run errands. The logistics get a bit more challenging in a community of unaffiliated, 2-income families, singles, and single-headed households.

    • Cathy W

      You make a good point about making sure the presider knew the deceased. If they didn’t, it’s usually painfully obvious.

      • Jayn

        Ugh, this is something that still bugs me about my grandfather’s funeral. The presider tried to show his familiarity by changing ‘Anne’ to ‘Annie’ when listing off my father and aunts. The problem? There is no Anne. He was messing up my aunt’s combination first name.

  • Jason Dick

    I always liked the funeral idea that was presented in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Next Phase” (basically a festive wake):

  • Julian

    My grandfather’s memorial service was the best example I’ve ever seen of a secular mourning ritual. He was a lifelong atheist, and made it very clear that after he died, he didn’t want anything having to do with religion attached to his death. In fact, he stated that his preference was that there be no gathering to mark his passing at all; but as it’s been pointed out, memorials are about the living, rather than the dead, so we overrode at least that aspect of his wishes, while still respecting his intent.

    We had a big house party a few months after he died, and invited everyone we could think of and find who’d ever known him (he was a very well-liked man, so quite a lot of people showed up in person, and many more sent cards and messages). In addition to food and drink, we had large pictures of my grandfather throughout his life posted around the house, and sheets of white paper where people could write things they remembered about him– including a special one for memorable funny sayings of his, of which he had many. We played his favorite music throughout the day, and even had a cellist in the neighborhood play a few pieces he especially loved. There was a formal portion of the afternoon in which everyone who wanted to could share stories about him. There were a few tears, but a lot of laughter, and the entire gathering was a testimony to all the lives my grandfather had touched and the impact he left on the world. It also gave our family closure, so that we could move on. It was an amazing day, and I hope that I’m lucky enough to be remembered in such a way someday.

    • Julian

      –I just realized that I called it a “memorial service” here when actually we explicitly avoided the “service” and simply called it a memorial. Even that probably would have made my grandfather bristle, but we honestly couldn’t think of anything else to call it at the time. Besides, he always appreciated having something to complain about, so we felt that we were still honoring his wishes in a way.

  • Sachi Wilson

    You can hold a wake, which is a celebration of the deceased, designed entirely for the survivors. My brother in law recently died in a climbing accident, and his wife held a remembrance celebration at which people who knew her husband told stories about him and explained why he was loved. Then we all chatted and had a nice bit of lunch. It was very nice, not at all religious in any way, and my sister in law was noticeably comforted.

  • Christine

    It’s always about the get-together afterwards. The two most recent deaths in my life were both atheists (neither of whom were raised that way oddly enough). In the first case he had specifically stated that he didn’t want any sort of ceremony, but we’re all fairly sure that’s from some of the issues with his clinical depression (which also caused his suicide). It was ignored. He was a really influential figure on campus, so the memorial was really well attended. My uncle, on the other hand, had a somewhat religious memorial service. He also had a very detailed will, so I suspect that he chose that for the family. But the idea of a funeral without getting together for a reception afterwards seems very wrong to me.

    • Anat

      Re: Reception: In Jewish tradition it is not a single event but a week-long thing, people dropping in, bringing food (strictly speaking mourners are not supposed to cook at all, less practical these days when communities are not necessarily in physical proximity), spending time with the mourners.

  • Mafrin

    I have actually been present at a funeral where one of those scenarios occurred. My (atheist) friend lost her ten week old son. She was able to ignore the first few “better place” platitudes, but eventually blew up (quite understandably IMO). After all, how is the ground a “better place” than her arms?

    What really got me is that everyone knew she is an atheist. Saying things like that to her hurt, it didn’t help, regardless of their intentions.

  • Lee

    I recently went through a death in the family. I live in a college dorm, and there were some people that, although I consider them good friends, I could not tell until I got over it, because for me to hear Christian platitudes would have sent me over the edge. I do understand that it’s meant well, and I understand that my friends love me and don’t like to see me sad, but to hear “He’s in a better place now” and “I’ll pray for you” actually pisses me off. To me, it’s that the people I am going to for comfort are comforting themselves, not me. And then they get to feel better and I don’t, and they might get short with me when I explain to them that they are actually making things worse. I feel guilty that I’m still sad and not-helped when my friends are so clearly trying to help me.

    So, advice to Christians who are friends with secular people going through grief: assuming you are not going through the same grief (in which case I don’t grudge you expressing your beliefs about the dead person), PLEASE do not bring Jesus into the picture. I know that is what you believe, but it doesn’t help your friends and might be actively hurting them. Some non-religious people may not have the same reaction I do, but I know plenty of people who share my feelings, and I don’t think any “nones” will be offended if you DON’T assure them you are going to pray for them.

    • Christine

      If they’re saying “he’s in a better place now” they’re just insensitive, it doesn’t matter who you are. So asking them to remember that not everyone is Christian won’t help. Saying that to someone who shares the beliefs (unless, as you say, they’re sharing the grief, in which case it can be assumed to be working through their own grief) is still horrible. What if I completely believe that, and am sad anyhow because I miss the person? What if the friend is unlikely, by the belief system I was brought up in, to be in heaven? What if I’m crying because it’s safe to cry about all the suffering that happened before the death?

  • dawn

    My 1st husband died 7 years ago at the age of 37 and, like you Libby, he was the first person in my life to allow me to think outside the religious box I was brought up in. He was an atheist. Unfortunately, we had no insurance or savings (or kids either) so his family had to pay for the funeral. They had the funeral they wanted to have for him, including a preacher who knew nothing about him so he preached about him being an atheist and do we really know where his soul is and do you know where your soul will end up. Very offensive even to a number of believer friends of ours. Fortunately for me, I foot think a word of what the preacher said registered during the funeral, as friends approached me months later asking me about it. All I remember during the funeral was me looking at him in the coffin thinking that I had to burn the image of what he looked like into my brain because I would never see him in the flesh again. I chose 2 songs that had meaning to him, and to us (Aerosmith’s “G Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” and Matchbox 20′s “If You’re Gone”), and allowed his family the 3rd song which ended up not moving anyone at all since it had no meaning. His aunt kept going on and on about where his soul was because he lost his way in college (it was actually high school but she acted like she knew him better than I did). She even went breast as to say that I killed him (he had severe high blood pressure that he left untreated for years, once he finally treated it he was on 4 meds, his kidneys were failing and he refused dialysis which stiffened his heart muscle so he basically drowned to death from his own blood backing up into his lungs, but she wasn’t there watching him gasp for his last breaths like a dozen of his closest friends saw). Cliff was Cliff and he was gonna do what he wanted to do. I let them put it on me to be responsible for “killing” him and moved on with my life. He died 5 days before my 30th birthday. I’m now the age he was when he died. I have a second husband and two kids. He believes, so I would probably do a semi religious funeral should he pass because he doesn’t practice his religion much. This one has insurance so I could call some shots without being constantly reminded who is paying for it all. It’s sad but true.

  • dawn

    Re bringing food, I wish people had done that for me. Everyone brought food for my movies in law but not for me. The same happened after each of my kids were born, I still had to prepare meals since no one brought frozen casseroles. The widow and new mom don’t seem to count any longer.