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.