Death and ritual.

Every week, fellow Patheos writers Dan Fincke and Libby Anne are posting one of those deep questions for other bloggers to answer.  I didn’t respond to their post last week on civic responsibility because I was busy (and also because I didn’t have anything deep to say).  I still don’t have anything particularly deep to say, but I’m gonna take a crack at their question this week on death and ritual.

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?

My model would have only one thing: understanding for almost any way in which the grieving party wishes to get through it (up to ways that harm others, that’s still a no-no).

People grieve in different ways, and what similarities that exist have already been imposed on us by our shared nature.  We cry.  We go through times when we want to be alone, and then we go through times where we need people close.  We eat too much, and then we forget to eat.  We need not enshrine any of our instincts as ritual – they will take care of themselves.

But if someone wanted to dress up as a Harry Potter character to attend the visitation, if that helps, let them fucking do it, regardless of what your personal ritual might be.  Compassion shouldn’t be a ritual, but it amazes me how being different, especially at hard times, can make people forget that.  I’m looking at you Christians who want to make peoples’ deaths all about Jesus and who kept insisting that church would make me feel better when my grandmother died.  No ritual conceived by someone else will ever cater to your needs as well as you can.

The closest I’d ever get to ritual would be advice, and I’d try to keep that to a minimum.  My advice is as follows…

Kids, adulthood is pretty cool.  Responsibility blows, but you’ll get used to it.  It’s a small price to pay for freedom, and to live in a world where the kind and the intelligent really are the most “popular” (at least locally, we still can’t compete with Kanye West).  But something they don’t tell you is that when you hit a certain age, people around you start dying.  Sometimes they’re your friends (three of the people I went to high school with have died young, in car crashes and such.  One died of cancer).  Sometimes they’re your family.  But almost every year, at least one person you know will die.  The younger they are, the less warning you’ll have.  It’s just a part of life.

Battles are often won long before the first shot is fired, by strategists who scour the environment beforehand and manipulate the conditions to give them the greatest advantage.  It doesn’t guarantee victory, but it seriously ups the winning percentage.  People dying, when it’s not sudden, is that way.  Don’t wait until someone dies to set yourself up to grieve – do it in the weeks beforehand.  When my grandmother was dying of cancer, I drove home every weekend I could.  I thanked her for helping me to attend college, and said all the things that came to my mind (even I struggle with that sometimes).  I told her I loved her repeatedly.  I sat at the side of her bed and hugged her during her few waking hours every day.

That way, when I went to war with my grief, it was on my terms and with as few unknowns as possible.  Pre-planning doesn’t mean you’ll always win, or that grieving will be easy, but it’s a heaping dose of emotional anesthetic.

Always grieve on your terms, and if someone you know is grieving and their terms are not yours, let them fucking be.

PERSONAL: Good god I’m a terrible cook.
MENTAL ILLNESS: I see affection as a competition.
READER QUESTION: What is the best way to get involved in the atheist community?
PERSONAL: My wife holding a brain.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • sqlrob

    Unrelated, but did Libby Anne ever present you with that piece on why she converted?

    • JT Eberhard

      She did not. :(

      • sqlrob

        Now that you’re on the same network, you ought to bug her for it again. A back and forth set of articles would be informative.

        • Cunning Pam

          Libby Anne? Or Leah Libresco? I remember JT talking about Leah’s conversion to Catholicism and her telling him she discuss some of it with him. Did I miss something about Libby Anne?

          • sqlrob

            Oh, maybe I have names wrong. Mea culpa if I do.

  • Glodson

    Last year, my great-grandmother died. It hurt. I made the trip out for her funeral. She was Christian, so I knew what to expect. I knew there would be religious imagery everywhere. I knew the pastor of her church would say some stuff about god. I was ready for it. I did have some expectations that he would talk mostly about her, and how she was with god now and all that. Talk to us about my great-grandmother so we could remember her fondly as we said good-bye.

    That didn’t fucking happen. He gave a fucking sermon about how important it was to accept god and not die and go to fucking hell. I bit my tongue, for a few reasons. One being that I didn’t want to make a scene at her funeral. I didn’t want to embarrass my grandfather, who had recently had a stroke, as we said good-bye to his mother.

    Now, I’m the only atheist in my family. But everyone was pretty much in agreement with how horrible it was.

    • Nate Frein

      I was lucky. The pastor who gave the eulogy/homily for my grandfather’s mass (my father’s family is Catholic) talked about my grandfather and his work as a surgeon. That he talked about him as a good man and a good Catholic was, in my mind, perfectly acceptable.

      • Glodson

        Exactly. It was almost like this pastor switched off and just went into full sermon mode. It has been almost a year, and I’m still angered about how little he mentioned my great-grandmother.

        One minor bright spot is that I did get a picture of my great-grandmother holding my daughter before she died.

        • Andrew Kohler

          I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, and also sorry, and disgusted, that a pastor would ignore the deceased during a funeral/memorial service. Another example of how religion does not guarantee decency, and may even work against it x-(

          And I’m sure your daughter will find it pretty awesome to have a picture of herself with her great-great-grandmother!

          • Glodson

            Thanks. And it was a great picture. Hell, I had to take her to the funeral. She had only recently turned 2, so she didn’t know what was happening. So we spent most of the eulogy far away. I listened to the man drone on about his imaginary friend, and just how neat that friend is, with one ear, and listened to my little girl make up stories about the headstones with the other.

            I should have just listened to her alone.

    • Brandy

      This seems to be a trend. Save my soul another day, today I’m here to grieve. Telling me about how much better off she is doesn’t make me feel any less hurt either. It actually pisses me off quite a bit. In the south, it’s a de facto rite of ritual these days. My sister passed away just over a year ago and people still say this to me. It makes me wish to punch them, it’s not healthy. For either of us.

      • Glodson

        I know that feeling too. The South… yea, we kind of are up to our neck in religiosity. But at least I can excuse the people who want to assure me that my loved ones are in a paradise of sorts. It doesn’t descend the the causal evil of some who use that as a carrot to drive belief.

  • iknklast

    Ritual creeps me out. I wish people would quit insisting we need to have ritual. I feel much better without it. For those who want it, great. For those of us who don’t, we may not be anti-social, we just feel really stupid when participating in rituals.

    • Loqi

      100% agree. I really don’t see the need for them.

    • John Horstman

      Ditto, especially when a lot of extant ritual practices have some serious drawbacks. I object to rituals that are normative or otherwise coercive; I am quite happy to let people practice whatever rituals they wish as long as they do not impose an undue burden on me.

      This came up recently when I was talking to a friend; she mentioned that she was standing up in a wedding party and has to buy a dress she cannot afford (well, not easily). Apparently this is standard practice: people who are deciding to get married insist that their friends and family buy expensive clothes that will never be used again (my three friends who have been married were married at a bar, eloped, and didn’t tell me, respectively, so I was unaware of this practice). I find this absurd, and I categorically refuse to ever do this. If you want me to wear something specific for your benefit, you are going to pay for it, or it’s not going to happen.

      • M

        When I got married, I asked the female attendants to buy a dress, any dress, so long as it was blue. I didn’t give them a specific shade, just since the theme color of the wedding was blue that they got a blue dress of some sort. That way, they could buy on their budget (none of them were desperate) and get something that would look good on them and they could wear in the future. For the male attendants, I asked that they rent a specific tux/vest combo from Men’s Wearhouse and paid for the one person who couldn’t afford it.

        Would that bother you, or do you consider that an adequate compromise between a bride and her attendants? I did have some aesthetic interest in my attendants’ dress choices, but I also didn’t want to impose an ugly, expensive outfit on them. This is an honest question- I really am interested in your answer.

  • Andrew Kohler

    A year ago this Wednesday (January 30), I lost my grandmother. She was 97 years old and was completely ready to die; she died over the course of two or three days, so that we all had time to say goodbye but thankfully there wasn’t protracted suffering. She had her wit and skepticism with her to the end, and even made fun of religion (no deathbed conversion!) It was amazing to see someone die exactly the right, and the perfect counterexample to those heartless people who try to tell us that we nonbelievers can’t have peace, happiness, or fulfillment. Coming to the end can be a beautiful thing without empty promises of Celestial North Korea. Oh, and there was no ritual involved, at least that I can think of.

    Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: even after all of that, it still SUCKS that she’s gone. Big time.

    I’d like to comment on “pre-planning”: I was afraid that I was going to be completely unprepared for my grandmother’s death because I couldn’t really even let myself picture it. But I knew it couldn’t be far off (when people hit the mid-nineties this sinks it, and when she hid her late nineties it really sank in, and then four months later she died). And I decided to spend as much time with her as I could whenever I was home from grad school, because I knew the time was running out. And when she was dying, I flew out to see her one last time for the same reason. My sister said to me shortly afterward, “I felt like every time we said goodbye to her, we were thinking it could be the last time.” I agreed. So, it turns out you can plan without even really knowing it, and it really does make things better.

    But, ultimately it just plain sucks when people die, even for someone who’s 97. And when a 30-year-old dies of ovarian cancer, as just happened to a friend from college (who married her fiancee when she knew she didn’t have more than a few weeks left), it’s unbearable. At least we can take solace in not needing to worry about whether or not God is just, and instead concentrate on taking care of our fellow humans during our fleeting stay in this corner of the universe–it’s so much better than prayer and imposed ritual. (I distinguish between communal rituals and rituals that people come up with for themselves, or with a few others.)

  • Ben Porter

    Dammit jt my grandma just died right after christmas. We didn’t go visit her cause it was completly unexpected. Right in the feels man rigt in the feel