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.

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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.


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