Forward Thinking: Mourning Death Collectively

Forward Thinking: Mourning Death Collectively January 21, 2013

Twice monthly, Libby Anne of Love Joy Feminism and I are raising questions about values for our fellow bloggers to write posts on. Last week’s prompt was on the question of what constitutes civic responsibility and Libby Anne has collected numerous blogger’s responses to the question here. 

Death is a profoundly important part of human life and human groups. When confronting death, many of us become our most emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually engaged with questions of value, meaning, purpose, and ultimate reality. Ceremonies and collective rituals related to marking and mourning deaths are as fundamental and universal an aspect of human cultures as anything else.

There are several difficult questions that I think conscientious people should consider when thinking about how we shape and carry out our social ceremonies of mourning.

There are ironic paradoxes at the center of the discussions of death, when they happen as part of a grieving process. Times of mourning are times when many people are as concerned as ever with the questions death raises and simultaneously the least receptive to hearing out and contemplating the full range of answers people give to them. It is a time when some want to dwell on harsh truths and others on happy ones. It is a time when some people feel compelled to face the reality of death as squarely in the eye as ever while others want to deny it as firmly as ever. It is a time when people’s desires for religious answers and rituals, and their feelings about both, polarize as much as at any other. It is a time when disagreements over questions of truth and meaning must be stated as politely as possible because debates are as potentially emotionally charged as they will ever be and it strikes most as unseemly to take someone’s moment of mourning to try to convince them of one’s own worldview. And, yet, within their hearts and minds, many people deconvert, convert, or become passionately religious for the first times in their lives.

Fortunately, in intimate conversations and small groups, we can find those with whom we can each have the kinds of conversations that suit our own emotional and intellectual needs and desires best. But this still leaves a problem: what should we do when we are mourning collectively? Because an important part of many people’s individual and personal confrontations with death are the public ceremonies and rituals that mark it. And many people want to hear only words of comfort, while many others might find these ceremonies to be hollow tepid formalities if they don’t confront the harsh realities that are really concerning them. Some people want to focus on death and while others want to focus on life. Some people want to banish funerals and dirges and replace them only with memorial parties.

One might say, “well this is simple, let everyone just grieve differently and in their own way.” But this is precisely the problem: when we come together, our group ceremonies cannot simply do that because they will invariably bring together people who grieve differently and who are there to remember someone who may have wanted to be grieved even differently than they are inclined to.

And such an answer is also unsatisfactory because it is a cop out. People need cultural forms. They need templates in life. Not every person would do a very good job of fulfilling all their needs if they had to figure out everything from scratch. Cultures, however imperfect, are people’s default guides. Ideally cultures would be constantly evolving to guide people better and better by jettisoning or modifying what has not worked and exploring new ideas for improvement. Blind traditionalism is a commitment to never learn and improve. Rejection of all tradition and cultural form is a commitment to forget what has been learned and to stop relying on collective support to figure things out. Both would be disastrous.

So if you were writing the template for collective mourning, understanding the mixtures of people from different traditions and temperaments who would inevitably be present, what would your template look like? We might need multiple templates and I would be one to argue that we should have norms that allow for a fair amount of individual customizations of templates for different individuals, families, and other groups. But what sorts of values do you think should be central to the template? What sorts of rituals for what sorts of purposes would you want to preserve or create?

In short: 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? 

If you write a blog post responding to the issues I have raised and send me the link by February 3 at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com, then I will feature it here on Camels With Hammers on February 4! In the meantime, Libby Anne has the round up of blog posts on civic responsibility today.

Your Thoughts?

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