Forward Thinking: How Can We Mourn Together?


Dan Fincke has announced the second subject of the Forward Thinking project he launched with Libby Anne and it’s one that hits very close to home for me. I’ve had to deal with the question of how to address religious questions at funerals where there is a mixture of views among those who mourn. Dan sets up the question:

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…

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?

I’m going to avoid answering that question in much detail because, quite frankly, I don’t think there can be a single template for everyone. A deeply religious person is going to mourn, and design the rituals that surround mourning, differently from an atheist. And that’s okay. But what happens when there are both among the mourners? This is a question I have had to deal with in very real ways.

I have written before about the death of my mother, who died 16 years ago, a year after getting a lung transplant. I gave the eulogy at her funeral. And I knew that I would have to address the subject delicately. My mother was a very vague theist. She believed in a higher power of some undefined sort and she believed in life after death. I, obviously, do not. In my eulogy, I tried to find some common ground. I don’t remember my exact words but they went something like this:

I would love to think that I will someday be reunited with her, and with others I have lost. Unfortunately, I don’t see any good reason to believe that I will. I’m sure many here do believe in such a future. But there is one form of immortality that we can all believe in. She will live on in the lives of her children and grandchildren and her many friends. I will think of her every time I hear a Barbara Streisand song (her favorite singer) or drive by a Bill Knapp’s (she loved one particular dish they served). Her grandchildren will think of her every time they go fishing and bait a hook, or every time they bake a pie, just the way she taught them to do. Regardless of whether a heaven awaits us, we all live on in the lives of those we touched while we were alive.

My father is now 77 years old. He is in relatively good health and I expect and hope that he will live many more years. He is an atheist, but he is married to a Pentecostal. A few months ago I had a dream that he had died and my stepmother and I got into a big fight because she wanted a religious funeral and I thought that was inappropriate because he was an atheist. I told my dad about that dream and he agreed that it was quite realistic. But he told me not to worry about it and not to fight over it. “I don’t care what goes on at my funeral,” he said. “I don’t plan to be there.”

I expect that I will give the eulogy at his funeral as well, whenever it happens (if I can hold it together; I managed, just barely, to get through it at my mother’s funeral, only breaking down at the end, but I think it will be far more difficult at his). And I will try, again, to express my views (and his) without offending anyone else or sparking a fight. A funeral is not the place for such things. And regardless of how we may mourn differently, we will all be mourning. And that will be a time for supporting and loving one another, not for petty arguments.

I don’t know if it’s possible to design a mourning ritual that would satisfy everyone. I doubt it’s even worth trying. But I think it’s important as individuals that we give others the consideration of allowing them to mourn in their own way. Did I answer the question? Not really. But it did provoke a great many memories and a bit of thought.

Comments

  1. Thorne says

    I lost both of my parents this year, about six months apart, and we had no funeral for them at all. What’s the point, after all? As your Dad says, they weren’t there, so they didn’t care. As for mourning, I again don’t see the point. In both cases their deaths were a welcome relief, both for them and for us. Their suffering was over. That’s a good thing, right?

    Personally, I don’t hold much with ritual and tradition. Any grieving I had to do I did on my own, the way I prefer it. There were some gatherings of the immediate family after both deaths, but there was no ritual about it. After Mom died it was about helping Dad and going through her things, cleaning out her closets, so he didn’t have to deal with it. After he died, it was about cleaning out the house so it could be sold.

    Funerals aren’t for the dead. They are for the living, a last chance to say goodbye, as it were. Our feeling was that, if they didn’t have the time to come and visit them while they were alive, who cared whether they got the chance to see them after they were dead? Both of my parents were cremated immediately after death, with no ceremony, no viewings, no frills. Their ashes were mingled and buried together. It was the way they wanted it, and the way we wanted it. Those who have religious leanings, said their prayers to themselves. Those without, didn’t. Can’t get much simpler.

  2. raven says

    Here on the west coast in nonreligious circles, the trend is to hold a memorial service or Celebration of Life service.

    It’s far superior to a xian funeral.

    One old guy was a Pagan. The Pagans had a huge bonfire party which worked well. The few xians there melted down in shock.

  3. Michael Heath says

    Nearly all the funerals I go to are for theists. Regardless of their level of devoutness to their beliefs, the context at these funerals is that the recently departed are now in Heaven.

    The rhetoric at such events is absolute confidence this belief is certain. It is repeatedly asserted, even when the topic is not brought up by the listener(s).

    I’m mindful of a quote which devastates me everytime I think of it, it’s from Maya Angelou and it goes like this,

    I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

    While I think Angelou is purposefully employing some hyperbole here, her point resonates with me. One reason is because the three most popular people in my inner-circle of friends and family all possess this quality. This is not an attribute which comes naturally to me and if I had to be graded I’m sure I’d be no better than a C- (higher with business associates and friends, lower with devout family members). But I keep this quote in mind at funerals and have learned to merely listen to all the Heaven talk, keep my body language passive, not change the subject, and not respond.

    Cowardly? Yes, to some degree I think so; but people at these events simply don’t appear to want to consider any other possibilities; where I also see no upside in providing alternative perspectives. Also partly because anti-theist notions expressed in such venues then becomes about me rather than the person who died, which I think is bad form at a funeral.

  4. jaime says

    This is a very thought-provoking issue. People are usually at their most vulnerable when they’ve lost someone they loved, and it’s easy to get into conflicts over how they are remembered. I’d agree that there isn’t a single template; but I do think the person’s wishes should come first. True, they aren’t there to see it, but following someone’s last requests is the final way of showing respect for them and the life they lived. I personally think it’s easier to reach closure when you know you’ve given someone that last consideration. I also think it solves a problem of what rituals to observe. by focusing on what the person in question wanted, you can side-step a lot of conflict over who decides what’s done and what isn’t.

    Of course, that doesn’t work in cases of sudden death when the individual’s wishes weren’t well known. In a case like that, it’s important to acknowledge the confusion. Sudden loss can make people possessive and somewhat dictatorial of their memories; it isn’t rational, but grief will do that. It’s necessary to reassure family and friends that a last tribute isn’t the last word.

  5. rork says

    I think practical words suffice. Recount and celebrate the dead person’s life. Thank them. Talk about the living resolving to do some good things in the future that are in keeping with some of the highest goals in the dead person’s life, to fight against great harms they experienced, or prevent failures that we could do better about helping with in other people’s lives. We must insure the living have the support they need. The best religious eulogies do these things. DO that, merely leaving out the speculative parts. You will have plenty enough to say if you just care for the living.
    40 winters have passed since I last saw my dad heading for ‘Nam.

  6. Sastra says

    As you say, the answer to this question is going to be complicated — but I feel very strongly about the importance of making any official funeral or service into a remembrance and honoring of the person who has died, and not an opportunity to trash their values, ideals, and legacy the moment they are no longer around to protest. As you might guess, I’m thinking here of funerals for atheists — even outspoken atheist activists — which become showpieces for religious belief, religious ceremony, and religious means of coping. I’ve been to them. My thoughts about this are not happy thoughts.

    Yes, yes, I get it that some of the family members find this more “comforting.” And the dead person is gone and not looking down from heaven. But this is not what the deceased stood for. This is not who they were. A nod to religion is one thing: an opportunistic intrusion and negation of the “loved ones”” legacy is another.

    And I’d argue the same I hope if the person who died was a Catholic and most of the audience was not. You get a priest there, and you do the crap Grandma would have wanted. This is really about THEM — honoring, remembering, recognizing, and respecting them. It isn’t about you and your desire to grieve by giving them the sort of funeral they would have walked out of.

    It doesn’t have to be about religion. If an animal rights activist died you might have some cold cuts at the luncheon afterwards: you wouldn’t have person after person get up during the service and talk about how great it is to go hunting and what a shame it was that the Dear Departed never knew the joy of a fresh kill.

  7. raven says

    raven “The Pagans had a huge bonfire party which worked well. The few xians there melted down in shock.”
    What about the funeral home director?

    There wasn’t one.

    FWIW, I don’t mean the xians literally melted down. No one threw them on the bonfire or anything. They just didn’t expect a lot of people and a party.

  8. susans says

    Like me, my mother is an atheist. However, when she dies, she will be buried next to my father in a Jewish cemetery, with a Jewish funeral. That’s what she wants and that’s what a lot of family members and friends will want. Respecting her wishes will be easy because it is not about me and my lack of faith; I will help make it happen, it will be over and life will go on. My world view will not be threatened, my ego will not be damaged, and I will have answered the question, did I do the right thing?

    When I die, my relatives can do whatever they like: I won’t care, I’ll be dead.

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