Death Rituals and Religion


Reading Mano Singham’s discussion of fearing death the other day brought some thoughts on death rituals and religion to mind.

My perspective here comes from my youth, having lived in the upstairs apartment of my family’s fifth generation funeral home. It was directly across from the church we attended. The two facilities provided conflicting impressions of death. At home it was a daily reality that involved two parts: a thing – the lifeless body –  along with the humans who loved the living person. I consider the body an object because there were matter-of-fact tasks and duties associated with the body, while the living survivors were the major concern. They existed in the most stressful emotional state that one can experience. Every emotion we own is brought to bear in the experience of death. Funerals Directors attempt to formalize the details in harmonious conjunction with people who are in an emotional state where no one is ready to do so. The body is always respected, but the various religious rituals of the funeral service itself often show little regard for the living in spite of the intent. Religions take the reality of death and transform it into a fantasy story. Many people find comfort in that, but it is such a blatant distortion of nature as to insult others who are also grieving, as well an insult to the memory of the deceased.

In my old Presbyterian church, where emotions are more subdued, the fantasy of an afterlife dominated by a three-in-one god is proclaimed.  Just like a theatrical play, a willing suspension of disbelief is required to appreciate this manufactured delusion. The pretense of church with its dress clothes, politeness, shared fantasies, pretend holiness, and its goody-two-shoes ambiance seems artificial in contrast to authentic death. This comparison makes god seem contrived and gives all credence to nature. Death is real with genuine emotions. The most passion I have ever seen at church activities was the interfaith softball league games; now that was something people actually cheered for.

My bother-in-law’s brother died of AIDS/HIV. He wasn’t the least bit religious and he was gay in the small community where we lived. He had more than his share of tragedy in life. His large family accepted and supported him through it all, but when the time came they didn’t know what to do except call a preacher for the funeral. It’s what’s expected. The whole event became a farce as this stranger tried to say something he deemed appropriate. Every ‘Jesus this’ and ‘Jesus that’ brought us a sad ironic grimace that flashed anger. Many faces of those attending were expressing the thought: “This is wrong”. If it weren’t so painful it would have been laugh-out-loud funny.

The best funeral service I ever attended was for the above-mentioned brother-in-law, they seem to die young in that family. My sister planned it and conducted it, which surprised me given her husband’s sudden demise. There were hundreds of people there, My sister simply asked the crowd to come up and tell stories about her husband. One after another got up and told funny anecdotes and sad stories revealing our fondness for him. The laughter was intense and so were the tears. We left that event having achieved a catharsis that no religion-based service could possibly match. This is the service we should all wish to have.

His friends and family happened to be good storytellers and unabashed hams, so the technique may not work in all families. But, there was no pretense of a fairy-tale heaven or other spiritual concept. We loved him when he was here, and now we are sad he is gone – we shared that discussion and it was all we need do.

People in the throws of loss and its confusion go for the default option. Funeral = religious shaman is the pro-forma course of action. Death requires prayers. They are glad to have the ritual in the hands of a professional, but half way through they realize the pro’s ritual has its own purpose, it’s for something else – the default god – and not really the loved one. That priest only knows the deceased through a cursory description, so the rote service is sprinkled with impersonal ‘facts’ from a background document. The service intended to ‘honor’ an individual has no honor in its form or structure. The god of this event is false. It is fake religion and a cheap shot used to interject the big con into everyday life through everyday death. It takes advantage of the weakest at their most vulnerable.

I have a theory about religion and human emotions that shows those two things have little to do with one another. Certain emotions of the individual are not the concern of the church, to play on the first line of the Pope’s Exhortation on Love. Human emotions are something to be harnessed and controlled by the church. The church makes rules addressing emotions and assigns them moral value. Those who value certain emotions that the church doesn’t, are condemned. The Pope’s exhortation on love is a perfect example of legalistic language delineating those acceptable and non-acceptable emotions.

Why does it take a lawyer to write god’s rules for love? Well, if you think about it, a lawyer’s job is to strip out the emotion from a circumstance and create a precise code. The law that results has no human emotion and presumably thrives independent of emotion. It is the George Bush ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ perspective. Lawyers define ‘with us’ and ‘against us’. The Pope’s legalistic exhortation pretends that the church is an essential component of love as the first line says: “The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church” which means: without the Church and its lawyerly rules there is no love.

The Sorrow of Death experienced by families is also the sorrow of the Church. Do you suppose this would be a Pope-approve statement too? Think of the ramifications. The rules of love include heterosexual marriage and make a point of excluding same-sex love.  The legal interpretation excludes gay couples from the church. So, the sorrow of death in a gay family is not the sorrow of the church. Why hire a priest to lead the ceremony? Sure, he is likely to have sympathy for the sorrow of death, per se. But the rules of exclusion still apply. Technically, legalistically, that family is excluded from the exclusive club of Catholics.

I use the Catholics as an example but the same circumstance can be found for many reason in most religions. They are exclusive organizations thriving under the universal propaganda that religion is inclusive and good. That simply is not true. People dealing with death are just like little kids who are becoming old enough to realize Santa Clause isn’t real. They know the truth but they just don’t want it to be true. Hoping is much nicer than knowing! “We’d better play it safe, just in case He is real.”

Secular services are available; if people were more prepared for death they wouldn’t fear it as much and wouldn’t rely upon the default.

So, what's on your mind?