Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Death of Rituals

A disturbing trend has emerged in regards to death and how we deal with it -- or not deal with it as the case may be. Time and time again I find myself faced with a grieving family, who proceed to inform me that the deceased did not wish to have a service, (specifically told the family to NOT have a service when they die!). I have also encountered many people who have lost someone close to them, but for medical reasons they are not able to attend the memorial service, or perhaps cannot afford to attend if it is out of the city, or the roads are too bad.               
                                                                                     A picture of Memorial Gardens at R-W

In times of grief, people are often not prepared and feel lost in regards with what to do next. Some people reach out to religious communities, but most people now a days, turn to a funeral home or nothing at all. Funeral homes are much better at advertising then churches are.

I can't help but wonder though...do people actually understand what a faith community can offer them in times of need? How do we, the leaders, in faith institutions address the myth that funeral service are simply to ensure that someone's soul gets to heaven? How do we get the message out that churches are open to working with families and can provide them with a structure to alleviate the stress and provide comfort and peace?

Memorial services and death rituals are for the people left behind, just as much if not more so then the people who have passed away. When we lose someone we need to find away to move through the grieving process, we need to find a way to address the hole that is left after a loved one dies. We need to find closure, to acknowledge that this person will not exist in the same way in our life anymore. But this still doesn't explain why more and more people have decided to not have a service.

So why are people choosing to have no service after they die?
Here is a list of reasons I have heard over the past 10 years in ministry:

  • It is too expensive, not worth the cost
  • No one will come, I've out lived everyone I know.
  • I don't want people crying over me or creating a fuss. 
  • I don't like to be the center of attention.
  • Funerals are always so depressing and dreary.
  • I want people to remember as I lived not as a dead person.
  • It seems like all we do these days is attend funerals, people should just have a party instead. 
  • I don't want the family to have to plan a whole service and reception....it is too much work for them, and will be too stressful for them.
  • I'm worried the family will fight.
  • My family is not religious, they wouldn't know what to do or ask for, or know what I would want. 
There are others of course, but these are the most common. 
So why do we need rituals? Why have a funeral?
David Chidester, the author of the book "Patterns of Transcendence; Religion, Death and Dying" writes, "Death rituals are rites of passages that symbolize a change from one state of existence to another, from life to death. In this regard, death rituals can be compared to other rites of passage - birth, adulthood, and marriage -- that symbolically mark a change from an old status to a new status in the life cycle....Death rituals bridge that transition period in which the person is not recognized as living, yet not fully incorporated into the world of the dead." p. 33-34.

To put it another way, people need rituals because people need to have a safe place to express their grief and sadness while sharing their loss with others - they need to have a place where they are giving permission to express their sadness, a place where someone one shows them how to express grief. A funeral, or memorial service give people a structure to follow and meaningful actions which will allow them to honour and remember the person who has died, to tell their stories, and to express how much this person meant to them. 

What I find interesting, is that as a North American culture we are much better at sharing in our grief when someone famous dies, or when there is a major tragedy in the world. People gather on the streets, place objects on the site of the tragedy or the place where the famous person was born. People light candles and hold vigils in times like these. When famous people die we create documentaries, or write books, or make a movie about their life. People want to know more about the person who died.  

People who aren't famous are just as interesting! And people who knew them and loved them still want to know more, still discover things about their friends and families that they didn't know. 

We see death on TV and in social media all the time, yet we ignore a crucial part of the transition and closure. After the person has died, we simply want to move on, we hide the messiness and awkwardness and sadness that comes with seeing and burying a dead body. What are we so afraid of? Some people have actually told me that they don't want to talk about their funeral plans because it might jinks them, it will give them bad luck. Some people avoid talking about death because they don't want their loved ones to give in. 

My question is this: Why do we make it so hard on our loved ones after we die? Why do we render them helpless in their time of need? I find it sad that people are left to their own devices to grieve. Some isolate themselves, not willing and not knowing how to express their sadness. People spend a lot of energy trying to hide their tears, trying to demonstrate that they are strong, and independent. Some of us hesitate to reach out to the grieving family because we don't want to bother them. Some of us who are grieving do not want to burden others with our sadness and depression. 

What I have learned is that sharing stories about the person we have lost and talking about them is essential. Witnessing the ritual of  burying the remains and gathering together to remember people makes the transition more real. Death rituals help us accept that the person will no longer be there with us, and the rituals help us to incorporate our loved ones and friends into a new reality, the spiritual realm. Rituals give intention to actions, and require that we face the truth. Rituals in community provide a way for people to reach out to one another and both give and receive support. 
Invite everyone to take some time to consider what your wishes are for when you die, and I hope you will all say YES to having a service -- look at it as the celebration of a life that has been lived! It is just as important as the day you were born and every year that your birth was celebrated!

Written by Rev. Karen Bridges