|OK, folks, this is a somber and serious piece by the Professor....|
One of the dubious “honors” bestowed on us by accelerating Geezerdom is the opportunity to attend more funerals and memorial services than perhaps we would wish for if we had any control over such things.
Of course I’m not the first to observe that death is one of the most inevitable and ever-present components of a life well led. There is precious little any of us can do when faced with the passing of friends, family and colleagues. But we do owe it to them to honor their life in some way. The question is how?
Societies around the world and throughout the centuries have developed elaborate rituals around the dead, usually with a dual function: to assist the dead person’s transition from this life to whatever phase comes next; and to allow those who remain a means to start the transition from a world with the loved one to a world without. It’s really quite an interesting area of anthropology, and I wish I knew more about it. In the final analysis, death rituals—like so many practices in traditional cultures—can be viewed as rites of passage.
America has not done well with any rights-of-passage lately. As a university professor, I am surrounded every day by bright, talented, funny people who no more view themselves as adults than I view myself as the Easter Bunny. (And point of clarification: I do not—nor have I EVER—thought of myself as the Easter Bunny.) Research over many years indicates that the average age at which our younger generations begin to regard themselves as adults was 20 just two decades ago, but is currently 27 years of age. So we’re not doing so well with the rite of passage to adulthood, it would seem. And that’s a relatively easy transition.
How, then, are we doing with that rite of passage from this world to the next? My recent experience has made me question this more vigorously.
You see, over the last two months, I have attended four services to honor departed friends and colleagues; not one was a traditional funeral. All of them occurred a number of weeks after the death in question (“convenience” was cited in each case); all of them were memorial services rather than funerals; all of them were described as a “celebration of life.” (All of them, by the way, were perfectly lovely, and I would not have missed them.) The question I have, though: : celebration of life is indeed in order—who could argue with that—but should it REPLACE the grieving, introspection and acknowledgement of our collective transience that characterizes a fulsome funereal service?
|One of the Geezers—the Mathematician—likes to|
periodically dress in drag to mourn his lost youth.
I wonder: should the acknowledgement that a death has occurred and nothing will remain exactly the same again be put off for weeks to allow extended family and friend to conveniently work a date into their frantic schedules? Should it be put on the back burner, or (perhaps worse) be ignored altogether in an effort to instead recreate and remember how wonderful the world was when the loved one was still here? Have we started evolving from a fear of death (healthy or otherwise) to a state where we begin to IGNORE death? (Celebrate the life, but don’t mention the suffering and bring everyone down!)
There is little doubt that the formal religious rituals that previously guided us through our most dramatic and challenging transitions in life (baptism, mar mitzvah/confirmation, wedding, funeral) have lost much or even most of their effectiveness in our increasingly secular culture. But even secular rites of passage have diverged from acknowledging the fear and uncertainty of the unknown future toward a nostalgic look back at the wonderful, rose tinted (and controllable) past.
Just look at high school graduation ceremonies which, in many cases, threaten to turn into a talent show with robes. (A “celebration” of our wonderful children’s achievements rather than a ceremony to mark the commencement of the next, daunting phase of life.) So if formal rituals and secular traditions are diminishing in their effectiveness, what are we to do as we face these moments of gut-wrenching transition? I don’t know. I suspect, though, that certain things might be worth considering:
• Death should be acknowledged—and promptly. When a death to someone close occurs, we simply must take whatever time and mental space we can muster to deal with it. Many studies of grief would agree with this. But stopping our frantic lives is not only a good thing for us psychologically, it is a gesture of HONOR to the departed. By putting off these issues for weeks—or even months—do we diminish, however inadvertently, the honor that is due?
|To no one's surprise, this is how various|
Geezer funerals will end some day.
• Death is not convenient. Who among us has not experienced the passing of someone close, but for some reason or another has been unable to pay their respects in person? Such things will always happen; we do live in an era where people exist further and further away from each other in so many ways. We do what we can; and sometimes that feels bad or inadequate. But if, as a society, we begin to think of honoring our dead as a thing which can be scheduled into people’s lives conveniently, we run the danger that employers, judges, coaches—and we ourselves—will deny ourselves the permission to STOP and honor that which should be honored—immediately and emphatically.
-• Life is a mixture of dark and light, joy and sorrow, life and death. Who would say that life should not be celebrated? But dare we overlook the shadow which surrounds the wonderful moments of light we experience; the mortality which so intensifies each moment we seem to live fully; the death, and resulting grief, which is so inevitably linked to a vivid and active life well led?
|The Professor may not like it, but this indeed is|
how we're sending him out, should he be the
first to meet the reaper.
Thinking it through, the Victorians may have overdone it a bit with the wearing of black in emulation of Victoria’s flamboyant (and long-lasting) grieving of Prince Albert. The Egyptians might have gone a bit over the top in terms of the structures they built to mark the passing of a ruler. And even though I appreciate the dramatic gesture, I don’t want anyone torching my boat “Viking-style” to express collective anguish regarding my death—whether or not I’m aboard.
It seems to me the Irish have traditionally struck a nice balance with the celebratory, humor-filled (and alcohol fueled) wake followed by the solemn Requiem Mass. One of the more moving ceremonies I have participated in was a Jewish service, wherein the service occurred nearly immediately after the death, followed by the burial with which many of us—including two young sons of the deceased—assisted by placing shovelfuls of dirt upon the gradually disappearing coffin. Is there a secular equivalent to this practice? How can we develop a way to guide us through one of the most vexing rites of passage in a timely, fulsome way? As the professor, I suppose I should have all the answers. When it comes to marking death, though, I’m left with mostly questions.