Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Professor on the Rituals of Death

OK, folks, this is a somber and serious piece by the Professor....
—After along haitus, the Professor returns with a thoughtful discussion on matters of importance to the Geezer crowd—

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.



  1. I agree, please don't burn me in any of my boats... Thomas Long has a book about funerals from a Christian perspective titled "Accompany Them with Singing." I am sure the deceased don't want my melodies accompanying them into the next world, but I like how he discusses the "problem" with a funeral is that we have a body, without life, and we can't ignore it. I do like the idea of the journey and of taking the casket to the grave--in my family's church for generations, the cemetery was beside the sanctuary and there were actually a job for pall bearers who carried out the box--I like that! In another tradition, there is a wonderful Chinese movie that explores the meaning of death and ritual and is tied into the "carrying" of the deceased to the grave. See: http://sagecoveredhills.blogspot.com/2009/11/road-home-movie-review.html

  2. As our culture has become youth oriented the need to acknowledge that rite of passage is being fit into the rites of youth, as you point out, and our duty to death ignored. It begins passing from our hands as soon as the departed is gone, with the soothing hospital/hospice chaplain, then the soothing funeral director, and so on into the grave. On the whole it will not change; we cannot wrest dignity back until the party is over.

  3. It seems to me that the one thing we feel above all else with the passing of one who has played a loving part of our lives, is self-pity. Now please do not take that as a pejorative judgement. It is a perfectly natural function of our egos. I have never been to a wake, but I have attended French funerals where the corpse is usually shovelled into the ground within three days. My question then is, "Have the ones left behind had sufficient time to grieve?" My answer usually is a resounding, "No!"

    We are apt to think that considering ourselves in this way is inappropriately selfish. The fact is that we do need to grieve. And no matter how public a send-off we contrive, even including much wailing in some societies, that grieving is an internal need. We have had something taken away from us, and that requires a need to acknowledge the loss, acknowledge our feelings of loss, and the inner devastation that we may feel.

    Furthermore, I have to ask the question, "If someone has died, how in heaven's name does 'wailing and gnashing of teeth' help them, the departed?" If they have gone to a better place, why pity them? If they have have simply been annihilated by the death event, why feel sorry for them, for they won't know? If they have gone to a worse place, how does any part of a funeral or other service, help them? And the idea of a celebration of someone's life, which usually entails the denial of the feelings surrounding that someone's loss, serves little if any function, except perhaps a bit of theatre.

    I have not intended to hurt anyone, or rubbish anyone else's opinions in my comment. But surely it is to the living, those left behind, that our attention needs to be turned.

  4. An interesting issue, and one that I've had a bit of time recently to consider. Nearly 20 years ago my sister died, in her last several months she re-converted to childhood catholicism. This was interesting, and rather disturbing to me; she had been the one who talked me out of alter boy ideas decades before, and indoctrinated me to the evils of the empire catholics had built. I bought it, and later when my research and reading confirmed what she said, adopted it completely.
    When my sister was diagnosed with terminal CA, she, in the last months, re-converted to catholicism. She told me that she had been mistaken. What I saw at the time was unclear to me, was I seeing actual belief, or fear? I had no idea, nor do I now. But, what the incident caused me was wondering....would, in the same circumstances, I have my sister's reaction?
    I now have some idea......in the last couple months I've faced similar things, and had a different reaction. My sister's reaction, to re-convert to the religion of her youth does not exist in me. I accept my own ideas of what will happen when I stop living, and they are fine with me.
    So I rather agree with the last commenter, in that post-mortem ceremony probably should focus on the remaining, the living. The dead are gone, done. What will remain of us, after we leave this mortal coil, will reside in the left, the living.
    I think probably the last memory of my dad, passed on 1974, will probably be gone with me, and with that memory he will join the billions of those who have died. The atoms, the iterations of carbon, will join the earth and atmosphere. As will I. As will you.
    What I believe is not that I will have some existence past what this life has....it's no less spiritual or, if you will, wierd....that the usual religion stuff.
    I think that all that I could have done, is open to someone else. All that I did not do, chances I should have taken, will be tried, by others. That my dreams, my hopes, are open to someone else. That I rejoin the earth. The earth I've never been apart from, as far as our essence.

  5. Attitudes about death, affect how people regard life. It is a mystery to me how humankind has come to such diverse understandings.

  6. I feel that death should be acknowledged as quickly and fully, while also viewed as both good and bad. Those feelings are shaped by my Christianity, of course, and I find that mileage varies for others more now than it did, say, fifty years ago.

    By acknowledging death quickly, we begin to heal quickly. It's similar to having a cancer. Ignoring it is unlikely to begin the healing process and may ultimately make healing impossible. If we let thoughts of the death of a loved fester in our subconscious, rather than bringing them out, I can't imagine that being a healthy thing.

    If one believes in a pleasant hereafter, death is good news. We can celebrate that passage of the deceased. But it remains sad news for those who still inhabit this plane since we will no longer have the good person with us (not to mention that we are still made to inhabit a plane that is inferior.)

    I have no fear of death because I have a trust in my savior, Jesus Christ. I truly have no idea how those who don't hold such a belief are able to deal with it, so perhaps not wanting to deal with it is their best response for mental stability?

    1. Oh my. How do we who choose to believe that this is all there is, Suldog? How do we deal with it, the idea that there is no happy or miserable afterlife? It's called rational thought. You write columns for the Boston paper, you should investigate the idea.

  7. —from the Mercurious voice of the Geezers—

    Interesting dialogue in the last few exchanges. There's the heart of it—does one believe in some kind of possible afterlife, whereby, if you are genuinely sincere, it might be possible to approach death with something resembling peace? If that approach is mythology, though—which many hold—what are the ramifications of having lived a life and approached death on utterly false terms?

    Myself, I'm a little more in Should Fish More's camp. I can't really see any evidence of the traditional religious answer. At the same time, when I look around at the natural world, I see no evidence that anything vanishes forever. Spring always follows winter, and plants and animals that die always—always—fuel new life in some fashion. So I find myself seeing death as some kind of transition, the particulars of which I have utterly no way to understand or predict. Frankly, the only thing that will give any kind of comfort (assuming I have some forewarning of approaching death) will be the thought of my own kids and other young members of the species continuing on.

    Then again, that might just be my own means of self-deception.

    In terms of a life philosophy, Buddhist philosophy offers a central question to be considered: "If the one truth in life is that we all die, and that the cause and means and moment of that death is uncertain....how then does one live?"

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  9. This is a whole plateful of food for thought. Great post...

    I've had to set up a couple of funerals for my family and what I'm about to say is based on my own experiences, and those of others I know. I also have a good friend who's family has been in the business for generations.

    Veiled by the supportive words and understanding tones of the funeral director, is the fact that he or she, is really nothing but a car salesman, trying to up-sell you at every opportunity (and there are lot of them). These people, receive a base salary, but can increase their pay via sales commissions and bonuses, for reaching sales goals (up-selling). The more money you pay, they more they make. They are not clergy, grief counselors, or a shoulder to lean on. Funeral homes and cemeteries are usually owned by large companies and not by the people that have their name on the signs.

    I have never been to a funeral where the eulogist (or eulogists) were completely honest. People tell lies about the departed, either by commission or omission. An example: John was hard working and a dedicated family man. Fact: 'John was a philandering son of a bitch and died of a heart attack induced by long term heavy cocaine usage."

    Another true example: "Richard was a good student and a sensitive and loving son." Fact: Richard was a dedicated juvenile delinquent and petty criminal who was shot to death while he and a friend were screwing around with a loaded pistol." I'm sure this says something about me, but Richard was a friend of mine and this happened during his junior year is high school. I knew who and what he was. Each of the four people who spoke about him at his services lied.

    I still go to funerals occasionally, but I miss more than attend. I understand that they serve a very important service for many people, but I won't be having one. At least not a traditional sense.