Vague thoughts about our rituals for death


I spent most of the last two weeks wearing black. Our customs don’t suggest we do this anymore, but it was something I wanted to do, because I wanted in some way to mark a period of mourning for my grandma who died on February 2nd.

Even writing about her death makes me uncomfortable. She died at home in her bed and after a lot of pain but at the end of a very long life and comfortable at last. I would say that her death was a good death. So why do I feel uncomfortable about writing about it?

In Western society death is the last taboo. I am not alone or unusual in saying this. We are all obsessed by youth, we rarely have to see a dead body or face the untimely death of our loved ones, let alone the prospect of our own death. We are all struggling to maintain our youth, we don’t value the aging process as we used to, we somehow believe that age brings us nothing where it used to bring valueable wisdom and experience.

Death is not good, it is unknown and it seperates people who love each other.

And so because the majority of us do not have to face death daily as we used to, we either try to avoid every reminder that it exists or we run screaming at it, living right up until the last moment in some hope that that will make it more bearable and not really thinking about death at all.

Because we stick our head in the ground about the fact of death our rituals around death have subsequently become subdued and marginalised,in effect we have lost the will or art of dealing with it.

The Victorians used to wear black for a year, then purple and then finally were allowed to wear their own colours again. We are barely expected to wear black for a couple of days. Everything is over in a flash and suddenly there is a hole where a person used to be but we aren’t supposed to talk about that, unless they are a celebrity perhaps and even then….

And worse, in the UK the rituals of death that do help the living to move on are largely centred around Christianity, where the majority of the population is not Christian. If you are participating in a ritual that speaks to the core of what you believe about the world then it is helpful, valuable and essential. If you don’t believe, just how helpful is it? The forms are strange, the words mean nothing, you don’t know the hymns you don’t understand the readings, but you want a good end for your loved one and church is “right”.

My grandmother’s funeral was an important ritual for me, because she had a rock solid faith and because I share her faith (though I wouldn’t say it was rock solid!). It was a means of marking a life moment in God’s presence, and publically getting together to say that we are going to miss her. To get support for the future without her and to think about our own deaths in a positive way, because when you are faced with it you can’t very well not think about it and that’s one of the reasons we find it so daunting.

If she had been young a rowdy wake might have been appropriate, as it was we had tea and sandwiches and talked about her life. These were the rituals we used to come to terms with losing her and having worn my black and seen her coffin into the ground I can start moving on. These rituals mark a rite of passage not so much for her but for me and my family, but one that links completely back into my life because of my faith. I feel lucky that’s the case.

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4 responses to “Vague thoughts about our rituals for death

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    To answer your question, as a non-believer I am very happy to attend a Christian funeral for a Christian friend or relative; what always strikes me as entirely hollow and unsatisfactory is a Christian service for someone who didn’t subscribe to anything like those beliefs. I have never been to a funeral that didn’t have a Christian element. The fact that I do know the hymns and understand the readings perhaps makes things worse.

    What is needed, I think, is the development of a non-religious order of service, as it were. At first this might seem jarring, but the Book of Common Prayer must have seemed new and alien once.

    I can see no reason why these services couldn’t take places in a parish church, at the centre of the community, or even be officiated by the clergy. The church, as you say, has long had control over rites of passage, and it would be a sign of goodwill if it now aided the development of new rites for non-believers.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    II wonder if church is the right place for such rituals to occur, given that the people who use them daily see them as places specifically dedicated to God and expressing a belief in him, but I see why you might suggest it and the value it could lend to a ceremony or ritual.

    I have a friend who works for the Humanists, specifically overseeing their licensed ceremony managers – I’m sure that is completely the wrong term! – so I have asked her to take a look at my post and your comments and perhaps talk about what the humanists do in this area.

  3. Dear LettyandDolly,
    No-one has to have a Christian (or religious) funeral if they don’t want one. Humanism is a set of non-religious principles to which many subscribe – basically, we have one life, this one and we should do our best to make the most of it for ourselves and for others. Do as you would be done by.

    A humanist funeral, usually conducted in a crematorium or burial ground, will celebrate the life of the person who has died and acknowledge what they mean to those left behind. There’s no reference to a god or an afterlife because, well, what’s the point?

    The British Humanist Association has a network of trained and accredited celebrants (as we call them) who conduct humanist ceremonies. There is no such thing as a prescribed humanist funeral, wedding or naming ceremony. The celebrant will prepare the ceremony in close consultation with the person or people who want it so that it’s just as they want it.

    Hope that’s helpful and encouraging!

  4. Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts evoked by the death of your dear grand mother. It is important for us to realize that funeral rites came into be because we humans from time imemorial believed in God and in the immortality of the human soul. A funeral rite or ceremony is not a set of ritual born out of nothing- they were born out of the desire to bid farewel and send forth the souls of the departed.

    As a matter of fact, funeral rites and rituals predated christianity. In my own part of Africa, Igboland, south East of Nigeria, before the dawn of Christianity, our ancestors have a well-articulated and elaborate funeral rites for people of various age and gender. Each of these have deep religious underpining. Even the ancient Egyptians and their mummies, tell the same story too.

    As a strong Catholic, our funeral rites and liturgy is solidly anchored on the firm deep rooted believe that the soul of the departed is not dead at the end of bodily life, but was transformed to immortality. The soul, has passed from mortality to immortality therefore all the elaborate rituals and liturgy; begining with vigil Mass to the funeral Mass and (including the symbols and sacramentals used- Crucifix, incense, holy water, prayers, scripture passages, sacred music etc) internment at the grave site, point to the hope of eternal life and redemption for the soul. It is not a mere cosmetic drama for the entertenment of the mourners.

    It is absurd to have a funeral rite for a humanist who does not believe in life after death except for the selfish reason and amusement of those he left behind. It is an excercise if futility as far as the departed is concerned. It is just but a poor imitation of theistic practice.

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