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.