What Do-It-Yourself Funerals Can’t Offer

by Matthew Sitman

It’s an interesting question, how we’ll handle death and grief as religion’s place in our lives declines. I don’t mean that the old answers about what “happens” when we die will need to be reworked, exactly, because it seems clear that, no longer believing in the afterlife, most will just acknowledge that nothingness awaits us. There only will be the “sure extinction that we travel to,” as Larkin put it. But that still leaves the issue of how to mourn the dead, in the very practical sense of what to do when a loved one dies. Emma Green looks at Candi Cann’s recent book, Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century, on how this post-religious dilemma is being handled:

For most of human history, religious ceremony has helped people deal with death, providing explanations about souls and the afterlife along with rituals to help the living deal with their grief. Not all religions do death the same way. “There are certain denominations within Christianity and certain religions in general that do a better job of remembering the dead,” said Cann. “Like the Catholics: There’s a very set calendar for remembering, and it’s still tied down to the religious calendar.”

Tattooing yourself with a dead person’s remains is one new way of memorializing death in the absence of faith, she said. “As society becomes more secular, and people are more and more turning to that ‘spiritual but not religious category,’ they’re forming their own do-it-yourself ways of remembering the dead.”

Green goes on to describe other trendy options, from personalized caskets to “theme” funerals to arranging the deceased in scenes taken from their actual lives. I find all this fascinating, and, especially if a family isn’t religious, don’t begrudge them personalizing the funeral in whatever way they’d like. I do, however, wonder how this changes the grieving process, and would like to say a good word for the old-fashioned religious rituals.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of the do-it-yourself remembrance of the dead is how it allows for a celebration of the deceased’s life, in all its idiosyncratic particularities. I certainly get that. But I also would argue that depersonalizing the grieving process, if that’s the right phrase for it, offers solace of a different sort. To fall back on the patterns of religious liturgy, to feel that it’s not up to you to conjure the right way to honor the dead, to turn to words and rituals handed down for centuries – all this can be powerfully comforting as well. It allows for a sense of participation in the ongoing human drama of life and death, of not being the first to experience the pain of loss. You aren’t grieving from scratch. There’s a relief to knowing your experience is not unique, a consolation from the solidarity doing what so many others have done before you, and will do after you are dead too. Green cites a funeral director who describes ritual as “mindless,” and not in a pejorative way, which is another way of saying that religious ritual allows you to get out of your own head in a way that can be a relief.

There’s also the beauty of certain religious funeral rites that can’t easily be replaced, beauty which provides its own salve to the grieving. A friend of mine once said that as you’re dying, you want to be Roman Catholic, because the priest can be counted on to come and give you the sacraments, to be predictable and orderly as the end nears. But after you die, then you want to be an Anglican, such is the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer’s Rite I funeral service, with it’s psalms and prayers in the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. I think he’s right about that. It’s how I want my funeral done – you can read it here.