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, and 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.