Changing Ideas in How We Acknowledge and Celebrate the Departed

May 13, 2014

Credit wikimedia commons

  Increasingly, traditional funerals are being replaced by memorial services “celebrating” the life of the departed. Whereas funerals are usually held shortly after the death of an individual, memorial services generally take place weeks, even months later. There are good, practical reasons for this. In today’s world the deceased’s community of family and friends tend to be far-flung, and people need time to plan to travel to such services.

But the nature of these memorial services has changed radically as well. They tend to be much more personal than traditional funeral services, to be “celebrations” of the particulars of an individual’s life. We play their favorite music or songs, not necessarily religious. Family members and friends offer remembrances of the departed, some serious, some humorous. We put up photographic displays of the dead person’s life and ask for spontaneous tributes from the congregation.  At times these memorial services can seem more like wedding receptions than funerals, lacking only applause and dancing.

For a long time, I realize, I’ve tacitly approved of this shift in how we bury the dead. It was, I think, in reaction against the more conventional, ritualistic funerals I experienced in my youth. There the church and its representatives were in control, while family and friends were passive participants. The deceased tended to be turned into a depersonalized, representative figure of Christian virtue – a “loving mother” or “beloved father” - with only a few token specific details of the person’s life thrown in.  In my youth I came to regard this traditional way of consecrating the dead as formulaic, hollow, and somehow dismissive of the actual life lived.

Now, I’m not so sure. Of all the more contemporary-style “celebrations” I’ve attended in recent years, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced a profound sense of healing from them, even when the deceased was a close relative or friend. On the other hand, I’ve attended several traditional services in the small Anglican church in the Newfoundland fishing village where my wife and I go every summer.  There the prescribed Order for the Burial of the Dead is read by the minister from The Book of Common Prayer, as it has been for 500 years. Personal expressions of grief are usually exchanged privately and tend to be limited to saying “Sorry for your loss,” a phrase as ritualistic as any in the liturgy.

Oddly, though, I’ve found myself moved, often deeply, by these older, more traditional, “depersonalized” services. Perhaps it’s exactly because they do depersonalize the departed. They absorb them into ritual, into something larger than an individual life or death. A traditional service sends the departed into the great company of the dead.

By contrast, the more contemporary services tend to make the departed more real to us by reminding us specifically of whom and what we have lost. They do not so much send on the dead as keep them before us, present again, and so make us feel afresh and intensely the specific loss. 

All funerals are for the quick, not the dead. The more personal contemporary “celebrations of life” might work for those who only knew the departed casually, whose knowledge of the dead needs reminding, so as to feel some loss.  But for those who were close to the deceased, whose lives are riven with grief, who hearts are both bereft and full of the loss, no such reminders are necessary.  In fact, these more personal services may actually slow the healing process.

A traditional service, through ritual and its depersonalizing effect, serves to remove the dead from our presence, to cut their bonds with us and help send them on their journey into our memories, that safe haven for all our deepest emotions.