For the Life of Me: Dealing with Death in the Changing American Landscape – Part 1

Last week I listened to a news item on NPR about Americans adopting a Buddhist ritual to mourn miscarriages or abortions.*   At the same time I am noticing more death notices in the local newspaper that lack information about any kind of funeral or memorial service; or they only indicate that one will be held at a later date (but how will people learn about it if they have an indirect or unknown yet significant connection to the deceased?); or I hear about the wish of the dying that there be no service to mark their end.

What a puzzling paradox: some people needing to find a way to express grief and loss for a life never lived outside the womb, while others seemingly are minimizing or glossing over the departure of one who lived for years, even decades, among us in this world.

For the life of me, I can’t figure it out.

For 50,000 years or more, we humans have marked through ritual acts and symbolism the reality and mystery of death, and have acknowledged the terrible tear in the social fabric and individual lives of the living who remain. It seems to be something we need at a deep existential level; why else would we bother to ache or mourn those miscarried or aborted beings and feel some deep need to note their existence, however brief? And if it is that important, why are growing numbers of our neighbors choosing not to do so in a ritualized and public way?

What’s going on here? I don’t presume to have the answer(s), but I do wonder if one or more of these are at play: financial costs; fear of death or denial of its reality; low self-regard on the part of the deceased; increasing secularization of our culture and lack of shared, meaningful ways to ritualize and mark this life event; other factors I have not mentioned or that are unknown to me?

In a series of blogs I will explore these possibilities, and finally identify how I think a Christian service of Death and Resurrection seeks to address the mystery of death, and why that matters. I would hope people from other faith traditions would look at their rituals surrounding death in the same way and do the necessary translation using the lens and language of their faith, but it would be arrogantly presumptuous (and naïve on my part) for me to do that for them. In addition, as our culture becomes increasingly secular and the traditions, practices, and languages of faith traditions become increasingly unfamiliar to more and more people, perhaps this will help them consider and create new ways to mark the death of loved ones or make sense of their own mortality.

Some would say the prohibitive cost of funerals is at play here.

Certainly this may be an issue for some families, as they look at expenses for the dead that could be well spent on the living.   But unless we are members of the Tana Toraja community in the southern province of Sulawesi, Indonesia, you still have to dispose of the body rather quickly and easily. (The people of Tana Toraja often wait months, and even years, to bury their relatives. In the months between biological death and the burial rites, family members interact with the deceased in ways Americans might think unimaginable — placing their skeletal remains in the house, bringing the deceased tea and food each day, and including them in family activities. But the practice has value – to slowly endure the process of transforming the relationship of the living to the deceased).**

But to me, this doesn’t seem a particularly compelling reason. On average a wedding in our culture costs $30,000 or more. A funeral is not nearly as expensive, and how much we spend eating out, attending sporting events or concerts, participating in leisure activities and other non-essentials is in the billions of dollars every year.

Nevertheless, if cost is an expressed factor, cremation is certainly an attractive option for reducing costs.

Another option would be to donate the body to science.

If neither of those is an appealing option, burial does not have to be as expensive as you mighty imagine.

Unless a body is crossing state lines, in Virginia the body doesn’t have to be embalmed as long as the casket is closed to the public, nor you do you have to pay for it to be transported at cost from the site of death to a funeral facility (that’s right, if money is the issue you can put your loved one in the back of the car, or someone else’s vehicle. The same goes for transporting the body to its final resting place, whether it’s in an urn or a casket).

A do-it-yourself casket kit can be ordered online; the least expensive I’ve seen is $79.00 (plus shipping and handling) for a wooden pallet and shroud.

In James City County, Virginia, where I currently reside, a county park shelter can be rented for as little as a $25.00 application fee for a gathering for family and friends, and even some form of ritual marking this significant life event (at least, it’s not prohibited on the County application for facility use). There are other, non-faith based spaces that can be rented or borrowed as well, and many faith communities would probably be willing to provide such space if asked; the funeral home is not the location for gathering around the dead.

If you own sufficient land or know someone who does (I know that in Hanover County, Virginia, it can be as little as two acres), you can bury the dead on your own private property.  A backhoe can be rented pretty reasonably to do the heavy digging (or recruit friends and neighbors to help with the work, and then share a meal afterwards as a sign of appreciation).

For a no frills funeral, costs could also perhaps be covered by family or friends contributing to the overall expense as well, or with the assistance of local faith communities of all stripes, or social service agencies. Who knows?  Crowdsourcing might be an option as well.  I know a couple who financed their honeymoon that way; why not honoring the dead as a community?

Regardless of cost, however, one way or another the removal of the body from among the living has to be done.  But the costs are not nearly as high as we think they are or they typically become in our culture.

* http://www.npr.org/2015/08/15/429761386/adopting-a-buddhist-ritual-to-mourn-miscarriage-abortion

**http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bradley-b-onishi/life-after-death-a-religious-studies-professor-becomes-a-student_b_7900490.html

Next up: Is It Our Fear of Death?

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