Reflections on Funerals
by Thomas Lynch
-excerpts from Limning the Rites of Death in
The Life of Meaning, Seven Stories Press,
A funeral is a way we get through a death. It has not changed fundamentally since the species began doing it forty thousand years ago. The fashions have changed, but the fundamental obligation of a funeral is to bear witness to a death in the family and to initiate remembrance-that's pretty much the same. In some cultures they do that with fire, other places with graves. Some places use caskets. Some places use old doors. Some people leave their dead on the tops of mountains to be eaten by scavenger birds. Some people put them in vaults in veterans' cemeteries. Those are fashions. But the fundamental obligation of a funeral is to provide an opportunity for the living to confront their dead and to dispose of them in a way that's other than the way we dispose of a rock or a rhododendron-that's not changed.
The funerals in my own family-the doing of them, just as the large-muscled involvement in them-give us a chance to say what's happened, and to whom, and how it is, and how we're going to manage. Think of the people who must be there to get a funeral going. You have to have someone who agrees to quit breathing, forever, and then you have to have someone to whom that death matters, and then you have to have someone who tries to make some sense of it. This doesn't seem to change. We have the dead guy, and we have the people to whom the death matters, and someone-shaman, rabbi, priest, a holy one, a witch, whatever it happens to be-comes in and says, "This is what happened and why."
The fashions are constantly in flux, but I do think that we are returning to a time when people see their obligations to take part in these things in a way that for three of four decades we were trying to get away from. Through the 1970s and 1980s, people were getting comfortable with "disappearing" their dead and then having a memorial service or gathering afterward-weeks, months, years afterward-to talk about it. This follows the same sort of progress with other things-with birth and sickness and age. We have, in some ways, the women of the baby-boom generation to thank for the hospice movement. They refused to see their parents die surrounded by the machinery of intensive care and said that they would, as an alternative, bring their people home where they could really take care of them. Even though the medicine had to be downsized, humanity was upsized in that transaction, and I think all to the good. In the same way, men of my generation absolutely refused-for reasons that I'm not entirely sure of-to sit out in the waiting room with a handful of cigars, waiting to be declared a parent by some health care professional. They wanted to be there. They wanted to witness it. They weren't of much use, apparently. All they said was, "Breathe, honey. Breathe." But being there was important. And in the same way, funerals are more a matter of presence and attendance and witness than they were, say, twenty years ago.
People are more serious about their own obligations to tend to these things. Anybody can get on their cell phone and get out their gold card and have their dead parent or grandparent "disappeared" from the face of the earth by someone like me. We can handle that. But, more and more, people are identifying a death in the family as a time when the object is not to get around it, but to get through it. And so they are, in a sense, reinventing funerals. They are reinventing liturgies and ceremonies and metaphors and symbols that speak in a new generation's language to this old, human predicament. Because this is the signature of our species. We die. We don't all pay taxes. We won't all sleep with another member of our species. But we will all die. The numbers are convincing on this, you know. One hundred percent. They hover there-all the time.
The Mourning News - February 2011