I intended to write about the relationship between love and death on a theoretical level, but the bloggers over at Patheos, Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism and Daniel at Camels with Hammers, have posed another values question that also addresses death. As it is much more practical, I’ll address it here. The question is: “If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?” It’s a more sociable version of the question, “What will your funeral look like?” I’ll get to practical shortly, but first, a little abstraction.
Like the previous generation with the Kennedy assassination. I remember exactly where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001. The alarm clock must have been set to the radio. Otherwise I can’t remember what prompted me to turn on the TV and watch the initial footage of the tragedy as it unfolded. It was a shock to me, and although I wasn’t devastated by it, I certainly wanted to know why it happened. In the month or so after the tragedy, the media reported many times on the distinct increase in religious attendance as the country attempted to deal with their grief in a variety of ways. As after the more recent Newtown tragedy, spiritual and political opportunists attempted to use the momentum to foster change. Even apart from the fundamentalists like Pat Robertson who concluded that 9/11 was God’s response to our immorality, many religious leaders saw the tragedy as a potential turning point to bring the nation back to God. President Bush and his entourage harnessed the same desire for answers to move us toward wars we are still fighting.
I did not attend a funeral for any 9/11 victim, so I cannot speculate as to the mix of emotions involved for those trying to contemplate the loss of a life both on a personal level and a national one. The reason I bring this event up is that most of us have related to it in some way, and because most are unconnected to it on a personal level, we may be able to see more clearly the common elements of our processing of death.
There are two elements that factor into our thinking about death. The first is the agent of death, and the second is the “death-for.” The agent of death is the thing responsible for the death. It might be a gun (or the person holding it), a drunk driver, or an accidental fall. It might be something more gradual and perhaps less shocking, such as cancer from smoking or simply old age. (Interestingly, we tend to think of slow death in old age as “natural,” when it is as much a product of modern medicine. Past generations were better equipped to deal with the inexplicability of death.) In the case of 9/11, it was terrorism, at least according to the national narrative. The agent of death becomes the backdrop against which we construct the second element, the death-for. The death-for is the retroactive purpose we claim for a life that our love might not have been in vain. It might be for freedom, it might be for America, it might be for family, it might be for God. But it allows us to balance the equation, so to speak. The clearer the agent of death, the clearer the death-for can be. But the more ambiguous the agent, the more expansive and supernatural the death-for has to be. The death of a soldier in combat has a standard set of explanations, of deaths-for, while the freak accident of a loved one or a natural disaster requires an ad-hoc and typically spiritual compensation. The proximity of the death to us dictates how well-fortified the death-for needs to be.
I don’t intend this assessment to be insensitive. What I am suggesting is that the ceremonies of death are enacted about the dead, but they are for us. The particulars matter little to the dead. Those who remain, though, are faced with death and, for someone close, faced with a loss of love. Our love must be adjusted because it no longer has a dynamic object. The death-for becomes a place holder against which we deal with the hole left behind from the death of another. The problem comes when we use the death-for as a means of avoiding the inexplicability of death.
I have often thought that once I’m dead I won’t care what people do with me, so they can have whatever ceremony they feel like. But while I’m still alive, I’ll make a few suggestions as to more accessible death rituals. A ceremony in celebration of a life should include high and low points that remind us of a common humanity. Pleasant memories should be spoken from friends and family. (If the person was not a happy or pleasant person, or came to an unplanned end because of poor choices, then an honest assessment of his or her life is in order, without condemnation, but also without sugarcoating. In other words, don’t do it like that creepy Robin Williams movie where he splices peoples lives together on film.) Objects the individual loved, such as songs, paintings, pictures, movies, experiences, could be experienced by those gathered as a way of affirming the validity of the individual and our love for them. Also importantly, set aside a time for silent reflection, and a brief time for conversation, perhaps among smaller groups, about the deceased but also a candid assessments of one’s own feelings, actions, and reflections in light of the event shared by all present.
Many or perhaps most of these things are already done. What could be left out is the rhetoric that accompanies the ceremony for the deceased, an understanding paradoxically achieved by saying we don’t understand. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows the initial inadequacy of any explanation to compensate for the loss. Resorting to platitudes about only God knowing the reason for a death, a “death-for” God, in other words, refuses to confront the fragility of life and the certainty of death. It instead explains it with the indefensible. An openness, instead, both to the vulnerability of our love and the tenuousness of our existence with reference to the life of the deceased provides the opportunity for a non-sectarian solidarity and a more authentic commitment to our own lives.