Celebrate Life, But Mark Death
Where Is the Weeping, Wailing, and Gnashing of Teeth?
Bring out your dead. No, really, I mean it. Death and the tenor and tension of funerals have changed over the last several years in America. Hospitals, funeral homes and their directors—morticians, now there’s a word with its root, mort, in death—have a smaller number in the mourning equation in many ways with the move toward hospice care nearing life’s end and cremation following that end. The term Celebration of Life is often used instead of the once-traditional word funeral. Those are positive things—hospice, cremation, celebrations—but I find myself missing the mourning, the grieving. For me, there’s value in weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
At some life celebrations I’ve attended, I’m reminded that the person who died often had a rich, full life. Photos, videos, and mementos are shared. A microphone is often available and stories and remembrances are shared. But at several of those celebrations, other than the absence of the deceased person, I'm not reminded that the person is dead. And what I haven’t seen shared much is grieving. By name and also by tradition, funerals have been the time allotted for such grieving. Not that grieving isn’t the most intense, personal, and private of emotions—in some respects it is. But the experience of mourning, grieving, in a gathering also has an important place in our culture, in our rituals. It’s often one of the few times we express strong grief. That expression is valuable. It’s cathartic. Shared grief, mourning, and tears release strong emotions that we otherwise might repress.
Also, in many cultures, including our own at certain times, the presence of the body, or the cremated remains of the body, make a statement about the finality of life. I don’t think I’m being macabre when I say that I think that tangible presence of the life past, that aspect of mourning, also is important, even though it isn't often visible in public gatherings to celebrate the loss of someone for whom we cared.
I Might Prefer Yelling and Fainting
I think that some celebrations of life have become too staid, too lily-White American; they’re smiling, stiff-upper-lip occasions. We focus on the life—which has merit—even though we would not be gathering if there had not been a death. But the feelings regarding the death aren’t shared. They’re almost stuffed. I’ve been an expert at stuffing my feelings during my life, and I no longer want to stuff. I might prefer yelling and fainting. I might prefer what Barbara Kingsolver described in her book The Poisonwood Bible: Following one harsh rainy season, several children in the Congolese village where the story takes place have died from diarrhea. The mothers of the deceased children walk on their knees to the burial areas, all the while wailing for their dead babies. Later, they throw themselves onto the dirt mounded over their children’s bodies, digging, clawing. I don’t think Kingsolver has experienced the death of a child, but she must have intimate knowledge of someone who has. Her words mirrored my feelings after I buried my seven-year-old daughter. I visited her grave often, and the desire to throw myself to the earth was so strong, it was akin to a magnet pulling me down. I felt that way, but of course, I never would have done so. Like that suppression of my inner yearning to give myself over to grief, I see in some of these celebrations a suppression of grief and its expression.
I sometimes think I prefer the funeral with its heavy organ music, scent of cut and soon-to-wilt flowers, mourners dressed in black, wads of tear-soaked tissues, and somber processions as family and friends leave to resume their lives sans the one they loved.
I feel like I need those props to properly grieve and then move toward the rest of my life when I’ve lost someone. The emotions I express at such times are cleansing. Rather than being left with what I call the crying lump choking off my throat, when I weep, I release that lump and let the salty tears fall on my face and drop on my chest. It’s almost a relief.
I feel a need for that ritual. It acts as a pinprick on the balloon that encases my strong feelings of loss. A funeral and its mourning ritual break the balloon, let my tears flow, and release my sorrow, my sense of loss.
Certainly, those who have died must have their wishes honored regarding the activities that mark their life’s end. It’s been rare that I have had to choose how to send a loved one’s spirit to its final place, and for that I am grateful. I simply must accept that funerals are often different now and rather than a gathering of weeping folks, we instead celebrate the life of the one who is no longer with us. I know that the life is what was important—not the death, not the loss. But for me, when someone I love dies, it’s that death, it’s that loss that I feel, and I need a time, a place, a space to grieve that loss.