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Give grief a chance

As traditional death rituals fall away, we risk losing touch with our need to mourn

By Kenneth Bagnell

I remember the afternoon years ago in Nova Scotia when my grandmother died. My father, her eldest son, wrote her obituary at the kitchen table, then phoned the funeral director to arrange her service. He walked to the man’s office 20 minutes away, but about an hour later I was surprised to see him coming back up the front steps. The funeral director had taken care of almost everything before my father even arrived.

After all, the man knew my grandmother was a faithful Presbyterian, so he’d called her minister asking that Wednesday afternoon be available for her service. He phoned the organist and choir director since they’d certainly be taking part. He phoned the cemetery to have her grave ready. Tuesday, the day before the service, would be for afternoon and evening visitations at her home, her casket open in the living room. So my father simply chose a casket, signed a document or two, and that was that. All went as my father liked things to go: in keeping with custom. That’s how it was back then.

That distant afternoon came back to me recently when a small spiritual group in Toronto asked me to speak about how rituals of death are changing. To my mind, the shifts seemed to begin in the early 1960s. It was, of course, the opening of a tumultuous decade, one in which everything was up for change, including the mourning traditions my father adhered to. The funeral itself became the object of criticism in 1963 when the bestseller The American Way of Death dismissed funerals as morbid extravagances.

Sometime in the 1990s, a United Church member who is also a funeral director in a mid-sized Ontario city called me to talk about how dramatically different his work had become. “Now when our phone rings,” I remember him saying, “we haven’t any sense of what to expect. Sometimes it’s cremation with no service at all. Or maybe it’s a celebration of life with wine and cheese at a club, the date to be announced.” When he’d started out years before, he saw his task as helping people through mourning. “Now it seems many people almost want to skip mourning,” he said.

Diminished funeral customs are admittedly less expensive. But some grief specialists warn we may be eroding helpful rituals of bereavement, the loss of which we may not notice at first.

Such specialists often question the trend to replace words like “funeral” and “memorial service” with “celebration of life.” They see it as a subtle attempt to avoid the reality of death, which we ought to recognize even when painful. Their skepticism about “celebration of life” strikes me as understandable, especially in regard to some funerals I’ve conducted and can never forget: the young child who died of cancer, the 20-year-old who hanged himself, the actor stabbed to death in his home. In such tragic circumstances, the word “celebration” has, to me, an inappropriate, even offensive ring.

Moreover, since the focus of a celebration of life is usually the earthly existence of the deceased, it may overlook the very belief we proclaim in our statement of faith: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.” This omission is unfortunate. After all, as progressive theologian John Shelby Spong writes, “If a man or woman dies will he or she live again? My answer would be yes, yes and yes.” The growing use of the phrase “celebration of life” may justify what the late grief specialist and psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote in her book On Grief and Grieving: “We live in a new death-denying, grief-dismissing world.”

Regrettable evidence that Kübler-Ross was right can be seen in Ontario: in the 1990s, funeral directors found themselves with so many unclaimed cremated remains that the province granted them permission to inter the urns in common ground if unretrieved by families after one year.

And yet, though our culture may indeed be death denying, people still mourn. Many line highway bridges in Ontario as caskets of young soldiers killed in Afghanistan pass below. Paying their respects, as our parents used to say. The funeral processions for police officers killed on duty draw television cameras and throngs of mourners, while flower garlands on telephone poles mark the site of fatal car accidents. So if our rituals are eroding, our inborn desire to mourn fellow humans has not disappeared. In my own life, I’ve lost friends but (for reasons I’ll never fully understand) have had no chance to pay my respects. Two were friends whose obituaries mentioned a celebration of life at a place and date to be announced. I watched. There was no announcement — certainly none I could find. What I missed, apart from the theology of it all, was the chance to say goodbye.

I thought of that a few months ago after conducting a funeral for a woman whose only surviving immediate family member was her younger brother. After the benediction, the congregation followed the casket outside the chapel. Once it was placed inside the hearse and we heard the familiar thump of the door closing, everyone began to make their way to the social gathering. But her brother and I just stood there, watching the hearse move slowly into the busy traffic of the city. Then he raised his arm and waved a long goodbye.

Grief scholar Dana G. Cable, a psychologist and board member of the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care until his death last year, worried about the loss of funerary rituals. In an essay in the book Living with Grief, he expressed concern about bypassing valid customs. Society, he said, must “encourage the return to meaningful rituals, which facilitate grief for the survivors.” Cable believed in viewing the deceased prior to the funeral, a tradition now rarely observed in liberal Christian and secular circles though retained by many in our multicultural society. It helps, he wrote, in acknowledging the reality of death.

In recent years, researchers have been using clinical methods to study grief, following the bereaved over months, even years. Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno has done the best-known study. His conclusion, based on 20 years of observation, is that most people are resilient, recovering from grief naturally and at times without help from professional therapists or support groups. “The good news is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient,” he writes in The Other Side of Sadness. “We may be shocked, even wounded, by a loss, but we still manage to regain our equilibrium and move on.”

A surprising number of novelists, journalists and poets are also writing of bereavement, often their own. Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren noted in February, “Now we have widow lit — a wave of books unleashed by the experience of losing a loved one.” In several cities in Canada, walking groups are forming for mourners to grieve their loss while strolling. As one organizer said in a Globe and Mail report, “We’re not counsellors. We don’t try to fix anything.”  

One recent, touching book, The Heart Does Break, is a collection of essays by Canadians who’ve faced loss. In the introduction, poet George Bowering, who compiled the essays with Jean Baird, echoes the spirit in which we might approach friends enduring bereavement: “If you want to say something to a widower or mother or brother, say it simply: ‘I am sorry for your loss. May I bring you some tea?’”

Honesty requires an acknowledgment that having faith doesn’t mean grief is more easily borne. When 20th-century Christian writer C. S. Lewis lost his wife, he was overwhelmed. In his memoir, A Grief Observed, he said faith actually created problems because other people offered facile admonitions. “Don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion,” he wrote, “or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

For those who wish to help people in grief, the lesson appears to be not glib words but kind deeds. The church should also take heed. There’s probably never been a time in United Church history when strong pastoral care was more needed. Our church is aging, so issues of death and bereavement draw ever nearer. And though the historic focuses of our church are many, the care of those who grieve strikes me as something to be in the foreground. When death strikes, it’s not just a minister’s task and privilege to respond to the grieving, but everyone’s duty. Smaller congregations may do a better job of pastoral care at death because members know one another better. We needn’t have taken a course in grief therapy, read a book on grieving or even have great conversational gifts. In fact, it’s often quiet people who listen, call or write who help most. A woman who lost her son wrote to me not long ago that her greatest comfort was the friends who simply came, some driving through miles of snow, just to be with her.

A conversation I had in the late 1990s with politician Bob Rae comes back vividly. I met with him on behalf of the church to discuss the relationship between religious faith and social justice. He had come through great sadness: several years earlier, his wife’s parents had died, innocent victims of a head-on collision. We talked late into the afternoon about the many obligations of churches for social and economic improvement. Finally, I thanked him and got up to leave. But as I was opening the door, he said something I believe mattered profoundly to him. “But let’s not forget,” he said, “there’s also our living and our dying. And there’s plenty to do right there.”


Rev. Kenneth Bagnell is a volunteer associate minister at Eglinton St. George’s United in Toronto.



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