Reclaiming the rituals of death: 12-28-17
December 28, 2017
Several years ago I read Caitlin Doughty's book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. It was an up-close look at the way we Americans deal (and often avoid dealing) with death.
Doughty, now operator of a non-profit funeral home in California, has just released another book on death, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.
One of my daughters gave this to me for Christmas because she knows I write a lot about death and that I serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care, a terrific non-profit agency.
Doughty has traveled the U.S. and from Indonesia to Mexico to Japan and beyond to look at how people deal with death, which in many ways is a primary subject of the world's great religions. The result is a fascinating account of many traditions and practices that take death seriously but that, at the same time, take grief seriously, too, perhaps even more seriously than death itself.
Several years ago, she writes, she heard a lot about how the job of funeral professionals is to create a space to be held open for families to grieve as they face the awe that death always brings. But when she first heard the term "holding the space," she writes, it "sounded like saccharine hippie lingo. This judgment was wrong. Holding the space is crucial, and exactly what we are missing. To hold the space is to create a ring of safety around the family and friends of the dead, providing a place where they can grieve openly and honestly, without fear of being judged."
Doughty notes that houses of worship provide that kind of safe space, often, "but for everyone else, the most vulnerable time in our lives is a gauntlet of awkward obstacles."
In this small book, you will learn about funeral practices that, at first, will seem ghoulish to Americans. But in that shock we may discover how our own practices often are unsatisfying and death-denying. (From a Christian perspective, the book to read is Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.)
In effect, Doughty argues persuasively for healing rituals of death, but warns that "we won't get our ritual back if we don't show up. Show up first, and the ritual will come. Insist on going to the cremation, insist on going to the burial. Insist on being involved, even if it is just brushing your mother's hair as she lies in her casket."
You'd think that a culture like ours that entertains itself with thousands of violent deaths each week on TV dramas would have a better grasp of real death of real people. Sadly, that's not the case. Doughty's book should help us with that. And we certainly need the help.
* * *
A GROUND-ZERO CHURCH PROJECT IS HALTED
A Greek Orthodox church next to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks but has been in the process of being rebuilt. In fact, I watched some of that reconstruction when I was there in mid-October. The photo here shows what I saw at the site then. But it's now reported that construction has been halted at the site "amid rising costs and questions over how donations have been managed." Church officials and others think the halt will be temporary and that, in the end, things will work out. But we'll see. The Associated Press story to which I've linked you reports that "In September, the estimated cost was $50 million. But according to The New York Times, which first reported the work suspension, the cost had jumped to an estimated $72 million to $78 million as of earlier this month." A roughly $25 million jump in costs in a few months clearly needs to be investigated if donors are to trust that things are being handled well and honestly.