It was not that long ago that death was part of the everyday experience and came early. If one survived childhood over 200 years ago they were lucky to get to 30 or 40 years of age. Being retired was certainly not a concept.
From the late 18th century until the early 20th century, life expectancy for Americans was less than 40. But thanks to health and safety policies and measures our average life span is now 79 (female) and 72 (male) according to the CDC.
Up until the late 20th century throughout Europe and America when loved ones died it was a family and small communal affair often taking place in the home. There was no funeral industry to swoop in and take over the arrangements unlike today.
What emerged instead was a greater fear of death and the dead body. Medical advances extended control over death as the funeral industry took over management of the dead. Increasingly, death became hidden from public view. No longer familiar, death became threatening and horrific. The Conversation
And because communal rituals are no longer widely held, there are few means in which to adequately mourn our losses.
Many cultures perform a variety of death rituals and celebrations. The heart of these practices provide continuity for communities to deal with their loss.
These rituals create a boundary between life and death. Allowing the community to remember and experience their loved ones for the last time and in a way that makes them less far away. The Mexican and Mexican Americans have the Day of the Dead, African Americans celebrate the dead in New Orleans with Jazz Funerals. The ancient Greeks and Romans honored the deceased with feasts and funeral games. In Ethiopia, the Dorze ethnic community sing and dance before, during and after funerary rites in communal ceremonies meant to defeat death and avenge the deceased. The Conversation
When my father passed away in 2006, as a family we met with a funeral home to make arrangements for a private service. In addition, Mom wanted a Catholic church service so the larger community could pay their respects in the traditional religious setting.
When discussions with the priest took place, I was less than impressed with the Catholic Church’s funeral “rules”. Both my younger brother and I wanted to speak from the heart (not read a passage from the bible) during the church service, but were told that was highly unusual. When making our case and thus granted “permission”, the priest wanted to read what we intended to say ahead of time.
I was livid.
How dare anyone dictate how we choose to mourn our father. What right does anyone, any religious institution have in screening our expression of grief in order that we not say anything disruptive in the church? Furthermore, it was important for the two of us to verbally express that sadness with the people who knew and loved our father.
Communal in every sense.
Death Rituals – Realized
When my mother died recently, we did things a bit differently. Mom had made pre-funeral requests and knew we may have different views regarding a service in the church. So she left it up to us. Mom trusted we would honor her in our own special way. It was intimate and family oriented. For the first time in years, all her children, grandchildren and great children were there. Many of her special friends were there as well.
My brother and I spoke about mom each in our own style (just as we did for my father). I read the article and poem I wrote after her death – Going Through the Motions. Writing has helped with the mourning process.
My brother gave a beautiful account of her life with humor and tears. Mom’s granddaughter, my daughter, recited David Whyte’s poem, “The Journey” and one of my nieces gave a loving tribute to what mom meant to her. At the grave site where we buried mom’s ashes alongside my father’s, the grandchildren and one of mom’s great-children each read a line from a short poem. No clergy were present, just those of us who knew and loved mom personally.
It was a death ritual realized.
Death and Personal Freedom
Death is inevitable, but I admit that dwelling on my own mortality stays hidden in the shadows of my psyche. And when suffering a personal loss, having a near death experience or reading too much of the news, it makes a cameo appearance.
Periodic reality checks.
So when personal thoughts of death come to the surface, I had a tendency toward diving into that deep dark hole to examine the meaning of individual freedoms. What does individual freedom mean to people who are entering that twilight stage of their lives? It seems freedom slips through their fingers and their fate falls to and is given over to “others”. These others include, modern medicine, court law and policy, family, religious dictates, and societal pressures of “life at all costs”.
Personal freedom is a concept we so fervently pursue in our country and yet we don’t allow people to choose their partners, whether or when to have children, to be safe from violence and guns and, of course, when to die and to do so with dignity.
Why can we not give credence to the wishes of those preferring to no longer be on earth in their present physical form? An acknowledgement that does not seem to resonate with those who are not at death’s door. Their freedom to choose to roam the universe as the beautiful spirits they wish to be, free of pain and suffering is cast aside as utter nonsense.
We also make it difficult for people in this stage of being to say what they desire without being scrutinized. We essentially shame them with our selfish notions of their responsibilities to family and the miracles of modern medicine. When they just wish to move from this realm of being to another, free of the constraints we and society place on them. Once again, life at all costs.
There are many selfish and fear driven reasons for denying someone their desire to leave this world. None of which involve the individual whose life we are, in essence, controlling.
Mom’s Secret Wish
Toward the end of her life, mom was one of those who longed to roam the universe with the family and friends who left before her. Specifically my father.
My siblings and others who knew my mother may disagree with that assessment. But deep down they also might admit to it being true. Mom established a DNR during one of her hospital stays in recent years. That act was a clear indicator of her wishes. She knew her physical health was deteriorating and did not want to keep suffering and/or burden anyone. She indeed was a selfless individual to the end.
Unfortunately society makes it so damn difficult to admit to these thoughts and discuss them openly. It has become taboo. I have written about death in numerous articles. Which is my way of approaching the subject slowly, deliberately and with compassion. There are so many ways in which to look at death as a means to confront ourselves, and how we are living our lives. And rituals assist us in getting beyond the actual physical death of someone or something to a place where we can remember, celebrate and then move forward to new beginnings.
I will continue my conversations about death in its many forms.
In the back of our minds
Hidden in the shadows
Thoughts of death surface
When we feel mistreated
When we feel sick
When someone we love
Our hearts ache
Our passion fades
we are left
to suffer their loss
Made to carry on
While they are free
to wander the stars
Radiating in the sky
Just at the moment we need to
Other than despair
Other than loss
ultimately giving us
reasons to live
It takes time
And what was exchanged
when they were here
when they return
as that spark
to the fire in our soul.