THE BLOG
09/19/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

How Do We Do Right By the Dead?

How do we do right by the dead?

Every human culture struggles with this question and provides the symbolic and ritual resources for living society members to answer it. In some societies where ancestor veneration is prevalent, the exchanges that take place between the living and the dead are elaborately and intricately woven into daily life and festival celebrations; in others more inclined toward reincarnation, the dead require the ritual actions of the living to make a successful transition from this life to the next one.

In American society today, it is difficult to offer any simply answer to the question. In the past, most Americans would likely talk about dignity and respect, and look to the church and the funeral home to help them do the right things at the time of death. Like most societies, Americans turned to ritual customs and formulaic words to make sense of death, and put the dead in their place. Institutional authorities -- the funeral director and religious leaders -- set the customs and provided the words for many struggling with grief in much of American history.

Over the last few decades, funeral customs have been replaced with an increasing emphasis on customization; and formulaic words structured by popular traditions no longer determine the boundaries of propriety when speaking about the recent dead. The norms of yesterday -- when a "proper" burial included an embalmed body and a church service with a eulogy glorifying the life and achievements of the deceased -- today are old-fashioned and outdated to many. The body is no longer pertinent, memorial ceremonies do not require input from religious institutions or the funeral industry, and to speak ill of the dead is as easy as posting an anonymous blog.

Think of some models from the past that set the mold for how Americans traditionally grieved for the dead. The master historian of death, Philippe Aries, writes in his grand opus on the subject in western Christian cultures, The Hour of Our Death, that the knights in the famous stories of the Round Table are an illuminating example of a deep-rooted and popular western attitude: when King Arthur discovers his barons are dead, he engages in excessive gestures of mourning -- falling off his horse, kissing the eyes and mouth of the dead, fainting and returning to consciousness -- that produce both intimate moments with the corpse and public lamentations of deep and profound grief. What Aries calls "the second act in the drama of mourning" occurs when grief is interrupted and the eulogy is delivered, the last farewell in public speech that is profoundly emotional, intensely personal, and religiously meaningful in the encounter with death.

Or more specifically in the American context, think of the public responses to the death of the first president and founding father George Washington. The collective national sorrow at the time of his death, so soon after independence in the earliest years of national life, resonated with new Americans and united them both emotionally in the shared grief of a well-known and beloved figure and ritually in public ceremonies that brought individuals together with a singular purpose--to valorize the deceased hero and sacralize national identity. The eulogies and funeral orations, based in part on rhetorical traditions from ancient Greece, had both political consequences and religious meanings, tying individual biography to national destiny. They also, I think, set a funerary standard in public responses to death -- publicly highlighting an individual's biography and character in idealized terms that shape memory and initially at least channel the emotional turmoil instigated by loss.

In one sense, the speeches eulogizing the dead individual, and the funeral rituals putting the dead individual in a familiar and safe space, provide order and stability in a very unstable, chaotic moment of social life. You don't need to read the persuasive and groundbreaking work of Robert Hertz in "Collective Representations of Death" to understand the elementary threat to the social order posed by the presence of a disintegrating corpse and the reality of death. Responses to this threat vary through time and across the globe--for some it is crucial to appease the potentially harmful presence of the spirits of the newly dead; for others it is find ways to reinforce the social bonds of the living and their coordination in a common purpose; and for still others death leads to fulfilling critical obligations that have a bearing on one's postmortem journey.

Through most of American history, the memory and glorification of individual achievements and contributions over a lifetime is front and center in the funeral. Individual grave, personalized epitaph, and a funeral service with a body present was "the norm" back in the day (after the Civil War, with rise of the funeral home in early twentieth century). The dead deserved to be celebrated and remembered with words that didn't quite bring them back to life, but were used to tell stories and read from sacred texts in honor of, and to say goodbye to, the deceased.

On the other hand, and in a more sinister mode, America is riddled with examples of dishonoring the dead, and saying good riddance rather than goodbye. Another president comes to mind: Abraham Lincoln. Southerners had a different response to his death, and words extoling his life and contribution to the national spirit did not appear in funeral orations and public speeches. Polarizing public figures like Lincoln and other celebrities from politics and popular cultures who die are in many ways easy targets for those who use the moment and aftermath of death to take out the knives and destroy a person's character, unafraid to use words that disparage, ridicule, or berate the dead.

How should we treat the dead, and what should we say about them? Up until the 1960s, most Americans followed the same pattern: treat the dead with respect by turning it over to the funeral director, who will take care of the body and organize the words that are going to be said during the funeral to celebrate the life of the individual. The particularities of the service -- Catholic or Jewish; class standing; ethnicity and race; and other background elements -- were accommodated by the local funeral home. Most Americans followed the patterns established by funeral directors, not all.

After the 1960s, these traditional patterns begin to decline, and new social and cultural forces outside of the funeral industry start to change how Americans talk about the dead and respond to the corpse. The words to eulogize the dead from the Vietnam War, and the public battles over the meaning of their deaths may be a pivotal moment, signaling a shift from one set of cultural rules to another set, and demonstrating how the dead can create disharmony and social divisions rather than unity and a shared identity in both national and local communities. The publication of Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death and the ensuing interest in and gradual acceptance of cremation by growing numbers of Americans is another pivot--without the body present, the ceremonies and words are for many unhinged from traditional institutions like the funeral home or church, and ready for even greater personalization and customization to honor the memory of the deceased.

The impact of popular cultures, social media, and the internet is also contributing to the decline of traditional patterns but providing new and newfangled resources that individual consumers can use for mourning and ritual planning (see, for example, all the guides for writing a eulogy in a google search) as they figure out what to do and say when a loved one dies. It might be safe to say that American funerals have never been more democratic than they are right now -- no funeral director, rabbi, priest, or minister to determine what is best for doing right by the dead, but popular sentiments and individual circumstances driving the form and content of funeral ceremonies.