Once again, as I glance down the obituary column, wondering if any familiar names are there, I see a statement that occurs more and more often: "In keeping with Virginia's wishes, there will be no funeral service."
I am deeply disturbed by this trend. Ritual is the way cultures in all times and places have marked significant events in their community. Religious holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah carry traditions that have been around for generations. Babies are often christened or dedicated. We gather to celebrate the marriage of friends. Birthdays call for a cake and candles. Why would we allow the death of a loved one to pass without ceremony?
Rituals are not optional to a healthy culture: they tell us where we've been, they bind us together, they give us courage for the journey.
The ritual of the funeral or the memorial service has several purposes. First of all, it helps mourners recognize the loss as real. Sometimes a body is present at the service, often not, but always we know that we are there to acknowledge that someone has died, and to acknowledge the death not just in fact, but in feeling. We come together to grieve in the presence of a caring community, and for the time of the service we have permission to give ourselves to the experience of loss.
We also gather to celebrate the life that is now gone from us, to recollect and to remember, as in "to make whole again." The service is a way of paying respect to the person who has died, one who has lived perhaps not a perfect life, but like the rest of us, a life full of hope and possibility and struggle. If it is done well, the service will bring at least a partial sense of closure to the void that one feels at these times. The purpose of all ritual is transformation: We come to the service in one state, we leave in another.
The service, then, exists for the living, not for the deceased. Virginia is really not the person to decide whether or not she should have a memorial service -- that is for those of us who remain, those who have loved her and lost her. What did she mean to our lives? What part of her legacy lives on with us? How do we wish to remember her? How does her life and death inform our own existence, as we pass through this darkling plain? As we think upon the life of the deceased -- its beginning, its course and its ending -- we are each led to think of our own lives, and to contemplate questions of mortality and meaning.
But what if Virginia was a difficult person? What if she was a narcissist, who didn't really pay much attention to her children? Or what if she was a raging alcoholic? Do we really want to remember her, to celebrate her life? Yes, we do, just as she was, in all of the various colors of her life. In my experience, problematic persons are the most difficult for the survivors to release in death. These are the mourners who must now give up hope that the loved one will ever change; these are the broken-hearted ones who need to grasp a larger picture of the deceased in order to forgive and move on. A service can sometimes help them move in the direction of healing.
I have asked myself why so many people are now opting out of a funeral or a memorial service. One reason surely must be the embarrassingly bad services we've all been subjected to. Too often the minister takes the service as an opportunity to preach to the numbers of unconverted he suspects may be attending. Or he may not know the deceased, and that lack of knowledge becomes evident in his remarks. Or the minister may attempt to console mourners by telling them that their loved one "is in a better place." This statement sounds hollow to people who are missing the one who died, and certainly is meaningless to those in the congregation who do not believe in an afterlife. It is understandable that many would decide not to have a service rather than risk the emptiness and disrespect they have experienced at other services they have attended.
Some people may decide against a service because they are not particularly religious and do not have anyone they can ask to officiate. But a ritual to mark the end of a life need not be traditionally religious at all. It can be a simple gathering in a space large enough to accommodate those who might wish to be present, whether a public hall or a rented chapel or a home. If an officiant is not known, sometimes friends can suggest one, or the family may decide to structure a simple service themselves. If expense is an issue, or if the attendance is expected to be light, the family might opt to invite only relatives and close friends to a service in a home.
At a service, those attending will experience a "time apart": there may be soft lighting, candles, sage burning, flowers. Music is often an important part of the service, because it offers a ready avenue to the feelings. The same is true of poetry. Some will want to include scripture and prayer. Silence, so rare in our society, allows space for thoughts and feelings to emerge. And stories should be told, for narrative is how we remember and how we are able to continue. Humor always arises, as it is the flip side of grief. We laugh and we cry. We acknowledge that we are a part of the stream of life, and we assert our common humanity. We carry on.
The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is an accomplished Unitarian Univeralist minister, writer, activist and spiritual leader. She retired from parish ministry in 2009, after serving 17 years as the Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Ore., and was named Minister Emerita. Marilyn is the subject of a full-length documentary film, "Raw Faith," which recently opened in N.Y. to critical acclaim.