Last year I was confronted with my own lack of knowledge and awkwardness about how to deal with death and its rituals after my mom passed away.
I had to learn on the spot, patch together tradition, personal wishes, and a bit of creative initiative, and hope for the best. I felt thoroughly unprepared and I also felt that my lack of knowledge and scrambling took away from the importance and gravitas of the event.
The experience reminded me of a traditional funeral I attended many years ago in a village, where the old lady that had passed had prepared for years, stocking up Palinca (a local Schnaps variant) for the many attendees she was expecting and making arrangements for the various details of her funeral, from the casket to the priest and the food. At the time I thought it was over the top, garish and macabre, as the event took all day, included hired “wailers” and a big payout from the family to the priest - but it had brought her peace. This contrasted mightily with my much more minimalist and ad-hoc event.
I don’t know if I feel comfortable with either extreme. I do wish I had some mental preparation both for the event itself and for the rituals that seemed so awkward and foreign.
What is your relationship to your family’s deathways? Do you feel like you have some agency or are disempowered when it comes to the dimension of death?
The Garden of Earthly Delights is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
First, I'd like to offer my condolences on your loss. And that is also the first way I grew up experiencing death. Even as children we attended funerals of people in the community. My brother and I were expected to stand in line, and when it was our turn, offer our condolences. Too many grow up without any exposure to death and feel that discomfort. The funerals were quiet and solemn, the visitations easier going, almost, but not quite, social outings.
The second way I grew up experiencing death was through food. The women (usually) through the church, organized food to be delivered to the family who had experienced a loss. When someone died, family would return from all over. So it was a kindness to ease the burden of feeding everyone. They pitched in on the cooking knowing that when it happened to them, others would do the same. Like all good social cohesion it involves a pay it forward plan.
So, my suggestion, for anyone, is to get started now on the basics. Know your neigbors in life. Ackowledge their passing with dignity when they die.
I grew up in a very rural agricultural area in downstate Illinois. There was a funeral home in the nearby town that had been owned by the same family for generations. There were numerous country churches each with a graveyard. Death involved a visitation at the funeral home on an afternoon and evening followed by a funeral service at one of the churches the following day, with another ceremony at the burial site. An honor guard from a nearby veteran organization was present if the diseased had served. "Firing Squad: Prepare to salute your fallen comrade". "Fire Fire Fire". Widespread experiences and expressions of grief were the norm. The funeral home family and local preachers handled everything.
As time passed the area depopulated dramatically and the churches were torn down. Visitation followed by a funeral at the funeral home became the norm. Veteran honor guards became rare. The funeral home was purchased by a chain. Prices went up a lot and became a hardship. I had lived away from the area during my working life but sometimes went back for a funeral of a major family member.
I retired to a Houston suburb and am reaching an age where my contemporaries are passing on. The change in my sphere is dramatic. Cremations are the norm and visitations and funerals are non-existant. Deciding where you want your ashes scattered is now the norm. Sometimes a remembrance gathering might be planned but it is not a big deal. This has transpired within a thirty year period.
My 93-year-old mother wants 'Rocking All Over The World' by Status Quo played at her non-religious funeral. This was the song played at many of the Leicester City football matches she loved to go to. We are all atheists in my family yet I'm the only one who feels the song lacks gravitas. But nowadays many people just HATE gravitas so who am I to quibble?
At the minute there are enough of my family alive, well & financially healthy that the elderly lot (of which there are still many) will be looked after, cared for and respected in death. What worries me is, well, me! I’m amongst the youngest & what happens if I have no children of my own and there is no one left to give me the same treatment? Not that I’ll know, because I’ll be dead but it is slightly terrifying to think I could be one of those weird stories you hear about where the person just died in the night and 10 years later, when the bank account is all out of money, someone comes to check and realises you’ve popped your clogs a decade ago! I imagine as the population shrink continues such stories will grow in their frequency.
The most recent loss for me, was my maternal grandfather. It was a little atypical given he had done a lot of the preparation for his death around the time my grandmother passed some years prior. When he did eventually pass away, many of the things were already taken care of. He had his gravestone purchased. He gave up all his possessions, because he didn't want people to quable over who got what. He had the funeral service provider picked out, etc.
In more general terms, I would say the typical process goes something like this. There is a funeral service, and a burrial. They both usually happen the same day, and combined do not take the whole day. Then you spend time with family to grieve and reminice, before returning to life.
I wouldn't say I feel disempowered when it comes to death. It just something that happens to all of us, I simply hope I continue to strive to apply myself diligently to being the best Son, Brother, Uncle, Father, Husband, and Friend while I am still able.
For those I leave behind, I hope they continue to endure and thrive as best as circumstance will allow.
I hope I was able to answer your questions.
Have you mentioned that your mother died in another post or video? How did I miss that information?
The advice I give is to make sure you list beneficiaries on your accounts. My family has always been Catholic and had Catholic funeral services.
Over the past 50 years the way we deal with death has undergone a dramatic change. Fifty+ years ago, open casket funerals and burials were commonplace, now it's off to the crematorium asap, followed by a "remembrance" party a couple months later. Overall, the emphasis has shifted from a ritual honoring the deceased to a convenience for the family. The change has no doubt been driven to some extent by the secularization of the society coupled with the devaluation of responsibility as a virtue.
On another note, they say you never fully "grow up" until you've buried both of your parents... I think that's true - at least I think it was in my case.
We talk a lot about death in our immediate family. We are Catholic, and the four last things loom large- death the judgement, heaven and hell. We hope for a traditional Latin funeral Mass, and a traditional burial in consecrated ground. My daughter and son-in-law law take their little boys to funerals regularly so they knows hat to expect when it is someone close. I am disabled, with a progressive neuromuscular condition, and while it won’t kill me it will slowly take nearly everything away that I enjoy, so the inevitable losses of age are very present to my mind.
My son in law’s parents were and are in complete denial about death. Even when his father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a death sentence for sure, they continued to act as if he would get better. My father had died of this when my eldest children were 7,9 and 10 so they remembered the circumstances well. He had been alone, sitting by the window reading his paper, and simply folded it and closed his eyes. A blessed death, my husband mercifully got there moments after my sister found him, we had been trying to call to ask what he wanted to eat for his 76th birthday, he was deaf and seldom answered the phone so no one was panicked but we decided to drop in. I had to beg a funeral from our parish priest since my father wasn’t registered in the parish and then beg a dispensation for the luncheon since it was during lent and we’d forgotten to arrange for fish. Arranging the funeral was a wonderful distraction, you have three days so full of decisions, gravesite, flowers, funeral music, casket, black clothes, my sisters and I drove around together barely realizing we were burying the only parent we loved. I really think these rituals fill a need, they push the grief off so you can deal with it in smaller doses. I did not attend my mother’s death scene and my cousin cremated her without any service at all, but I was the religious one and she had alienated me too much by the end. It’s an ugly story.
My son in laws father died in a rehab facility, his wife and sons acted shocked by the outcome which my daughter expected, and had a viewing where everyone talked about what a great guy he was, describing a man at work who was nothing like the detached, uncaring, self absorbed father he had been. Then he was cremated. No service. Yet he had received last rites in the hospital at one point and loudly said the creed at his third grandson’s baptism a few months before he died. Was he just purchasing an insurance policy or did something happen in his last months, was he impressed by my daughter’s militantly intellectual Catholicism and realize that he had given up something he never bothered to understand.
I think it is the lack of religion that has made modern people unable to deal with death or engage with the rituals which still exist. The baby boomers, of which we are so much the tail end writers are starting to class us with the next generation, seem unable to accept approaching death. A funeral is not a celebration of life, a birthday party or a christening fulfills that place. It is a timeless space where you are meant to meditate on mortality, that of the deceased and your own. It is why priests are forbidden to allow eulogies at the funeral Mass although many break this rule. Boomers plan their funerals, if they face it at all, as if they were going to be there to see it, a guest at the party. This belief in an afterlife of some kind when you have not given theology a passing thought is illogical to me but seems the norm.
I guess without religion death is meaningless, but it is only a short step from that to realizing that without religion life is meaningless. It is a collection of happy moments quickly drowned in psychic and physical pain. In the end the things people have spent most of their time pursuing often seem insignificant compared to the families they may have neglected or alienated, the opportunities they have missed, the money they have wasted treating themselves. Religion does not make you immune to regret, but it does give you a framework for priorities, and an understanding of the inevitable suffering life brings.
Extinguishing the age old rituals which surround death may be one of the most damaging things Boomers have done. As others have noted, everything about death was ritualized and symbolic, the food, the visiting, the flowers, the clothes, the music, (hearing Dies Irae, once a staple now seldom played at funerals since Boomers don’t want to hear about the day of wrath, is a powerful experience), all contribute to stretching out the mourning process for the family. Life is suspended for a week or so and you hardly have the time to miss the deceased, you’ve been so busy and it’s all been centered on them, you grieve in spurts, now and then, with this one who has funny memories and that one who has poignant ones. Now it’s all packed into an hour viewing before the cremation, and you scarcely know what hit you. People don’t bring food, they don’t even come, despite social media old time newspaper obituaries were much more effective at notifying old friends and relatives who might be unknown to the younger generation. And we’re all so alienated from each other that you’re lucky if you have someone to miss when they’re gone.
My mother passed away just before 2020. Being brought up in urban communist Romania she wasn't religious, but after '89 she tried to fill that void with something. With everything.
She was all for alternative things. She wanted to be cremated. This it's a very niche thing to want in her circles. Only a couple of our relatives and friends were ever cremated. The ones that lived much of their life in West Germany. This on top of our general unpreparedness regarding the 'deathways' made things a lot more confusing but also not conforming to norms made it easier (not that we wanted to make it easy, but it's hard to pinpoint mistakes if you are already outside of the Overton window). We had a very helpful aunt that knew how to get the ball rolling with the basic 'to-do list' and things just went on from there. People know what to do, people help, and generally understand that you don't know. As much as I want to adhere to some ancient set of traditions, the reality is that we here in 'our corner of the world', as you say, have been a bit estranged from them. Any attempt to recreate that bond would be like the rebuilt old cities of Germany or Poland. Not the same.
So, getting back to our deathways, we decided to respect her wishes and then let things unfold as they will. I learned that orthodox priests do not do cremations. We had to get one 'outlaw' priest to say a few words. We also had some relatives or friends opposing cremation and insisting on a 'proper burial'. While I understand the theory and theology of this argument, we decided that it's 'her body her choice' this time around. You can't please everybody. It was a small ceremony, many attending saying that it was just right. We went to a restaurant, told stories, remembering her. My father chose to keep her ashes at home, but after a while felt better to put them in a grave. I guess to finally let go. Now some of us regularly visit that grave enjoying the fact that there is a place to go to for celebrating her, some of us do not feel anything for that place, just keeping her in our hearts instead.
So I can't say we have a template for dealing with this things, but I trust the community to sort things out together somehow. If there are any bits of tradition left out here, they are kept distributed deep in the collective. Some of them did not fit our 'way', some did. In the end it's a nebulous mix of customs and personal preferences. And that's ok. I think she would approve.
My heartfelt condolences as well.
I had similar experiences to Brian Miller from the previous comment, albeit with strict religious underpinnings. As a child I attended many funerals of the numerous elderly, and tragically sometimes extremely young, people in our church (non-denominational, building-less collective). We offered condolences, went to the visitation, and sat through a sermon given by one of the elders of the church, which was often accompanied by the singing of a hymn. These were very solemn occasions, often with attendance at the burial site where an additional hymn was sung and dirt and flowers thrown on top of the casket before it was lowered. It was also common to make food for the relatives of the deceased.
On the other hand, I also experienced funerals outside the religion, the most notable of which was definitely a German “Seebestattung” or sea burial. This was incredibly beautiful and was perfect for the man it honoured, who loved the sea. A poem was read aloud, followed by a lowering of the urn into the water, after which the boat circled the urn and sounded its horn three times. It was such a stunning farewell and was deeply moving, despite the absence of religious ritual.
I think celebrations of life where AC/DC is played and a drunk fest ensues are sad attempts that do the deceased no honour and diminish the grandeur of ferrying a soul to its final resting place. I’ve yet to attend one that didn’t feel like a high school dance gone wrong.
So, my mother died at 103. Being Jewish, a lot of ritual was baked in. There is, however flexibility and following a persons wishes. For me and my siblings, it was to talk about our mother at the funeral. The best ritual for me was going to the synagogue for 11 months and a day to pray and say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. It was immeasurably healing. I have also gone to Catholic wakes. I really think that is a great way to say goodbye to someone you love.
I think that my family's deathways are pretty much of the standard lapsed catholic variety. The religious navigation seems to fall to those who are more involved and practicing while things like meal sharing, flower arrangements, thank you notes, photo collection, fall to the less religiously inclined.
If someone close (family or friends) pass away, the news is shared in the family network. The day and time of the wake and funeral are circulated and plans are made for a representative of the family to be there in person. Sympathy cards are sent out, a DoorDash gift card is typically sent via text to someone or a meal is dropped off at the home.
These are traditions I think are going to be hard to inherit and of course pass on to my own children because it does involve becoming more acquainted with death and inviting it to be more of your life. There's benefit in Momento Mori, but who would willfully wish to integrate death into they and their families lives? An interesting topic that needs more attention paid to it.