I miss the old rituals surrounding death

Once upon a time, a town would come to a halt. Now, you can hardly organize a funeral procession. Or a funeral. But what about seeing our loved ones off on their final journey?
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Funeral pyres by a river are a tradition in south Asia.

Once upon a time, a town would come to a halt. Now, you can hardly organize a funeral procession. Or a funeral. But what about seeing our loved ones off on their final journey?

There was a time when death, or at least our ways of dealing with it, had the power to stop traffic and interrupt life. Today not so much.

Thirty-some years ago when I was pastor of a small-town church in the foothills of the Cascades, death was an occasion. On the day of a funeral (often as not a weekday, thus taking people from work and routines), a long, black hearse would pull up in front of the church. Pallbearers would carry the coffin into the little church. A service would be held. Then the pallbearers would carry their deceased friend or relative back out to the hearse. It would slowly drive the two blocks to the town cemetery for the burial.

As presiding minister, I would walk, clerical robes fluttering in the wind, behind the hearse as it crept down Main Street. Some others might follow on foot, most would drive. The procession would lurch onto the bumpy gravel road of the cemetery behind the town's elementary school. An open grave waited. School recess was interrupted as students clustered at the fence to watch. Following the final words at the grave and the burial, the procession would return to the church where we ate and talked, as best we could, through our grief.

That this all sounds like something from another world is telling. Today common practices at death have changed.

Burial has given way to cremation. A funeral service (body present) has been replaced by a memorial service (body absent). The memorial service is generally planned at a time that is convenient to the work, school, and vacation schedules of those who might attend. Moreover, that service is often shorn of religious elements or ritual. It frequently becomes an occasion for an "open-mic" and storytelling about the deceased. The prevailing theme is "celebration" with little mention and few reminders of actual death.

All of this will strike many as progress, and perhaps in some respects it is. But I miss the parade, more accurately, the procession. It was a way of accompanying the deceased to a literal and metaphorical edge of this life before entry into the next.

Today's conventions around death lack any such confidence in life beyond the grave. The best we can do is to tell funny or touching stories about this life. But often one is left, after such celebrations, with the unmistakable impression that we have danced gingerly around death, not faced it directly, still less with the conviction that death does not have the final word.

While cremation has replaced burial as the majority practice, the issue is not cremation. It is true, however, that we are oddly ambivalent about cremation in our society. If we were in India, the cremation would be a fiery public rite. But as undertaker and essayist Thomas Lynch pointed out in a recent article, "Holy Fire" (The Christian Century, April 6, 2010), cremation often takes place in out-of-the-way industrial areas of a town or city without any presence of the family or friends of the deceased. It seems more like refuse-removal than religious ritual.

I recently watched the wonderful Japanese film "Departures," which tells the story of an unemployed symphony cellist who takes a job preparing the bodies of the dead for cremation. He becomes an artist of another sort, practicing the rituals of care and honor that precede cremation there. In one way, such rituals make no practical sense. Why wash, prepare, and dress a body about to be burned? The answer is pretty much the same as it would be to the question of why walk with the casket to the graveyard: to accompany the dead on their final journey. "To go the distance," in Lynch's powerful phrase.

When my father died, his body was cremated. I was not there for the cremation. I picked up the remains and a flag (he was a veteran). Sometime later we had a memorial service. The following summer the family gathered and we hiked the mile and a half to the spot my parents had picked out on the East Fork of the Wallowa River trail, in their beloved Wallowa Mountains, in Eastern Oregon where they had grown up.

As we walked up the trail, our little hike somehow became a procession. We, children and grandchildren, took turns carrying the box with his ashes. We accompanied my Dad on the final leg of his earthly journey, conveying wordlessly our faith that this life is a long journey toward God.

When we got to the spot they had picked, I opened the box and scattered the ashes. The wind whipped them around. We joined hands and said a prayer. While our ritual was different than it would have been for my father's parents, still it carried older meanings and unmistakable power. While the newer patterns of memorial gathering, scheduled so as not to inconvenience, and funny stories may be understandable, somehow it seems, at least to me, that something has been lost.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.