the final goodbye
of the pope in his coffin, his body fully vested, mitred,
and laid out in St Peters, blessed with water and incense,
borne from one station to the next in a final journey, put
me in mind of the generally threadbare state of much of our
ritual today surrounding death.
The popes funeral is over, and the novemdiales,
ie, the nine-day period of mourning, have also ended. That
ritual was once familiar to us. It was called nine nights.
But ask your average teenager, for instance, what nine
nights is and youd probably get an answer along
the lines of: a hip hop group?
The fact is we live increasingly with a sense of ritual absence,
or ritual diminution. Even basic survivals have assumed characteristics
that do not always represent any measure of ritual advance.
For a lot of people today, for example, a funeral has come
to mean a celebration of the life. There is much
in this new emphasis thats fitting and just. The lives
of our deceased were special gifts to us, often sources of
great value for our lives. But celebrations of life today
occasion, for the most part, the most unrealistic memorialising
one can see or hear anywhere.
One wonders sometimes at the pictures of perfection, the idyllic
representations, for instance, of parenting and family-mindedness
that comprise the eulogy. If there is fault, it
is communicated with a wink and a joke. Everyone laughs. In
other words, yeah, that was Johnny all right, the old scoundrel.
I am not sure I like much of it, though I maintain a respectful
silence. What often comes to mind are words of the Roman poet
Lucretius, the most materialistic of poets, memorialising
the death of a friend.
you, he wrote, oblivious to everything in sleep,
will stay like that for ever. We, on the other hand, before
your blazing pyre weep inconsolably. No day will take that
sorrow from our hearts.
No wink and a nod there. The first and obvious thing about
a funeral is that we are confronted with loss and a dead body.
Whatever your beliefor absence thereofin an afterlife,
those fundamental facts do not change. As Emily Dickinson
wrote: Firstchillthen stuporthen the
letting go. But not in inevitable sequence. The process
is a journey managed by the rituals surrounding
How individuals mired in grief make out now without such help,
I often wonder. Coping with loss and grief has always included
an important communal dimension. Everybody consoles everybody
Funerals are marked today by several important differences
from how they were in our (my) living memory. For one thing,
and an important difference it is, the body moved from the
home to the funeral parlour. The bathing and the dressing
of the body, the first stage in preparing the loved one for
departure, migrated to the care of strangers.
This is no implied wish to turn back the clock. Its
just that we should realise what we have lost through the
transition. I read somewhere recently that the presence of
the dead at funerals has become unfashionable to many Americans.
What they want instead is closure. Thus, at the
celebration of life the guest list is open to
everyone else except the corpse.
The human thing, however, is that in response to death, we
go the distance with our dead.
We bear mortality by bearing mortals to the point where they
make their final journey alone.
What happened in Rome this month was a ritual performed for
popes. At a deeper level, however, it had little to do with
role or status. It was a deeply human event, something only
human beings do, a feature unique to our species. Birds and
dogs dont bother with things like that, nor, higher
up the ladder, do chimpanzees. We do.
Whatever be our final terminus, we deal with death (the idea)
by dealing with the dead (the thing itself) in all its frailty
by surrounding it with marks of deliberation and respect.
Another common fact of our experience today is the increasing
popularity of cremation. Cost, of course, is a big issue.
Of somewhat lesser importance are environmental concerns,
including the belief that space in cemeteries is in short
supply, and urns take up less room than coffins.
But the truth also includes the fact that cremation fits more
easily with our lifestyle. Its efficiency and speed resonate
with our lack of interest in the traditional paraphernalia
of death. Death needs to be out of the way as quickly as possible,
because weve got to get on with life. Cremation gets
us there at the touch of a button.
In the scheme of traditional rituals, on the other hand, time
is primarily not for getting on with life, but for allowing
the dead to depart, and for survivors to accustom themselves
to their absence. Death may be sudden, but the dead always
This is the whole point of the 40 days. In the
economy of religious symbolism, 40 stands for
the time it takes for mission, readiness, or purpose to be
complete. Biblical illustrations here are too many to need
This confusion of linear time, the time of minutes and hours,
of getting on with life, and ritual time, time as a suspension
of the mundane, is another mark of our poverty.
In other cultures, funeral meals that invoke ancestors strengthen
kinship and unity among the living. Here ritual time expands
life in linear time, giving it greater depth and significance.
Its a way of understanding poles apart from viewing
time essentially as a commodity, something you dont
waste in ritual or other modes of unprofitable distraction.