Searching for new rituals for death and dying

Until recent times, funeral directors and clergy provided professional services for most people at the time of death. The proper care of “the remains,” was the necessary focus of their work, with the funeral director responsible for the physical aspects of the process and the pastor focused on the rites of transition—for the deceased into the “for ever after” and for the survivors into the next phase of their lives right here and now.

The work of these two sets of community servants came together in the funeral services that were normal practice even for people who had not been participants in religious communities.

During the past quarter of a century, however, attitudes and practices related to death and dying have changed dramatically. One result is that clergy are no longer the necessary provider of mandatory rites at the time of death. Even long-time members of their congregations may turn to other ritual sources when loved ones die.

A recent gathering of the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion, meeting at a conference center on the western slope of Mt. Hood, devoted one of its sessions to this topic. Following the association’s standard practice, one of its members prepared a research paper on the subject of the day and a second member prepared a response. Then came the general discussion by the association members.

Larry Snow, Senior Pastor of the Murray Hills Christian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, presented the paper which he entitled “Grief and Grieving—Rituals and the Church.” Near the conclusion of the paper, he made these comments.

But reasons aside, if the point of rituals is to connect us to a large myth and to move us to a new place, perhaps the need is for the development and institution of new rituals, reflecting different myths, connecting people in new ways, and moving people to new places. In fact, perhaps this lack of ritual isn’t so much a problem as it is an opportunity to give birth to new rituals. Thinking both theologically and pastorally it seems to me that we need rituals:

  • That both honor the life of the deceased as well as restate the Christian hope in eternal life.
  • That express a belief in the sacredness of life, dying, death and grief.
  • That move people together in mutual love and support both for the time
  • immediately following the death and for some time afterwards.
  • That move people in relationship with God who is our source and strength. Read more Grief and Grieving – Larry Snow

The response was prepared by Nancy Gowler Johnson, pastor of First Christian Church of Puyallup, Washington. Her paper was entitled From Here to Somewhere Over There: A Response to Grief and Grieving–Rituals and the Church.” She concludes her paper with this paragraph.

Thomas Long argues compellingly for ministers to regain control over the design and content of the Christian funeral. He names the current trends in funerals/memorials a “‘personalized’ funeral…one that is caught up in all of the current cultural anxieties about selfhood and identity, such that what constitutes a “self” is a set of lifestyle circumstances and consumer choices.” Although he comes down clearly on the side of tradition, Long does encourage the incorporation of local customs into a historic liturgy. I agree with Long’s great love of historic liturgies, but I remain suspicious of the motivations behind clerical protests. I wonder if at least a portion of this critique of modern funeral practices is the religious establishment wanting control in a shifting culture?

Christendom is in its own death throes; is it any wonder that the church no longer plays a central role in funeral rituals? Perhaps we need to pay more attention to what people are choosing to do in these times. If Wuthnow is right, and rituals are not a separate action but are a dimension of all human activity, professional religious folk may need to step back and listen. Are there rituals that we do not recognize or condone simply because they bear little resemblance to traditional rites?

In a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turns out to be the same world. –Clifford Geertz  Read more From Here to Somewhere Over There – Nancy Johnson 

Both writers include extended bibliographies, which indicate the body of literature that is available for people who are interested in the notable shifts in public ritual in American society. One fact is clear, death and dying are facts of life that are as inevitable now as they have always been. Another fact is just as certain, although we may be less aware of it, is that we will continue to ritualize the process, with clergy and funeral directors, or without.

Larry Snow and Nancy Johnson can help us think about these matters in informed and useful ways.

The Northwest Association for Theological Discussion is a long-standing association of clergy most of whom are related to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although most of its approximately thirty members serve as ministers of churches in the Pacific Northwest, several members hold academic appointments. 

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7 Responses to Searching for new rituals for death and dying

  1. Gene Hill says:

    Thanks, Keith. Larry Snow was one of my roommates at NCC years ago.

    It is amazing what all our changing culture continues to embrace. Even using R.I.P. by a name, and certainly assuming everyone is going to heaven, and that the loved one is “looking down” and “watching us” in the here and now…and when someone like Whitney Houston dies, it all intensifies seemingly…I guess all a part of trying to grasp for understanding with the great unknown.

  2. Hi Keith,

    I’m a fourth generation funeral director who finds himself pondering the deeper realities of change associated with these shifts in ritual practice.

    I have printed out the reports and will read them this evening to see if I catch a glimmer of something new there.

    But overall we seem to live in a post-myth era where death is a sadness but not so much a mystery, and social ties have become so tenuous and unbound that “waking” (sitting in vigil together) is no longer a comfort, it is at best a habit and a chore which few have the patience to endure.

    BT Hathaway
    funeralwords.hathawayfunerals.com

    • Thank you for your response. For 30 years I taught seminary students how to do funerals. Much of what seemed deeply ingrained in family life and social structure has withered away in the 15 years since I retired. I’m bewildered. Although I’m in good health and active, I’ve been thinking about what I think should happen when that time comes for me. It will be shaped by my many years of teaching, but clearly changes will be necessary because so much has changed. Keith

  3. […] for any new resources on funeral “ritual” in the US and came across a blog posting Searching for new rituals for death and dying by a religious historian Keith […]

  4. There are psycho-social aspects to consider in all of this as well. For instance, declining affluence of the middle and lower classes has an impact on decisions to ritualize.

    Neither can we diminish the impact of fast-food nation. We are not trained to sit still and ponder the universe. We are pushed and “pampered” (not in the traditional sense, but in the sense that we can pull into a McDonalds drive through and have a meal in five minutes or less) by the frenetic world in which we live.

    When death calls for quiet and reverence (of something) we have become so out of practice, that we do not know how to find comfort in the quiet of prayer or the impatience of standing in line at the wake.

    Mostly thinking out loud there. But I think those are some of the issues which supersede theology. I know we like to think that God and theology is on top, but look around at the real world. You have to admit that for the most part God is hiding in a corner. And the high profile televangelist exceptions have nothing to say about the stillness and emptiness of death. The prosperity gospel does not prepare us in any way to lose everything.

  5. Here’s a site and book I stumbled across yesterday.

    http://denisecarson.com/

    It would seem that in some circles that at least, part of the ritual has shifted to the period before death.

    You can see the same concept of a “living wake” played out in George Clooney’s movie, The Descendants.

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