Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing, by Denise Carson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)
Denise Carson watched both of her parents die of cancer, her father when he was 37 and her mother 17 years later when she was 54 and Denise was 26.
Her dad had done everything that his doctors could devise to master the disease that gradually destroyed his body. In his final hours, with tubes connecting to his body in many places, he was rushed by ambulance to the hospital where he died in a sterile institution isolated from the people he loved.
Denise’s mother, Linda Carson, declared that for her the quality of life would be more important than the quantity. She didn’t want her life to end that way. Despite unexpected developments in her medical care, Linda’s desire was accomplished. She died in the home she loved, surrounded by people who loved her, her family, friends, and colleagues with whom she had worked.
Before her mother’s death, Denise had begun reading in the large body of literature about death and dying, the history of funeral and burial practices, and ritual theory. She became acquainted with a growing movement throughout the United States to set aside prevailing patterns and develop new ways to celebrate life and memorialize its ending.
Three years after her mother died, Linda took advantage of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism book class to help her shape her research into a book, Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing. Although published by a university press, this is not a heavy, hard-to-read tome.
The book contains extensive narratives describing the passing from this life to the next of her parents and of a considerable number of others who have helped remake American practices related to this time in the life cycle. It recounts the stories of several people who are pioneering new approaches to medical care, celebrations of life before death, and new ways to memorialize the deceased after death has come.
Although the author clearly sympathizes with the changes that are taking place, she writes in a descriptive, declarative mode rather than in a manner that denounces conventional practice and advocates new ways. By the life experiences she recounts, she reveals the deficiencies of customary practices and opens the door to new possibilities. Among the themes that unfold in Parting Ways, several stand out for me.
For most of human history, including the United States until a century ago, dying and the care of the dead were part of the natural rhythm of family and community life. We had not yet learned how to prolong the process of dying with ever more painful and alienating medical and institutional processes. People died in the arms of their loved ones, were cared for by people of their community, and their remains returned to the elements in natural ways.
Gradually, we developed new ways of using medical processes that took the dying away from home. The care of the dead was entrusted to new institutions (funeral homes), and the embalm-and-bury method of caring for the remains came into common practice. Funeral rites, even in the churches, tended to be impersonal. (I remember being taught in seminary that the name of the deceased ought not even be mentioned during the funeral.)
Carson refers to this pattern as the modernist way of ritualizing life’s passing. It was, to some extent, brought about in response to the Civil War when new processes of embalming made it possible to return the war dead to their home communities for burial.
The post-modernist approaches have not yet settled into a common pattern. The very nature of contemporary life makes it unlikely that one set of ritual actions will become dominant. One reason is that families often are divided and their members alienated from one another. People move from one place to another and develop differing patterns of friendship and support. Uniform patterns of religious faith and practice are being replaced by a wide range of religious and non-religious ways of living.
The old authorities—doctors, funeral directors, and clergy—have been so tied to the old order that they have often been unable to guide the people of our generation as they seek for ways to be with the people who are dying and to remember them on into the years after their passing.
If there is any single phenomenon of our time that has demonstrated the need for new patterns, as the Civil War did long ago, it is the AIDS epidemic. “From July 1981 to March 1998,” Carson reports, 17,198 had died of AIDS in San Fransicso, nearly 70% of them at home. “This provided space around the deathbed uninhibited by medical professionals or any authority figures. The very nature of this disease dwelled in the dark underbelly of society. In many cases, family banishment had entrenched their alternative lifestyles, and many AIDS sufferers were divorced from religion” (p. 164).
The larger part of Parting Ways is devoted to “end-of-life celebrations and pre-death rituals,” practices that are largely missing from the modernist approach to death and dying that has dominated American life. The second part of the book discusses “post-death and memorializing rituals.”
Hurry out and get your copy. Maybe because it’s such a good book, Parting Ways is getting hard to find.