Post-modernist rituals and celebrations of life’s passing

Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing, by Denise Carson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)

Parting Ways

Parting Ways

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.

6 Responses to Post-modernist rituals and celebrations of life’s passing

  1. Rod Reeves says:

    Keith, as a hospice volunteer for over ten years, I’ve read your observations on Denise Carson’s “Parting Ways…..” with considerable interest.

    I’m guessing the author stresses the importance for the dying to have made clear her/his clear desire regarding final arrangements. I’ve observed too often after the soon to be deceased is no longer able to mentally/physically participate in such discussions, without prior clarity of desires communicated by the dying individual, that as you observe, important decisions remain when “families often are divided and their members alienated from one another”, on occasion bordering on dysfunction, which definitely complicates decisions regarding final arrangements, especially when family members have gone in different religious directions or non-religious directions over the years since the family was living together years earlier.

    This sounds like a book I’d like to read. Especially her observations on “end-of-life celebrations and pre-death rituals.”


  2. Dave says:

    A timely entry for me Keith as I’ve sit each day with my neighbor who has A timely entry for me, Keith. These days I have the occasion to sit and talk, each day, with my neighbor who has chosen hospice. I’ve had the good fortune to sit with of folks who are dying and their families. I’ve watched and heard words said that can only be said in the time of dying. Sitting for the first time with a friend who is dying, who is man, and who has three decades on me, I hear words from him and from me that never had the chance to enter our conversations when we shot-the-bull at the fence line.

    Finding ways to engage past practices-awareness’ that engage the living with the dying and blending them with new understandings and rituals are worth a conversation on how to become better family and community as we move into a post-modern era.

    Thanks. Dave

  3. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Thanks, Keith for this excellent review. A good resource. I also want to note – a short, very helpful publication “Before You Die” by the UCC Stillspeaking Writers Group. It will be an excellent tool to use with individuals or in a group setting to help people begin to process some of the issues Parting Ways opens up..

  4. Gene Hill says:

    Excellent article, Keith. What was the reasoning behind not mentioning the name of the deceased during the funeral???

    • The reason I remember is that eulogies were preaching the deceased into heaven by extravagant claims that everyone knew were false. Instead of making this kind of statement to be the primary character of the funeral, what was proposed was that the sermon (of course, very short) should present one of the themes of the gospel that would provide hope, consolation, and comfort to the survivors. Recently I came across a folder with materials I used in my first funerals as a student pastor in seminary. I could still present these ideas today, 60 years later.

  5. Gary L. Rose says:

    Thank you Keith. I look forward to reading ‘Parting Ways’. I’ll also be looking at the book recommended by Marvin.

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