Forward Thinking: Mourning Death Collectively
This post aims to add some smidgen of value to the Forward Thinking Project, a biweekly values development series spearheaded by Dan at Camels With Hammers , and Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism. Libby collected the last round up of blogs on Civic responsibility here, and I was humbled to have my own bare bones contribution included.
This weeks topic… DEATH. (way to keep everything upbeat guys)
Actually, the topic is “Mourning Death Collectively” and I think Dan laid a fairly sufficient groundwork with his essay that I feel somewhat at a loss as to how much I can add. But he sums up with a wonderful short question;
In short: If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?
I can riff on that for a bit.
To start with I should talk a little bit about my own experience with loved ones who have shuffled off this mortal coil. I’m the oldest child on my Dad’s side of the family, and he himself was an oldest child. My Mom was a younger child of her family, but aside from my paternal Grandfather who keeled over on the kitchen floor from a bad ticker a decade or so before I was born, the Brinkman family has been remarkably resilient. Grandma Brinkun as we knew her; lasted until the ripe old age of 98 I believe. With the exception of some elderly relatives who died when I was very young, my Aunt Kay who was in a car accident, and a couple of kids I went to high school with, nobody I knew had died. I managed to take thirty trips around the sun before I attended my first funeral.
Grandpa Doench was a stand up guy, old school Cincinnati west side Catholic, and he had a simple old school Cincinnati west side funeral. He died of pancreatic cancer, but all in all he had a pretty good run. The funeral was sad, but more melancholy than tragic.
Next was my Uncle Al. My moms brother in law, Al succumbed to leukemia the same year. I actually miss Al more than Grandpa, he was one of the good ones, the kind of guy who knew all his myriad nieces and nephews by name, who threw himself into family reunions with gusto, I can’t even picture him without a huge smile on his face.
In both of these cases, the funeral and surrounding events were… normal, a part of life. I loved them both, but neither had they been a big part of my life. In cases like that your position as a mourner is simple I think. Be supportive and kind to those most closely effected. Follow their traditions as best you can. The rather bland midwestern funeral rites seemed perfectly adequate to me and I hardly thought much about the form of them at all.
Then there was the punch in the gut.
On Novenber 22 1999, a young woman, late to work after a night out at a party had an epileptic seizure behind the wheel of her minivan. Her foot jammed to the floor she spend through the intersection hopped onto the sidewalk, then crossed the street and crashed into the side of a dry cleaners. At some point in that terrifying moment she struck my Dad, Douglas Anthony Doench, on his way to pick up the Sunday paper. He was killed instantly.
Suddenly, all of the things that I had taken for granted previously were heaped on my family’s doorstep, like unwelcome visitors who were not only there to stay, but were in fact quite demanding. What to do? The sheer overwhelming helplessness of that first day that didn’t have my Dad in it will stay with me forever. Funeral arrangements, the visitation at a a funeral home, the funeral service. All of these wonderful responsibilities thrust at a family torn asunder by grief.
Yet it was all taken care of. I’m still not quite sure how, although I suspect that my sister JJ had a big hand in keeping all the details straight. The funeral home and our old church, St. Anns, took very good care of us. The visitation took all night, as Dad was both a schoolteacher, former radio news director and lifelong soccer coach. The funeral the next day was attended by hundreds. I could barely speak, but managed to get through a verse from the Old Testament. I had no eulogy planned, but could only sum things up with my Mother’s words. “He had more friends than anyone I ever knew”. A friend remarked as we shared tears and smokes in the parking lot that it was the saddest funeral he had ever seen. I could not argue.
I’ve rambled a bit, and I don’t suppose that I’ve answered Dan’s question. From what I’ve learned in my experience with deaths, both as I’ve described above and the times since; my wifes beloved mother Carol, taken too soon by breast cancer, and her Grandmother Frieda, as well as the more recent departures such as my old school buddy Glando; well I’ll bullet point it
- Structure and institutions help. Grief can be crippling, especially in the case of sudden tragedy. Much ink has been spilt I’m sure about the problems of the funeral home business, and we Atheist and Secular folks have had our own problems with organized religion. But on this subject they have us at an advantage. They have plans. Forms to fill out and checklists to tick off. At a time when survivors are certain to be distracted, there is immense value in having an experienced hand about to say “Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of anything that you feel you can’t”.
- Remembrance is part of ritual. We are suspicious of ritual in the secular community, as we should be when it comes wrapped in superstition and fear as it so often is amongst our religious brethren. But there is value I think in crafting a sacred narrative in remembering our loved ones. There is no reason that ritual need be superstitious. At Dad’s funeral, what stuck with me was not so much the prayers and readings, but the long line at the visitation, people waiting for hours to shake my mothers hand and tell us a little story about their connection to him. That’s a form of ritual. I remember the hundreds of photos of him, not all of them brought by us, that’s a ritual as well. At Glando’s wake we played his favorite songs (as well as some of his songs) and lifted drinks to him and told old stories. That’s a ritual as old as beer.
- Be prepared. This is the hard one. Not in the zen way that we should all be prepared for “the hammer to fall” as Freddie Mercury taught us. But be prepared in the practical sense. Passing away may make your life infinitely easier (and shorter), but somebody is going to have to fill out a bunch of forms when it happens. What happens to your remains, your property, your collection of used bandages… all of that is someone else’s problem now and it behooves us to prepare them for that eventuality. Write a will, it will make everyone’s life easier. But beyond that prepare yourself and your loved ones. Back to the thrust of Raising Hellions, talk to your kids about death in a constructive manner before they have to deal with Nana (or you) in a box. That’s a bigger subject than this bullet point though
So to sum up in answer to Dan’s summing up. I think our dealings with death should be structured and reliable. As secularists this is something we should be working on more, no I don’t really know what that looks like yet. I think we should embrace certain rituals, even if they are informal, with the intention of cementing our remembrances. And I think we need to to more to prepare ourselves and our loved ones for death by talking openly about it and planning for what we want our personal passing to encompass.
Myself? I intend to have my body donated to science. Actually, if you could donate my body to MAD SCIENCE, that would be great because I could still hold out hope of terrorizing the local villagers.
And this is the song I want played at my wake.
Peace, Love and More Love