Compared to ancestors in eras past, modern Americans are pikers when it comes to ritual. We tend not to like them when they’re formal, and we’ve gotten rid of most of them. But there are a few left, and of those there is one that is easily the most barbaric of all:


Specifically, Protestant funerals. But it’s not particularly because they’re Christian or religious. It’s because they’re awful. They make the death harder to take, not easier. They short-circuit the grieving process by atomizing the community of people that would otherwise be bonded by their shared grief. When officiated by a fundamentalist minister, they pile shame and fear on top of grief with talk of people who “are in a better place” (because if the dead guy has “gone to glory,” then feeling loss and anger and grief and upset is obviously a manifestation of selfishness, which is sinful, shameful, and reveals your own depravity of spirit). And, at the same time, they come with a sermon filled with warnings of hell for the unrepentant, the unsaved, and the merely-observant Christians in the audience. This double-bind of shame and terror keeps people from grieving properly–it can actually trap them in grief. It’s extremely unhealthy, even sadistic.

Please understand, I’m not talking about the theology here–I’m talking about the presentation. Because even if you buy the whole salvation/hell/eternal life equation, making that the focus of your funeral is, well, dishonest. When your friend or sibling or parent has just died, you’re hurting–you should be. You hurt when a child moves away for college or a career, even though you know they’re going on to better things. Their absence leaves a hole in your life, and it hurts every bit as much as a hole in your flesh. You forget they’re gone and think “Oh! I should totally have lunch with Clyde.” Then you remember that Clyde’s not here, and your world gets dimmer for a while. It aches, like a phantom limb. And when someone dies rather than just disappearing, it’s worse, because there’s never a chance for a “remember when” coffee date (unless you honestly believe there will be coffee bars in heaven, in which case you have other problems).

And let’s be honest: for a religion that that celebrates continuity into the afterlife, with the “Sure and certain hope of the resurrection into eternal life,” Christianity (particularly Protestant Christianity) has a bloody dismal funerary ritual. You go into a quiet, banal, repressively boring chapel designed at all points to remind you of the solemnity of the occasion. You then sit in that room with the corpse’s box, sometimes open to display the partially-embalmed evidently-sleeping husk of the person you once knew. Then, after a viewing and eulogies delivered by friends and family (all of whom are at pains to be very polite and only look on the bright side of the deceased), everyone sits down to listen to some yahoo (usually a pastor or chaplain hired out for the job) yammer on about things only half of the congregates believe and which none of them are paying attention to.

That’s before we even get into the predatory and cynical nature of the funeral industry, which is a whole rant on its own, so I’ll leave it for now.

Still, funerary rituals ARE important, and some cultures get it right. They’re a way of reconnecting with community, of processing grief, of cultivating memory. The Jewish tradition leaves stones on the grave, symbolic of letting go. The Irish drink (a lot) and share stories of their dead loved one. The Vikings set the body on a ship and torched it, then had a barbecue. The Klingons have a bloody great party (well, will have, if you want to get technical about it).

So here’s what I suggest next time a friend of yours dies: Bury the body, or burn it, as you prefer. Have your moment of solemn remembrance. Then get the hell out of there. Break out the liquor, the good food, the great music. Have a dance. Have a big damn blow-out. If you believe in an afterlife, celebrate your loved one’s departure. If you don’t, swap stories about them. Remember them for real–don’t just tell the noble stories about how they won the purple heart, tell the story about how they fell in the latrine. Remember the embarrassing, the bawdy, the reprehensible. The stories are what they left behind–don’t edit them, don’t lie about who they were. Tell the truth.

Forget the chapel, and the hire-in preacher who doesn’t give a damn. Ignore the mortuary salesman who cheapens your loss while emptying your wallet. Go to a restaurant, or a picnic ground, or have it in a large home. Remember that laughter and tears both heal, and that shame and terror do nothing but pick deep wounds.

And for the sake of all that’s even marginally interesting in the world, have fun. We have only an eye-blink on this planet, and the moments are our only real treasure.


  1. I’ve never seen the “S/he’s in a better place” as reason for a guilt trip; it’s always encouraged me. But then, I’ve never experienced a funeral as dismal as the cliché. My pastors have always been forthright that deceased folks will be missed and that the friends and family will grieve, even while they encourage that we’ll see them again.

    I am a Protestant Christian, by the way.

  2. For how it is being done in Toronto, go over to BoingBoing: – sorry I don’t know how to make that a proper link.
    Jack Layton was a city councilor for twenty years, then (eventually) lead the national left-wing New Democratic Party to become the official opposition in Canada’s Parliament. I think the pictures of the city square are awesome – in the original meaning of the word. He will be missed, but as Joe Hill said: “Don’t mourn for me, organize!”

    Phil Olynyk
  3. Pingback: The Week in Writing: 22nd–28th August, 2011 » markaeology

  4. In Ender’s Game, Card came up with a similar idea as a “Speaker for the Dead,” as I recall. He envisioned it as someone who would tell the story of the dead person’s life, with emotion, but without bias. A Speaker would be someone who would bring pain, comfort, joy, and closure to those who survived the dead man by bringing complete honesty to their death, in order to help them understand him better.

    Please excuse my apalling grammar; it’s time for me to go to sleep.


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