On unmarked deaths

By Kit Carlson

I saw it again yesterday. Side by side in the Lansing State Journal’s obituary section, three separate obituaries announced that no services were planned for the departed. One said this was in accordance with the deceased’s wishes. The others were silent on the reason.

Since I am in the “service industry,” as it were, I began to wonder about this. Is this a trend? Why would someone who left behind a long list of survivors — wife, children, grandchildren, cousins, neighbors, friends — request that those people not mark the passing in any formal way?

So I asked my friend Clark, the funeral director, what this might portend. He said that at his funeral home, they see this fairly often. Generally, he observed, it is someone from the university community, someone intellectual and secular and rational. But not always. Some families do it to save money, others simply to avoid the hassle. Clark said that he and his colleagues feel bad when people see the funeral directors as “pushing” the option of a memorial service, since there are so many less-expensive ways to honor someone: in a church, a fraternal lodge, even in someone’s home or in a park. But some people, he said, just want it all to be over with as quickly as possible. They think it will be less difficult for the survivors.

I understand that not everyone is religious. I understand that not everyone believes in some kind of life after death. But everyone is human, and this latest turn of events puzzles me, as a human being. Throughout human history, death has always been marked with ceremonies. Funeral pyres, mummification, burial mounds, pyramids, graveyards, even the practice of launching someone’s ashes into space — all of them recognize that death is a passage of sorts, even if one believes it is only from this life into a kind of nothingness. Death has always been seen as a sacred time to honor the person for who they were on this earth, and to send them on their way to whatever happens next.

I have experienced and celebrated at any number of memorial services in my almost half a century on this earth. I have been at services for a teen killed in an auto accident, for a Liberian woman dead of cancer at an early age, for a beloved matriarch of the church, for fellow clergy, for atheist cousins, for a homeless man, for a friend with AIDS, for both my parents. Each of those people held a different idea about life and about life after death. But all of them were honored and remembered in some public way. All of them were held up and cherished in the presence of their communities. The reality of their lives and the inevitability of their deaths were solemnized by their friends and family members.

I did not know any of the three people in the paper who were not going to be remembered at a public service. But even so, I felt cheated in a way, as I read that they would not be publicly honored. Their lives mattered enough to list in the newspaper. Their stories mattered enough to fill up several column inches. But apparently, they did not matter enough to gather the community to say farewell.

As a pastor, I understand the challenge and difficulty of saying farewell when someone has died. But as a pastor, I have also found that the process of planning that farewell service, of walking through it, of public remembrance, of public declaration of whatever hope we might hold for the future, of prayer and mourning in the presence of our loved ones and the presence of God, actually makes it easier for the survivors. It pours balm on the wounds. It offers a chance to bear witness to that person’s life, loves and works. They were here, and now they are gone. But the fact that they were here matters, matters enough that we all get together to observe the passing.

There was an awkward memorial service I conducted once. The woman who died had been an Episcopalian, but had not attended church for years. Her adult children were a mix of the completely secular and the evangelical. No one knew quite what to do with the Prayer Book liturgy. No one quite knew what to say when I offered them a chance to speak about their mother and grandmother. Finally, one of the daughters asked if a granddaughter could play the piano. “Begin the Beguine” was her grandmother’s favorite song, and the girl had learned it years ago to play for her now-dead grandmother.

There in that nearly-empty church, the young woman got up and went to the piano. We sat in silence as Cole Porter’s tune soared up into the rafters, played with perfection, played with all the love that girl could muster.

We knew the moment she ended that it had been the most necessary thing. A service rendered in the service of the dead, and in service of the living.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., where she blogs at Saints Alive!

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