Chronicle of a Death We Can?t Accept

November 2, 2009
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image AT a funeral directors? convention recently, I wandered around an exhibition floor crowded with the usual accouterments of the trade ? coffins, catafalques, cemetery tents, cremation furnaces and the like. Scattered among these traditional goods were also many new baubles and gewgaws of the funeral business ? coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; ?virtual cemeteries? with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded.

It is hard to know what to make of this wild blossoming of unconventional mortuary merchandise. Perhaps it is the creative expression of a society grown weary of the extravagant hearse-and-limousine funerals of the past and ready to experiment with less costly and more personal ways to memorialize the dead.

Some funeral directors seem to think so and are responding like dazed Blockbuster managers outmaneuvered in a Netflix age, scrambling to stay afloat in the wake of new technology and cultural improvisation.

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But there is another, more accurate way to understand current funeral fashions. They illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.

Rituals of death rest on the basic need, recognized by all societies, to remove the bodies of the dead from among the living. A corpse must be taken fairly quickly from here, the place of death, to somewhere else. But no healthy society has ever treated this as a perfunctory task, a matter of mere disposal. Indeed, from the beginning, humans have used poetry, song and prayer to describe the journey of the dead from ?here? to ?there? in symbolic, even sacred, terms. The dead are not simply being carted to the pit, the fire or the river; they are traveling toward the next world or the Mystery or the Great Beyond or heaven or the communion of the saints.

And we are accompanying them the last mile of the way. Every generation re-imagines these images of what lies beyond this life, but what persists is the conviction that the dead are not refuse to be discarded; they are human treasures traveling somewhere and it is our holy responsibility to go with them all the way to the place of farewell.

Thus, funerals often involve processionals, sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate, a form of community theater in which we enact publicly the journey from here to there, thereby enabling both the dead and the living to process the reality and meaning of mortality. Historically, funerals have not simply been quiet times of reflection in secluded chapels but often have included noisy parades winding through the streets.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?s body was borne on a mule-drawn sharecropper?s cart through the thronged streets of Atlanta, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy wisely and symbolically wore scuffed marching boots under his pulpit robe. ?A good funeral,? says Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker in Milford, Mich., ?is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.?

Today, however, our death rituals have become downsized, inwardly directed, static and, as a result, spiritually and culturally impoverished. We tend now to recognize our dead only for their partial passions and whims. They were Mets fans, good for laughs at the office, pleasant companions on the links. At upbeat, open-mike ?celebrations of life,? former coaches, neighbors and relatives amuse us with stories and na

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