On Rites of Passage and Funerals

I’ve been thinking recently about funerals. The context isn’t important, so I’ll not get into that here, but I’ve been considering the importance of funerals as a ceremony, as a means of closure, as a farewell, as the ultimate rite of passage.

There really aren’t that many mainstream rites of passage left in American culture. The only thing we really always come together for now are births, weddings and death.  Various religions and immigrant cultures have other ceremonies, but those are exclusive in the sense that you have to belong to those particular groups to participate.  But for straight-up, average Americans, there’s not much else left.

As a side note, maybe that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing such a big deal made of grammar school, or even preschool, graduations, as if it’s some achievement that your kid managed to get out of the 8th grade.  When my daughter graduated from middle school, some of the kids had limousines rented for them, for goodness sake, with girls in prom-type dresses.  Really?  You don’t expect them to do this again in four years?

But I digress. Births and weddings and death, those are the big three anymore.  That’s when we come together, families, friends and even acquaintances to mark the importance of the occasion.  There are parties, there are gifts, there are flowers and well-wishes.  Even for funerals; we just call them by different names.

Before I really get to my point, it occurs to me here that this train of thought also informs, for me, the issue of gay marriage, which is currently in a state of flux all over the country and really the world. If a wedding, and all of the attendant hoopla that goes with one, is one of our fundamental rites of passage as a culture, what does it say about us if we deny, or try to deny, that rite (note the spelling) to such a large number of us.  They celebrate with us, but we refuse to celebrate with them.  We refuse to allow them to celebrate at all.   If a couple chooses to forego the process, get married at the courthouse or elope, or have a “civil union”, that’s their choice, but shouldn’t gay brides and grooms, in whatever combination, have the same array of choices as those that are straight?  I’m not talking about forcing churches to act against their beliefs, but it’s not like every couple that gets married in this country is a practicing member of any particular religion.  In fact, the last several weddings I went to were nowhere near a church for couples that probably didn’t know what the inside of one looked like.  No one required them to hit any particular benchmarks to use the words wedding and marriage.  No one even thinks about it.

But back to funerals. With births and weddings, the focus, the benefit if you will, is on the parents as an extension of the child or on the couple.   To welcome them in their new form to the world, to our society, to our culture.  That they have been made anew and that deserves celebration.  But if you miss a baby shower or a wedding reception, presumably there are others there to fill the space. You are there to celebrate someone else, for someone else, so a community of support is important, but specific involvement less so.  Funerals are different.

Funerals are most definitely not for the deceased.  The most that could be said is that they are there in spirit only, and even that’s a question of faith.  No, funerals are for those who are left.  And that’s more than just the immediate family, although they certainly deserve that support.  A funeral is more, though; it’s an opportunity for a community to come together to grieve together.  For family, friends, acquaintances and associates to be there for each other.  To remember the one who’s passed away, to help others to remember.  To share stories and memories that others may not know and in that way spread those memories around, to be remembered now by the community at large, so that everyone goes away not just with closure but with a bit more of that person in their heart.  So they can be remembered.

I believe it’s a fundamental desire of every single person in this world to be remembered, to believe they made a difference, no matter how slight, in the world at large, and funerals help with that. I remember every single funeral I’ve ever been to.  At each one I’ve learned something about the person who died that I didn’t know before, sometimes quite a bit, even for people I thought I’d known well.  And I can tell you about each of them, as I’m sure can the others who were there with me.  In us, that person is remembered, in us they make that difference.  Perhaps they inspire us, perhaps it’s a cautionary tale, but it’s important.  It matters.

I believe there are cultures where the body of a dead person would be eaten in the belief that they would then become part of the others in the family or community and thus survive. Modern funerals are the symbolic, knowledge-based equivalent of that.

And what if there is no funeral? What if there is no one to mourn, or not enough money to pay for it?  What then?  I think then we all lose, the person who has died in their lack of remembrance, in the lack of honor accorded to them, but also us, those of us who are denied the opportunity to share that remembrance, to give that honor.

We have few rites of passage left in our culture, but of the ones we have left, I believe that funerals are the most important, not in what they do for the deceased, but in what they do for us.