04/13/18

Culture clash: Asian Americans balance Christianity and culture in rituals honoring their ancestors

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by Ruth Tam

When my great-grandmother died, I didn’t know how to pay my respects.

I was 9 years old, and had seen other Chinese people bow at funerals and gravesites before. One, two, three times.

But, my parents told me as we approached her coffin, we don’t do that.

Nor would we participate in any of the traditional Chinese ancestral rites of burning incense and paper money, or leaving food for her as an offering in the afterlife.

Like 42 percent of Asian Americans, my parents are Christian. And for believers like them, Chinese ancestor veneration inappropriately elevates the dead. The bowing, in particular, is akin to “idol worship,” a direct contradiction of their faith. The burning of money and offering of food are supposed to be gifts to the dead in the afterlife. But to Christians, death isn’t the door to a spirit world where material things are needed, but the beginning of life in heaven.

This year, my father told me we would visit my grandparents’ graves around Qingming Jie, the annual Chinese Tombsweeping festival, which this year fell on April 5. Joining millions of Chinese families celebrating the spring holiday to honor the dead, we planned to make the pilgrimage to our family burial grounds. We would clean my grandparents’ gravesites and reflect on their lives. But we wouldn’t bow, burn incense and paper money or leave food.

My parents left Hong Kong 50 years ago. For the first time I wondered: Are they now more Christian than Chinese? Had Christianity become our primary culture here in America?

My family isn’t the only one grappling with these questions.

Before Chinese American Jordan Kwan and his family converted to Christianity, they would bring oranges and a dim sum dish to a cemetery in Oakland, Calif., and participate in all the traditional ancestor veneration rituals.

He remembers them changing their routine when he was in the sixth grade.

“You don’t have to bow,” his newly Christian parents told him.

How did Chinese families like ours come to feel that our culture was incompatible with Christianity?

Sze-Kar Wan, professor of New Testament at Southern Methodist University, says it stems from an error in translation.

In ancient Chinese, the word for ancestor veneration, “jizu,” was defined as the act of sacrifice to the deities. In a modern context, Wan says it simply describes the commemoration of the dead.

Historically, practicing ancestral rites is deeply knit into Chinese culture — particularly because it embodies filial piety, the Confucian virtue of respect for one’s elders. Although it plays a central role in the Tombsweeping festival, it is traditionally observed during all major holidays.

Europeans initially believed China to be an enlightened society without Christianity, but that changed by the mid-18th to 19th century. Western missionaries viewed some aspects of Chinese culture as an obstacle to their religion and did everything to counter them, Wan says.

This included translating “jizu” to “ancestor worship.” In doing so, missionaries played a part in defining Chinese tradition to the English-speaking world and pitting it against a Christian God.

“Do not worship any other god,” the Bible reads. “The Lord … is a jealous God.”

Chinese American Serena Cerezo Poon remembers traveling to Hong Kong from California for her grandmother’s funeral in 2003. Her cousin played Christian worship music on his guitar, drowning out the Buddhist monks chanting at nearby services. Her mother placed a sign next to her grandmother’s coffin that read, “No Bowing.”

“I was surprised she didn’t physically stand next to the coffin and stop people mid-bow,” Cerezo Poon said.

Before her family’s trip, Cerezo Poon had researched the influence missionaries had in China as a college student.

“Christian missionaries said it was evil,” she says of ancestor veneration. “But when it’s such a big part of the culture, it was like them saying ‘You can’t be Chinese anymore, it’s evil.’ ”

After Catholic and Protestant missionaries established more churches in China by the 19th century, many new converts were ostracized for their faith and their rejection of Chinese traditions such as ancestor veneration. In extreme examples, such as the 1899 Boxer rebellion, they were persecuted and killed.

Despite political challenges, Christianity in China has endured into the 21st century. In 2010, the Pew Research Center estimated the country’s Christian population to be over 67 million, 5 percent of the national population, and other scholars say current numbers could be nearly twice that.

Today, the influence of Western missionaries is still evident in Chinese Christians whose families like mine, Kwan’s and Cerezo Poon’s immigrated to the United States.

Chinese people decorate the gravesite of their deceased relative to mark the Qingming Festival at the Jiu Gong Shan cemetery in Beijing, in observance of the Qingming Festival, also known as Tombsweeping Day.

But the hard-line approach against ancestor veneration could be fading in a world where cultures are becoming increasingly hybrid.

“I think one could look at ancestor veneration as a continuation of memory,” Wan says. Our dead “do not have independent status or power from God, but we can acknowledge that they are now in the repose of God and that it is important to remember them. That could really be worked into the modern Christian worldview.”

Other Asian Americans have found a compromise between their mother culture and adopted religion.

Desiree Nguyen is a Vietnamese American Catholic whose ancestor veneration rituals closely resemble Chinese traditions.

“When I found out that some Vietnamese gave up ancestor worship after converting to Catholicism, I thought it was a real shame,” Nguyen says. “Ancestor veneration, or respecting elders, is really a crucial part of our culture.”

The Vatican has recognized this and officially allowed Vietnamese Catholics to practice ancestral veneration in 1968.

On major holidays, including Lunar New Year and Christmas, Nguyen’s family gathers around an altar for her ancestors. They light incense, bow three times, say Christian prayers and sometimes pray the rosary.

“I always thought white Christianity’s approach to death and spirits was pitifully narrow,” says Nguyen of the early condemnation of ancestor veneration. “Christianity is deeply layered and complex, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Regardless of religion, it can be difficult for immigrants to uphold and pass on rituals from their home country.

When my family paid our respects at my grandparents’ gravesites this spring, I couldn’t recall the last time we visited.

But we poured water over their headstones, swept wet twigs from the crevices and scrubbed the surface clean. We repurposed palm crosses from Palm Sunday, sticking them in the moist ground behind the memorials. Borrowing from Jewish tradition, we placed a stone on top of their graves, leaving notes for our deceased beneath.

We came to the cemetery to honor our ancestors. And when we remembered the dead, we reflected ourselves — a mix of culture and faith in a country where we now celebrate both.

Complete Article HERE!

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04/8/18

Honouring the dead: how cultures around the world pay their respects

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A look at the traditional funerary rituals of the mainland, Asia and beyond

People paying homage to their ancestors during the Ching Ming festival in Diamond Hill.

By Hana Davis

The veneration of elders holds significant standing in Chinese culture, and reverence for its rituals endures beyond any individual’s time of death. As a traditionally patriarchal religion, the celebration of lineage and ancestry is integral to what it means to be Chinese.

On April 5, Hongkongers travelled on roads and in air-conditioned trains to pay their respects for Ching Ming, a public holiday widely known as the grave-sweeping festival. At the final resting place of their loved ones, celebrants replaced wilted flowers with fresh ones, incense and paper offerings were burnt, and food was laid out before the headstones of tombs citywide. Three pairs of chopsticks get placed above a display of food, which often consists of an assortment of meats and pastries.

To the Chinese, continuing obeisance to their forebears is as symbolic as their initial burial. The bedrock of intergenerational customs, funerals are considered a normal element of family life. Amid this week’s festival of honouring ancestors, City Weekend explores traditional funerary rituals in mainland China, Asia, and beyond.

A Chinese woman prays at the grave of a loved one at the Babaoshan cemetery in Beijing to mark the Ching Ming festival.

China

The belief in Chinese folk religion is that people have multiple souls, known as ‘hun’ and ‘po’. Upon death, these souls diverge, with hun rising to the heavens and po descending into earth. Chinese funerary rituals vary with the age, cause of death, and marital and social status of the deceased, but they respond to the needs of the two souls. The primary aim is to provide comfort for the deceased and demonstrate ancestral veneration. Regional traditions and minority groups determine the precise practices, but in general, the ceremony is carried out over the course of seven days. The deceased is clad in white clothing; red, which symbolises happiness, is rarely worn. Rituals and gestures are often carried out three times in accordance with the number’s positive connotation.

Sky burial, the Tibetan tradition of disposing of the dead by feeding it to vultures.

Tibet

For thousands of years, Vajrayana Buddhists in Tibet and Mongolia have believed in the migration of spirits postmortem, the idea that the soul moves on as the body becomes an empty vessel. Because wood is too scarce for cremation and the terrain is too rocky for earthly burials, Tibetans believe the body must be chopped into pieces while Buddhist lamas chant and place it on a mountaintop – exposing it to the elements and to vultures – to return the soul to earth. The dead are placed in the fetal position and wrapped in cloth. The rogyapa, or person who breaks the body, unwraps it, saws away at the skin and strips it of its muscles and tendons, ultimately arranging it in a manner that attracts Himalayan griffon vultures to dine on the broken body. Consumption by the vultures is how the body is considered to be reunited with nature, where it can be of use again.

South Korea

Due to dwindling grave space, in 2000, the South Korean government passed a law requiring that the buried be removed from their graves after 60 years. Cremation has since become the country’s favoured form of funerary rite – breaking thousands of years of tradition. Several Korean companies offer “death beads”: turquoise, pink, or black gems made by compressing the ashes of the deceased. Traditionally, the funeral is similar to its Chinese counterpart, but infused with elements of Korean Confucianism.

Ghana

Funerals in Ghana are held to celebrate the life of the deceased and not merely mourn their departure. The approach differs from many cultures that regard the event as sombre rather than cheerful. This celebration of the dead is so revered that funerals are often the cornerstone of Ghanaian social life. As a result, they are often joyous social events with hundreds of attendees: the more, the merrier, and the more lovable the person must have been in life. Coffins are usually intricately ornamented and vibrantly coloured, adorned with items that represent the deceased’s profession or favourite things. A shoemaker’s coffin, for example, might come in the shape of a shoe.

Ukraine

Ukrainian rituals are heavily rooted in tradition. They organise banquet feasts on the third, ninth and 40th days after death, and again on the six-month and one-year anniversaries of the deceased’s passing. An even number of flowers is placed next to the coffin and expected from each funeral attendee. Water plays an important role because it is believed the soul of the dead drinks the water and uses it to wash away tears. Water is placed alongside a woven towel, with both serving as spiritual offerings. Mourners are required to avoid drinking water in the body’s presence. In accordance with ancient times, sleds are occasionally still used to transport bodies to burial sites in the mountainous Carpathian region of the country.

Open-air cremation in progress.

Colorado, USA

Colorado is home to the Crestone End-of-Life Project – billed as the only legal, public, open-air crematorium in the United States. In the town of Crestone, mourners place juniper boughs, piñon pine and spruce tree logs on the body of the deceased; they encircle the subject of cremation. The materials are chosen for their high flammability, and the mourners watch as fire overwhelms the body. Many are drawn to this funerary ritual, but residency in the small town is a prerequisite to take part.

Complete Article HERE!

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04/7/18

The ‘Outside Lands of Death’ is coming to SF

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In just a few weeks, almost every corner of San Francisco will have death at its heel. The topic both universally experienced — and stigmatized — will be up for discussion in a variety of forms around the city.

A worker changes the Great American Music Hall’s marquee before You’re Alive, an event staged by You’re Going to Die, on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, in San Francisco.

Reimagine, a nonprofit sprouted from IDEO, is putting on the Bay Area’s first so-called “death event series.” More than 100 events, each hosted by an individual organizer, will be offered to the public beginning on April 16 up until April 22. The nonprofit expects 7,000 people who are still alive to attend.

The events will cover all the ways death alters our lives — from the pragmatic (working with physicians to get Advanced Directives straightened out) to the artistic (drinking from ceramic cups made using the ashes of 200 anonymous people) to the literary (the science around the use of psychedelics and death with Dr. Richard Miller).

There will be highly-mortal film screenings (including a talk with Lee Unkrich, director of “Coco”), comedy shows (Mortified: Let’s Talk about Death, Baby), and psychodrama taken to the next level (Dead for a Day: Attend your own funeral to “altar” your life). Actress Francis McDormand will also be at the Castro Theater on April 19. for a “Theatrical Exploration of Death, Dying and Suffering.”

Aside from the arts, the events will draw on the subjects of healthcare, design, and spirituality. Brad Wolfe, Executive Director and Founder of Reimagine, wanted the event series programming to be valuable for — and reflective of — as many people as possible.

The death-positive movement — which is broad enough to contain anything from Caitlin Doughty’s Ask a Mortician YouTube series to amateur banjo sessions about the beautiful uncertainty of our mortality — has valiantly taken on the challenge of eliminating a major stigma. But in some cases, it has also been critiqued for being white-centered, and glamorizing a topic that has never, and will never, for many communities of color, feel whimsical.

That concern is exactly what Reimagine’s founders kept in mind, in the pursuit of designing an event series that would be inclusive of people outside death talk’s main demographic: middle-class white people who have the luxury of mortal musings. One such event will be hosted by Dr. Jessica Zitter, a Critical and Palliative Care Specialist at Oakland’s Highland Hospital in conversation with Pastor Corey Kennard at Glide Memorial Church.

The talk will explore the wealth of research behind racial inequities in healthcare at the end of life, and discuss the divide between dying African-American patients and a healthcare system that falls short of providing the right kind of support.

Zitter wrote an insider’s perspective on the problems with the way the dying are treated in our current medical culture in her 2016 book, “Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life.” The book has been lauded by the likes of BJ Miller, a UCSF doctor and triple amputee and Lucy Kalanithi, a Stanford doctor and the widow of a Stanford doctor whose memoir on dying from cancer was released posthumously.

Her conversation with Kennard will also touch on her anecdotal experience with an aspect of healthcare that’s untaught in the medical world: finding a common language with patients who are dying that’s beyond the withdrawn and overly sterile protocol.

In her practice, she said, she underestimated the role that things like prayer, miracles, and hope mean to her African-American patients, who, “come into a hospital in their darkest hours and are met with language and concepts that feel like in a way that they’re robbing of their humanity, robbing of their opportunities for being whole.”

It was only through the years she’d been working with Betty Clark, an African-American chaplain, that she began to notice the vital components of healthcare support for her patients of color that she’d overlooked.

“There are many, many areas I had wished to delegate to others that I felt were not part of my job that are absolutely part of my job.” Zitter said.”But I really have to say that it’s really powerful to [pray with my patients]. It’s not necessarily about God, but it’s about connecting to them, and supporting them.”

The second in her series of discussion with Kennard will take place at the Oakland Museum of California on April 17., and cover the intersections of faith and medicine at the end of life.

A full event schedule is available on Reimagine’s website. Some highlights are in the slideshow above.

Complete Article HERE!

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04/5/18

A history of dying-and-rising gods

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A detailed view of coffin of Peftjanoeneith

by Derek Beres

My cat, Osiris, is lying at my feet as I type this article. That’s his normal nook while I’m in my office, which doubles as our guest room—the futon behind me is also a suitable sleeping option. Celebrating his eighteenth birthday soon, I’m thankful he’s stayed healthy and vibrant for this long. The same was not the case for his namesake.

On Sunday many Christian faithful celebrated the resurrection of their savior. Yet the story of Christ is an oft-repeated motif in mythological literature. Resurrection tales abound across the planet. This was first brought to broader attention thanks to James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, an exhaustive survey on world mythologies that was originally written to show their inadequacies by a skeptical Frazer, yet turned out to influence entire academic departments in the comparative mythology and comparative religion fields that grew from his work. 

While much speculation has been offered as to why resurrection cycles persisted, the annual birth, death, and rebirth of the soil provide an important clue. The plants that grow, wither, and die seasonally only to return to nourish us once again makes for a convenient segue to the concept of souls. Frazer consciously linked this fact with the cults of Persephone, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus. As he writes, 

It remains to see whether the conception the annual death and resurrection of a god, which figures so prominently in these great Greek and Oriental worships, has not also its origin or its analogy in the rustic rites observed by reapers and vine-dressers amongst the corn-shocks and the vines.

Easter Sunday, known as Resurrection Sunday to the faithful, marks the third day of Christ’s burial after his death on the crucifix. Missionary Christianity spread Christ’s story across the planet; over the course of centuries those other resurrected gods were discredited, rewritten, or forgotten. The uniqueness of Christ’s story has been challenged by modern scholarship, notably by tablets such as Gabriel’s Revelation. Frazer just brought that reality to the forefront.

Unlike many older stories, the Christ motif was unlinked at some point from sexuality and regeneration to focus on the soul. This speaks in part to the establishment of Christian ethics, yet the desexualization of Christ did a disservice to our understanding of ecology and the environment. The below figures are all in some way connected to fertility and nutritional sustenance, two necessities for the continuation of life. The Christ story is mainly metaphysical, unchained from the earthly cycles even though those annual renewals provide the foundation upon which the Christian mythology was founded.

Beyond the cited figure in each historical mythology is the theme, which is essentially more relevant to the living than the dead. Sure, we discover emotional comfort by the notion of life beyond the grave, but what really matters is picking ourselves up after deaths during lifetime—divorce; the death of relatives and loved ones; losing a job; watching a child leave the nest. Our character is defined by our response to tragedy and suffering.

As the characters below demonstrate, some achieve greater glory after the tragedy while others are trapped in an unforgiving underworld for eternity. What unites them is the human imagination that dreamed up each figure to communicate a primal idea about how to navigate life.

A detailed view of Osiris

Osiris

The Egyptian deity of the afterlife, underworld, and dead is the classic tale of regeneration. There are many variations on his theme, but each poem centers around his love for his sister-wife Isis, a jealous brother that murders him, Set, and his son, Horus, who avenges his father’s death. In every variation, Isis copulates with Osiris’s briefly resurrected body before he once again perishes. In one telling, his body parts are scattered across the planet, which Isis has to collect before stitching him back together. The agricultural connection is clear: Osiris was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile River and the crops dependent upon its rising. He was also linked to the positioning of the stars, Orion and Sirius, at the beginning of each new year, another resurrection motif.

People take part in a reenactment of an ancient celebration dedicated to the Greek god Dionysus, marking the carnival season, on February 11, 2018, in Athens.

Dionysus

The Greeks offer the most famous mythological motifs in the West, unsurprisingly as they’re the basis of our culture. Maybe the drunken god of grape harvest, wine, fertility, religious ecstasy, and ritual madness waking up the morning after was enough of an impetus to make him a resurrected being—sulfites pack a punch. Dionysus was never crucified, but torn to bits by cannibalistic titans; he was somehow reshaped from the remaining heart, which flies in the face of anthropological data that our ancestors were organ eaters. Regardless, mythology is not about facts. Rituals celebrating his prowess remain beloved to this day. 

Tammuz

Tammuz

In one of the world’s oldest pieces of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king references Tammuz, an ancient Mesopotamian lord of shepherds, as an ex-lover of Ishtar who was turned into a bird with a broken wing. The scorching Mesopotamian summers needed a hero to resurrect the fertile soil every year—the link between sex/fertility and vegetation, noted above with Dionysus, is another common motif—and that duty fell onto Tammuz, who was also known as Dumuzid. A midsummer month was even named in his honor. Tammuz’s legacy lived behind himself, as gods do. He was incorporated into myths in the Levant and Greece, where he became known as Adonis.

Adonis

Adonis

Being the mortal lover of Aphrodite is no small task. As his harbinger, Tammuz, was already firmly secure in his sexual prowess, Adonis has echoed through the generations as the ideal lover. Born from a myrrh tree and raised by Persephone, whose own myth centers on the regeneration powers of vegetation, Adonis’s good looks created a feud between Aphrodite and Persephone. Zeus declared that the boy would spend one-third of each year with each of them, then choose where to spend his final third term. He must not have been a fan of Hades, as he chose Aphrodite. Then he was gored by a wild boar, dying in Aphrodite’s arms. Adonis is reborn with gardens planted in his honor each summer, the result of his dying blood mixing with Aphrodite’s tears to form an anemone flower.

The Shrine of Attis

Attis

This Geek deity’s story went down over a millennia before the Christ figure appears. His first cult was linked to a Phrygian trading outpost, Pessinos, whose great mountain was thought to be a daemon. Attis’s mother, Nana, became pregnant by laying an almond from a mystical tree on her bosom. She had second thoughts about this motherhood job, though, as upon his birth she abandoned him. Attis was subsequently raised by a he-goat. He fell in love with Cybele, but his foster parents sent him to Pessinos, where he was forced into an arranged marriage to King Midas’s daughter. Eventually, he went mad and cut off his genitals, so that he would not betray Cybele. He too died and was reborn, concurrent with the spring planting and autumn harvest the locals experienced every season.

Complete Article HERE!

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04/4/18

A Sunny Day at the Death Cafe

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What if talking about death didn’t have to be a downer?

By

Good morning on this pleasant Tuesday.

The last place you might think to spend a sparkling spring day is at a death cafe.

But that’s exactly what we did this month, and what we found, to our pleasant surprise, was anything but bleak.

On the second Tuesday of each month, the landmark Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn hosts a “death cafe,” a salon-style gathering in which visitors can speak openly about death and mortality.

The death cafe movement, started in England in 2011, is now a global tradition taking place in coffee shops, offices and other unlikely spaces in dozens of countries. Its goal is to make conversations about dying — from the philosophical (is there an afterlife?) to the mundane (metal urn or marble?) — less taboo.

When we joined a recent death cafe at the cemetery, we expected an evening of tissues and tears with a group of New Yorkers in mourning.

The reality was quite the opposite.

We met a lively bunch of strangers, ranging from young adults to octogenarians, most of whom were not grieving at all; they had, instead, come for an intellectually stimulating, if at times uncomfortable, discussion.

“Death cafes are a kind of beautiful rehearsal for coming closer to death and understanding it and grappling with it, so that when we do have a death pending in our families, as is inevitable, we might be a little more prepared for it and slightly less rattled,” said the funeral director and death educator Amy Cunningham, who facilitated the get-together.

“There’s no agenda — nothing is sold or prompted — so it can go in all kinds of interesting directions in a totally natural way,” she said.

Between sugar cookies and laughs, our group jumped from religion to social media to psychotropic drugs to contemporary ethics.

“Can you be buried with your pet?” one woman, a documentary photographer, asked the group, following it up with a conversation on approaching death from a nonreligious perspective.

“How do you handle the loss of an estranged family member?” another wondered, prompting a third — who had lost a relative the week before — to speak about the death of her distant father.

She and her husband then debated the pros and cons of learning of a death through Facebook. Several minutes later, he told the group a separate story about the deathlike “static peace” he felt while tripping on the drug DMT.

(My contribution to the discussion: sharing how self-conscious I feel about what to say or do at funerals.)

“As frightening as it may seem,” Ms. Cunningham said that night, “there are many amazing things that can occur and ways to grow and carry grief through the next chapters of your life, and this is the way we evolve — through moments that seem so painful but then have hidden miracles of ecstasy.”

Green-Wood will host its next death cafe on April 10, and you can learn more through Death Café New York City or the Death Lab at Columbia University.

Complete Article HERE!

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04/2/18

Death is changing — can the Catholic Church change with it?

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With cremation on the rise, cemetery space dwindling, and cryogenic freezing around the corner, the Vatican is facing some tough decisions.

By Leah Thomas

The Catholic Church preaches the importance of following ritual, especially when it comes to burial practices. It stresses that, if possible, one’s whole body should be buried in a Catholic cemetery after carrying out a traditional Catholic funeral service, which involves the wake, the funeral mass, and the final interment prayer at the gravesite. If it was good enough for Jesus, reasons the Vatican, it’s certainly good enough for everybody else.

But in 2018, choosing cremation over full-body burial is so popular even Catholic priests are planning to skip out on classic casket burials. “I haven’t signed up for it yet, but yes, that’s what I will do,” said Father Allan Deck, a priest and professor of theology at Loyola Marymount in California.

“I think it’s a bit more practical,” he continued, laughing. “It’s easier to move the cremated remains around than it is a coffin, right?”

Cremation is prevalent now more than ever, with over half of Americans opting to be cremated rather than having a standard burial. And this percentage is projected to reach 78.8 by the year 2035, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Whether the Catholic Church felt pressured by the decreasing number of standard burials or by its own priests choosing the alternative, the Vatican released a statement in 2016 outlining the church’s new, more relaxed stance on cremation and the handling of cremated remains.

The new guidelines clarified that while cremation is acceptable, full-body burial is still preferred in order to (hopefully) emulate the Easter Day resurrection of Jesus Christ. “In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body,” the document stated.

“More and more of our funeral services are with cremains rather than with coffins,” Father Deck said. “It goes up every year, and the church has tried to respond to it in a constructive way, indicating certain things that should be observed if at all possible, like that cremated remains be put in one place, either in a cemetery or a mausoleum.”

The Vatican’s statement also made it clear that cremated remains, or “cremains,” should not be scattered, divided up, kept in one’s home, or preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects. But why is it so necessary for those ashes to be buried?

“The preservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they will not be forgotten or excluded from prayers,” said Andrew P. Schafer, Executive Director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Newark.

“We’ve had situations where homes have been sold and the next buyer finds an urn with human cremated remains in it simply because as the generations passed on, the family forgot about that person,” Schafer recalled. “And so it’s important to remain part of the Christian community and to be buried properly so you will always be remembered, especially in prayer.”

The fear of being “forgotten or excluded from prayers” derives from the church’s belief in the concept of purgatory, which is described as a post-death cleansing process where prayers from loved ones and other Catholics can pass a soul into heaven. If one’s body or ashes aren’t in one place — particularly a Catholic cemetery — they may not be remembered. The person may not receive prayers in their name. And they may never leave the eternal waiting room that is purgatory.

Catholics also stress the importance of burial in completing the church’s funeral traditions — traditions they maintain allow families to heal and grieve properly.

“There’s something psychological about bereavement and loss, and there’s a beauty that we offer with a funeral ritual,” said Peter Nobes, Director of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

The funeral rituals Nobes is referring to being the three parts of the traditional Catholic funeral service.

“Rituals are important, particularly when there’s a loss in the family. Avoiding things, not wanting to do particular things or not spend money on a particular thing or cut corners here or there, can all be harmful to the family’s grieving process,” Nobes said.

But some attribute the rise in defying Catholic traditions to the high costs of Catholic traditions.

“You’re supposed to get buried in a catholic cemetery, which is also an income generator [for the church],” said Norma Bowe, a Kean University professor who teaches a course called “Death And Perspective.” She added, “I just have to wonder: are they continuing this tradition so that they’re still making money? Because it’s expensive to die.”

She’s not wrong. The average funeral, including embalming and burial, rings up to around $11,000.

The Catholic Church’s mandated burial practices not only present the issue of cost but have also led to a separate issue of cemeteries running out of room.

By the year 2030, the average baby boomer will reach age 85, increasing the death industry by 30 percent, according to the International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Assocation. Moreover, individuals over 80 years of age are less likely to choose cremation and more likely to opt for a full-body burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, further contributing to the space issue that Catholic cemeteries are attempting to alleviate without defying traditions.

Catholic cemeteries are beginning to feature “green burials,” or eco-friendly burial pods that recycle into the earth over time.

Other cemeteries are “doubling-up” — or placing the cremains of an individual inside an already used burial plot.

The rules for doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-up vary by region and diocese. In Nobes’ diocese, for example, up to three cremated remains are allowed to be buried inside one traditional full-body burial plot.

Some Catholic cemeteries are building up, rather than down.

“Many of our Catholic cemeteries have been building mausoleums for years now,” Schafer said. “So we’re kind of using the dead space above the cemetery — no pun intended.”

The Catholic mausoleums resemble that of the illustrious above-ground cemeteries in New Orleans, created as an adaptation to the city’s swampland rather than lack of burial space.

The rise in cremation is somewhat helping to alleviate the space issue, as cremated remains take up a significantly less amount of space than full body burial plots. Cremation “niches” can be as small as 12 inches square, according to Schafer.

Bowe, a Catholic, has faith that the church will eventually allow for more choice when it comes to what one has done with his/her ashes.

“I see the church changing,” she said. “I see them embracing folks they haven’t embraced before. Religion serves the people, so they have to think in terms of what the people want.”

When it comes to other modern death practices (or death avoidance practices) the Catholic Church is taking a stronger stance.

“People think they’re going to be frozen or do things to prevent death,” Father Deck said in regards to cryonics, or the practice of freezing bodies in order to potentially be revived in the future with scientific advancements. “But no one in human history has ever avoided death. Even Jesus died on Easter.”

Father Deck went on to clarify that while the church does believe in combating diseases and other health epidemics with medical research and advancements, it does not believe in preventing natural death.

“Death comes to us all. And as Christians we believe that the hour of death leads to the hour when we begin eternal life with the lord,” Father Deck said.

Regardless of Catholic burial recommendations, Bowe still plans to be cremated and have her ashes scattered.

“We have a cabin in New Hampshire that’s been our family retreat for years. I pick blueberries off an island that’s right in the middle of the lake,” Bowe said. “And that’s where I want to go. I want to be among the blueberry bushes. And I don’t think that makes me less of a Catholic.”

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03/29/18

How the world of death and funerals has become fashionable through digital culture

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‘Tearleading’ – the process of publicly sharing condolences after someone famous has died – has become an internet phenomenon. It’s made grief trendy and has digitised the only one true certainty in life: death

Public mourning: Céline Dion pauses at the casket of her late husband René Angélil – his funeral was livestreamed

By Oliver Bennett

It’s one of the more blood-curdling things about Facebook – the social media death notice. You know the score: the recently deceased star of Top of the Pops, sitcom or stage is commemorated by way of a YouTube video and a deluge of weepy RIPs and “part of my life” eulogies, a phenomenon derided as “tearleading”. The high-water mark for this was who “taught us how to live, then taught us how to die” two years ago. 

Of course, entrepreneurs have noticed this spectacle, which writer and psychologist Elaine Kasket brackets as “the data of the dead”. It’s part of a digital-led revolution in dying and death and it’s changing the way we see people pass into the ineffable digital afterlife. “We’re developing an entirely new mentality about death and dying,” she says. 

​Kasket (yes, she knows) is the author of an upcoming book about digital death called All the Ghosts in the Machine, and has observed a huge rise of interest. “I was at a recent SXSW festival and was introduced to someone who put on a super-serious voice and told me: ‘I’m in the death-tech space’.” As a subject, dying has become fashionable, with investors pouring money into startups, bolstering thought leadership and inspirational TED Talks on “new ways to think about death”. 

There are so many new death-tech sites that they break up into different types. There’s the price disruptors like Harbour Funerals, Beyond.life, and Funeral Zone, which offer price comparisons and sometimes, TripAdvisor-type reviews. Derrick Grant set up Willow when a close friend couldn’t afford his funeral expenses and found one-sixth of Britons struggle to pay for a funeral – the average cost of dying is £8,905. He now offers an against-deadline price check to help those who “couldn’t afford to die”: the ultimate poverty. “I found the industry hadn’t changed for 100 years,” says Grant. “People thought you had to pay a lot to do right.” Now it’s becoming more transparent, more open, and partly as a result, says Grant, “funerals have become less funereal”.

Starman: tributes at a Bowie mural in Brixton the day after the announcement of his death

Then there are the planning sites, which include Cake, a US company that has developed an app for end-of-life planning, and the UK’s DeadSocial.org which explains how to prepare your digital estate from the scattered confetti of Instagram, Facebook, Gmail et al. On SafeBeyond, users can create an online cache – including video and audio messages – to be shared posthumously with loved ones which founder and chief executive Moran Zur has called “digital relics” and “emotional life insurance”. My Last Soundtrack will develop your end-of-life Spotify playlist. More than half a million people die every year in the UK, and market analyst IBISWorld says the UK funeral sector is worth £1.7bn. No wonder there’s been significant funding from angel investors in that “death-tech space”.

This stuff enthuses Peter Billingham, a celebrant and “digital death adviser” who founded the website Death Goes Digital. “The world of death and funerals has really been disrupted by digital culture,” he says. “What was stable for hundreds of years has changed enormously in the last five years. We’re more open about death than ever before and technology is helping to reframe what death means.”

Baby boomers, now moving into the death demographic, are leading the way. Milestones include the 2016 livestreaming of funerals, including those of Lemmy Kilmister and Céline Dion’s husband René Angélil; and of course Bowie, who as ever in the avant-garde, favoured a direct cremation, where the body is cremated before the funeral. There’s a growing inventiveness in eco-death options too: recomposition, where the body becomes compost, and aquamation, a kind of a water cremation – even a “mushroom burial suit”. There are death celebrities, notably Caitlin Doughty, a “mortician and activist” who founded “death acceptance” collective The Order of the Good Death, spearheading the “death positive” movement.

But it is the tech spiritualism that is perhaps the most fascinating part of the digital death otherworld. Many readers will recognise the curious and unsettling scenario whereby a dead friend or relative pops up zombie-like on Facebook, perhaps in a prompt to recognise a birthday.

Modern trend: Dave Grohl delivers a speech at Lemmy Kilmister’s televised funeral

This has led to a huge leap in the way we approach the afterlife. In the past, says Elaine Kasket, attitudes to the dead divided into two main global tendencies: cultures of memory, and cultures of care, roughly zoned into west and east: in China, for example, there’s a tradition of believing that one’s ancestors remain active, while here we honour their memory with photographs and grave visits.

“Now, with digital culture the dead are becoming more vocal and socially influential and the West is moving towards a care culture,” adds Kasket. “They are increasingly in the places of the living.” Digital representations of dead persons won’t be confined to cemeteries. They will haunt different spaces: perhaps even become a rights lobby: the “transdimensional”, perhaps. They will be what Kasket calls the “active dead”, and what Billingham calls “present not absent”. Many people have online conversations with the dead on Facebook, which introduced a legacy contact option in 2015, and Billingham says that we’re already seeing the emergence of a new kind of professional: the “posthumous legacy curator”.

There are far reaches of death-tech that encroach upon sci-fi. Eternime, founded by MIT fellow Marius Ursache, is about creating an eternal posthumous avatar: animated by your digital footprint and given life by artificial intelligence, and is building a database of like-minded people who gain the chance for grandchildren to interact with their unmet great-grandparents. Also in the US, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, a computer scientist and specialist in personality emulation, is engaged in a project to create simulations of the dead people so as to keep our loved ones “alive”. These avatars will start on the screen, move into virtual reality and augmented reality, then potentially become life-size simulations. Ahmad, who was inspired to work in the area when his father died, sees it becoming reality between 2030 to 2050. “It’s not if, it’s when,” he says. And to those who say it sounds like Black Mirror: well, go back and have a look at the “Be Right Back” episode. 

Open-ended: a woman in ‘Black Mirror’ gets an AI version of her husband after he died

Ahmad thinks that cultures like Japan, with its animist traditions and a neophilic acceptance of robots, will be the early adopters. But he doesn’t see why (bar a few surmountable religious barriers) it shouldn’t take hold everywhere as we become used to it. “It means my daughter will have the chance to interact with my father,” he says. “It will deepen our relationships with our dead loved ones and offer a living memorial that can bring ‘emotional enrichment’.” We’ll be less likely to visit graves, perhaps, and more likely to summon Gran like a digital Doris Stokes.

Of course Ahmad has critics. “People bring up the idea that we need ‘closure’,” he says. “But it goes towards solving the ‘if only I’d said this or that’ problem to an extent.” Still, he concedes there are plenty of legal and ethical issues. What if the simulation were sanitised, with difficult opinions edited out? How should their ageing be represented? Does their voice sound right? Ahmad thinks that the development of digital trusts will emerge, and with artificial voice synthesis, the latter will get better. “But these are uncharted territories. It will affect the way we see identity. Adding emotions may be a challenge.” Will Death 2.0 bring on unintended consequences? It’s a dead cert.

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