When someone dies, it is common to mark their death with funeral rituals, but the idea of using a ritual to mark someone as they near the end of their life is less common. Yet rituals could provide succour to all involved at this difficult time.
Rituals help people to mark and make sense of the big life changes that we all go through, such as births, marriages and deaths. Rituals work when the people involved understand what is going on. For example, for a non-religious parent, it may make sense to have a secular baby-naming ceremony, rather than a religious christening or baptism to welcome their baby to the community.
Ritual is often thought of as actions that express shared meanings, such as lighting candles during a funeral ceremony. They could also be words or music, such as reading a poem or playing a favourite song. Rituals can help us deal with change, partly because of the shared understandings we have of the actions involved, but also because those ritual actions tend to be familiar to us. Using familiar words and actions in an unfamiliar situation can help us find our way through it.
We are used to thinking of funerals as being for the living. The funeral can be an opportunity for bereaved people to mourn, to share stories about the person who died and to come together with others who are grieving. Funeral ritual can help people to feel more in control when faced with a terrible loss.
The period of time when someone is dying, however, is viewed differently. The focus is on the dying person and on making sure that they receive the care they need. But ensuring that the person who is coming to the end of their life receives the best care does not mean that those who love them need to ignore their own welfare.
Gathering family and friends around the bed of a dying person is called keeping vigil. It is a common practice in many parts of the world. Traditional Xhosa healers in South Africa, for example, describe death as a collective matter. It is important for the family to be at the bedside to ensure a good death. Family presence allows the dying person to be at peace and to let their relatives know what they want for the family’s future. This doesn’t just benefit the dying person, but also helps family members, offering a chance to mend relationships.
Being with the dying person, whether sitting quietly or chatting, gives people the chance to say goodbye. It is also an opportunity to share the experience with other family members or friends, in much the same way that mourning is shared at a funeral. For some dying people and their families, music is used as a shared experience in the final hours.
Memory boxes are another form of ritual that is becoming more common. Women in Uganda recently began the practice of creating a memory book or a memory box in order to share their life story and create a sense of belonging for their children after they had died.
A memory box can also be assembled by the family or friends of the dying person and doesn’t have to be intended for children. Such a box can hold mementos, photos, written notes, a CD, copied poems; anything, in fact, that can act as a reminder of the person.
Thinking about and discussing how to manage the end of life may be useful for both the dying person and their family and friends. The unknown is difficult to deal with so understanding that they are taking part in a ritual of accompaniment and leave-taking can help a family make sense of and mark the change that they are going through.
Death is about the biggest change any person will encounter, whether it is their own death or that of someone close to them. Using rituals that express shared meanings to help them feel more in control at a time of loss can only be a good thing.
On a brisk November night, Tagine, a Moroccan restaurant tucked away on a quiet side street near Times Square, is alive with conversation. Nearly 20 people pack in around two tables cluttered with heaping, communal plates of steaming couscous, chickpeas, and yellow lentils. People exchange stories, laughs, and soft wedges of bread dipped in bright green chermoula. Multi-colored disco lights dance across the walls, and the swell of conversation rises and falls against a soft pulse of music and noise from the bar. A young, blonde woman walks through the door and surveys the crowd.
“Is this the singles’ event?” she asks, pointing to the tables. I shake my head.
“Nope,” I tell her. “This is the Death Cafe.” She thanks me, brow furrowed, and heads to the back of the restaurant.
While it may seem strange for conversations about death to be conflated with courting, our group could easily be mistaken for speed daters. Relatively young, open, and inquisitive, my dining companions exude a curious energy, solid appetite, and hunger for good conversation. But, unlike the majority of small talk with strangers, dialogue here is all about death—from philosophical musings about post-death life to the physiological components of dying.
“When the body is dying there are lots of … secretions,” says Tanya, a nurse who works in the intensive care unit at a local hospital. “We sometimes give patients medicine to try to dry them out and stop them from gurgling.”
“Is that what they call the death rattle?” someone asks from across the table.
Those noises, we learn, arise once the dying person can no longer swallow or clear fluid from the throat, and often indicates that they’re within a day of passing. But as disturbing as it may sound, the death rattle typically doesn’t cause the individual pain or discomfort. We talk about the sounds of death, and how to attempt to interpret them, sipping mint tea from delicate, warm glasses. “Having to take care of somebody who’s dying, and their family … it can be a lot. I want to talk about it with my husband, but I don’t want to fatigue him with it,” says Tanya. “But I think about it all the time.” It can be months, even years, she says, before she stops thinking about a patient who has passed away under her watch.
But not all Death Cafe diners come from professions that deal with death. According to Nancy Gershman, the facilitator of our cafe, attendees come from all walks of life, from college students with a philosophical curiosity about death to those who have witnessed something supernatural. Some people want to understand death better in order to prepare for their own. “I had this one 80-year-old who kept asking these roundabout questions,” recounts Gershman. “It turned out she wanted to know what dying was like.”
Gershman, who has been facilitating this Death Cafe for the past three years, says there’s no agenda. Meetings often meander thematically, driven by the questions and stories people bring to the table. But she’s quick to remind me that, while the Death Cafe is a safe space to talk about loss, it’s not a support group. “When you lose someone, there’s a particular period right after it happens where you keep repeating, like a groove on a record,” she says. “We’re not here to stay stuck in that groove.”
Instead, Gershman says, it’s a place to speak openly and inquisitively about the end of life. Formally established in 2011, the original Death Cafe arose as the brainchild of the late founder, Jon Underwood, in his East London home. Inspired by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz’s café mortel, he set out to create an intentional space dedicated to talking death in order help people “make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Strangers began gathering in Underwood’s London basement to sip tea, munch on cake, and casually discuss death and dying. Before dying unexpectedly from undiagnosed leukemia in 2017, Underwood and his mother created accessible guidelines and protocols so anyone could create Death Cafes within their own communities. Since then, more than 7,300 cafes have cropped up in over 60 countries—an indication that they address a deep-seated desire to understand death, one that’s been ignored, if not avoided.
After remaining relatively tight-lipped on the topic for centuries, those in the U.S. are more willingly peeking into the abyss—a cultural moment that’s been dubbed the “positive death movement.” From the growing demand for end of life doulas to the creation of apps that send daily reminders that you’re going to die, it’s apparent that more people are interested in confronting death.
“There’s a growing recognition that the way we’ve outsourced death to the medical profession and to funeral directors hasn’t done us any favors,” Underwood told the New York Times in 2013. By avoiding the topic until it happens, we’re left with all sorts of strange feelings about this universal life event. And yet, many of us prefer to keep it at a distance.
Part of this aversion, Gershman suggests, is that talking about it reminds us that it’s real. It shakes the comfortable illusions many of us cling to—that our bodies and brains are ours to control and keep. Sitting around the table, talking about how to financially plan for our funerals (to keep our partners and families from going into debt) can feel alien, even morbid, at first. But, through sips of mint tea, mouthfuls of warm lentils, and a few laughs, I’m reminded that it’s as necessary as making a financial plan before any big life event, such as going to college or getting married.
The strangeness of talking about death, Gershman says, goes beyond the mere fact that it’s been a longtime taboo topic in some cultures. There’s a lot of subject matter that’s taboo, she says, but death is different—largely because it’s inevitable. She compares it to the sex-positive movement in the U.S., where much of the silence surrounding sexuality has been stripped away to increase transparency and dismantle stigma. “People still have a choice when they’re talking about sex. You can either have sex zero times … or many times. But with death, you don’t have a choice. It’s going to happen, and it’s not going to be in your control.”
While making death less taboo will help us understand it and plan for it, it can’t help us prevent it. So planning for it is both frightening and necessary. But by ensuring tea and food are present, hosts of the cafes are able to make discussions of dying a little less scary. “There’s a superstition that if you talk about death, you invite it closer,” said Mr. Underwood. “But the consumption of food is a life-sustaining process. Cake normalizes things.”
My tablemates seem to agree that eating makes engaging with death easier. Tanya mentions that the pediatric unit has a giant bowl filled with candy, and it’s intended for the staff, not the patients. Digesting and processing death might be easier when accompanied by something sweet, something that nourishes us, something we understand to be routine. Like death, eating is something all living bodies simply have to do.
As the night progresses, one attendee whose husband passed away a few years ago tells me that, when she lost him, she lost her appetite, too. But in the past few years, her love for food, particularly dark chocolate, has returned forcefully. “Now, I eat it and I can’t stop,” she chuckles. She reaches into her purse, shuffling around a bit before pulling out three wrapped Hershey’s Dark Chocolate with Almonds nuggets, and hands one to each of us, smiling.
Even after years of facilitating Death Cafes, Gershman finds herself surprised by the feverish interest the cafes continue to garner. Month after month, newbies and returners come to talk death with strangers. A big part of the appeal, she ventures, is that death is great fodder for in-person conversation. “This is a subject that people can stay on, as opposed to babysitters and real estate,” says Gershman. “Death is such a rich topic that you could approach it in a million different ways and never be bored.”
Back at Tagine, conversation shifts from the life and death lessons learned from watching Golden Girls to the weirdness of grieving on social media. In a group of complete strangers, no one looks awkward or distracted, and no one is fiddling with a phone. “I really think that people are starved for interesting conversation at dinner,” laughs Gershman.
As I gulp down my piece of chocolate, another swell of laughter erupts from the table to my left. In comparison, the singles’ event in the back seems relatively lifeless. Gershman tells me that what I’ve seen and felt tonight is no anomaly.
“One of the waiters told me, ‘Whenever your group comes in, there’s always such great energy.’” she says. When she told him that this was a Death Cafe, a group focused on death and dying, he thought he had misheard her. “I think it’s because there’s a tremendous sense of relief. When you have relief, there’s more laughter.”
Podcasts: Cariad Lloyd interviews celebs about losing a loved one. It’s far from a downer
By Sarah Griffin
A few weeks ago, I covered a podcast called Death in the Afternoon, hosted by funeral directors and experts in the business and cultural history of dying and bereavement. Griefcast, hosted by comic Cariad Lloyd, is a far more intimate examination of grief and loss. Lloyd interviews a person – usually a fellow comedian – about a person close to them who has died. She lost her father when she was 15, which is the central thesis of this podcast: it’s a project about normalising conversations around death. This year, it won in three major categories at the British Podcast Awards and it’s very clear why.
I had been tiptoeing around this podcast for a while, aware of Lloyd as a comedian and gifted improviser, but had been unsettled at the idea of listening to two people dig into a conversation about death in such a personal capacity. Podcasts are already a very intimate medium, and this kind of intimate conversation seemed a long way from the peripheral. However, I am so glad I took the leap – Griefcast has made its way swiftly into my top podcasts of the year. I haven’t been able to stop listening.
This doesn’t come from a voyeurism, necessarily, which may seem hard to believe given the fact that each episode is an hour-ish long interview about loss. Rather, there is something hugely philosophical about each conversation, some wisdom imparted about the horror – and mundanity – of death. Every subject handles it differently, and Lloyd conducts the interviews with huge grace. She is the other person in the conversation, for sure, and acts as a very powerful conduit for conversations that cannot be absolutely easy for the subject, no matter how much levity they conduct themselves with.
The episodes I started with were interviews with Aisling Bea, Adam Buxton and Ana Matronic, all of whom had lost their fathers. Buxton is serene and gentle in his discussions of losing his father – this interview was given only months after his passing. Ana Matronic is a powerful storyteller; her father died of Aids when she was 15, and her episode is a portrait of the late 1980s in America, but also about how stigma operates.
My recommendation as a starting point is Aisling Bea’s episode, which is raw and angry and extremely real. I was floored by the integrity and honesty Bea brought to the interview regarding her father’s death – and her admittance that some days she just didn’t want to talk about it, but she was going to talk about it anyway.
Not only are the stories that the interview subjects dispense important, but the manner in which they dispense them is fascinating too. I cannot stress, either, how none of the episodes I have listened to so far have been downers, or left me feeling distressed. Certainly they are emotional listens at times, but there is an ease to the atmosphere Lloyd creates and facilitates here – which in many regards is a deeply courageous thing to do, as a person who has suffered a loss. She offers hers simply and honestly at the beginning of every episode – her dad died when she was 15 – and sets the tone that this next hour is a place for big, big chats.
I wholly recommend this as a listen, whether or not you have experienced the death of someone close to you. It is one of those rare pieces that, without ego or self-congratulation, examines a vital component of the human condition.
For more than a century, every deceased resident of Long Son Island has been buried in the same coffin.
The residents of Long Son Commune near the Vung Tau port city in southern Vietnam follow the Tran religious teachings set out by the island’s founder, Le Van Muu, early in the 20th century.
Muu was a resistance fighter against French colonialists in the 1800s, but the war forced him to flee his hometown in the Mekong Delta.
He and a small group of people migrated to an unpopulated Ba Trao Hamlet (now Long Son Commune). Muu settled there, built permanent homes, and formed a religious practice on the basis of maintaining human virtues.
His teachings focus on living harmoniously with nature and loving people. Besides that, there are not any rules and books that adherents have to strictly follow. They can get married and have children, but maintain a simple life close to nature.
Adherents wear the ao ba ba, a baggy shirt that is popular among peasants in southern Vietnam, tie their hair in buns, walk bare feet, and keep their head bare, too.
Togetherness is a cornerstone of Muu’s philosophy. People in the community work and eat together. There is a lot of bonding, and in an unusual departure from mainstream traditions, this is carried on at death as well.
Muu believed that everyone was the same when they died, so he introduced the practice of sharing the same “Ba Quan” coffin when a person dies.
“Ba Quan” is a standard coffin that is placed in the Nha Lon (Big House) on the island.
Thanh Thi Thanh, a 75-year-old local resident, said that when a family member dies, relatives go to the Big House to ask to use the Ba Quan coffin.
The deceased’s body is washed clean, dressed in new clothes, shrouded in cloth and mats, and placed in the coffin.
At the cemetery, the body is taken out of the coffin and buried directly in the ground. “Ba Quan” is taken back to the Big House to be used by relatives of the next person to depart the world.
“The burial practice does not include the coffin so the corpse can quickly decay and attain liberation,” Thanh said. “This practice also helps family members save costs.”
She added that only those who are 12 years or older will be placed in the Ba Quan coffin when they die.
The dead are buried within 24 hours, instead of waiting for a set day or time. Family members will complete the mourning ceremony at the graveyard and do not invite guests over or perform any other ritual.
Those who visit the deceased will burn incense for the soul of the dead, and relatives will not receive any condolence money.
This tradition has been kept alive by locals for long.
Tran Ba Viet, head of the Culture and Information Department of Vung Tau City, said that the ceremony that Long Son residents have maintained for decades has many advantages since it is very short and expenses are minimized.
But since the coffin is not sealed for reuse, if the deceased had any serious, contagious illness, it could be contagious and affect the environment, Viet said.
He added that he will work with locals and authorities in the health sector to identify better funeral practices to protect the environment while respecting long-standing customs.
Any parent must agree that one of the greatest hardships experienced around the death of a family member is having to explain to children what happened and what happens next? Should you tell them the stark truth; that the fun and games don’t last forever? What sort of words will you use; dead, died, passed away, lost, crossed over, or went to sleep? This is a problem with very, very ancient origins. Ancient death rituals offer up evidence for this.
Since the beginnings of civilization, whenever and wherever, parents have had to teach their children how to grieve, commemorate, and dispose of deceased loved ones. And in the ancient world death was an infinitely more complicated affair, evident in the bizarre death rites practiced from culture to culture around the world. Here are some of the oldest funeral rituals in history, ones that take death to a whole new level of macabre.
Zoroastrian Sky Burials
Zoroastrianism; the ancient pre-Islamic religion of modern-day Iran, was founded about 3500 years ago and still survives today in India, where the descendants of Iranian (Persian) immigrants are known as Parsees. A 2017 article by scholar Catherine Beyer, Zoroastrian Funerals, Zoroastrian Views of Death, describes the first step in Zoroastrian funeral rites, where a specially trained member of the community cleansed the deceased “in unconsecrated bull’s urine.” The corpse was then wrapped in linen and visited twice by ‘Sagdid’ – a spiritually charged dog believed to banish evil spirits – before it was placed on top of the ‘Dhakma’ (Tower of Silence) to be torn apart and finally devoured by vultures.
Tibetan Buddhist Celestial Burials
Similarly to ancient Zoroastrians, today, about 80% of Tibetan Buddhists still choose traditional “sky burials.” This Buddhist ritual has been observed for thousands of years and it differs from the Iranian/Indian rituals because the deceased were/are chopped up into small pieces and fed to birds, rather than being ‘left’ for the birds.
While at first this might seem nothing short of brutal, verging on undignified, a research article published on Buddhist Channel explains that Buddhists have no desire to commemorate dead bodies through preservation, as they are thought of as shells – empty vessels without a soul. What is more, in their doctrines, which promote ‘respect for all life forms’, if one’s final act is to sustain the life of another living creature the ritual is actually a final act of selfless compassion and charity, which are primary concepts in Buddhism.
Native North American Totem Poles
Native cultures in the American Northwest carved wooden Totem poles to symbolize the characters and events in myths and to convey the experiences of living people and recently deceased ancestors. The Haida people from the Southeast Alaskan territories tossed their dead into a mass grave pit to be scavenged by wild animals.
However, Marianne Boelscher tells us in her 1988 book The Curtain Within: Haida Social and Mythical Discourse that the death of a chief, shaman, or warrior, brought with it a complex and bloodthirsty series of rituals. Dead shamans, who were thought to have cured the sick, ensured supplies of fish and game, and influenced the weather, trading expeditions, and warfare, were chopped up and pulped with clubs so that they could be stuffed into suitcase-sized wooden boxes. Once pressed inside, the boxes were set atop mortuary totem poles outside the deceased shamans’ homes to assist their spirits’ journey to the afterlife.
Known to anthropologists as “endocannibalism” many ancient cultures disposed of their dead by eating them . Herodotus (3.38) first mentioned ‘funerary cannibalism’ as being practiced among the Indian Callatiae people. Furthermore, the Aghoris of northern India were said to “consume the flesh of the dead floating in the Ganges in pursuit of immortality and supernatural power,” according to an article published on Today.
The ancient Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and the Wari people of Brazil both held “feasts of the dead,” where they attempted to “bond the living with the dead” and to express community fears associated with death. Some specialists believe that endocannibalism is something the dead might have expected as a final gesture of goodwill to the tribe and their direct family.
Sati – Burning The Widow
Sati (suttee) is an ancient funeral custom practiced by the Egyptians, Vedic Indians, Goths, Greeks, and Scythians. Banned mostly everywhere today, Sati required widows to be burnt to ashes on their dead husband’s pyres; sometimes voluntary ending their lives, but there are many recorded incidences of women being forced to commit Sati, which is murderous, inconceivable, and beyond any reason.
Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr. is Temple Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Government and Asian Studies, The University of Texas at Austin. In his informative book The Representation of Sati: Four Eighteenth Century, the Sati ritual is considered as having maybe originated to “dissuade wives from killing their wealthy husbands” and it was sold to the public as a way for husband and wife to venture to the afterlife together.
Sacrificial Viking Slaves
While the threat of a Sati ritual must have utterly terrified Hindi women of all ages and creeds, the death of an ancient Scandinavian nobleman, according to Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th century Arab Muslim writer, brought funerary events of an “exceptionally barbaric nature.” After the death of a chieftain, his body was placed in a temporary grave for ten days while a slave girl was ‘selected to volunteer’ to join him on his passage to the afterlife. The sacrificial maiden was forced to drink highly intoxicating, psychedelic mushroom enhanced drinks, and as a way “to transform the chieftain’s life force” she was forced to have sex with every man in the village who would all say to her, “Tell your master that I did this because of my love for him.”
A 2015 Ancient Origins article written by contributor Mark Miller titled The 10th century chronicle of the violent, orgiastic funeral of a Viking chieftain explored these rites in detail and explained that after what amounts to constitutionalized ‘rape’, the girl was taken to another tent where she had sex with six Viking men. The last man strangled the girl with a rope while the settlement’s matriarch ritually stabbed her to death. The chieftain and his slave girl were finally placed on a wooden ship to take them to the afterlife.
Somewhere Between The Above And The Below
In 1573 AD, the Bo people of southern China’s Gongxian County were massacred by the Ming Dynasty and are today all but completely forgotten, if not for their mysterious 160 hanging coffin baskets located almost 300 feet (91 meters) high on cliffs and in natural caves above the Crab Stream. A China.org article informs that locals refer to the ancient Bo people as the “Sons of the Cliffs” and “Subjugators of the Sky”, and murals surround the coffins that were executed with bright cinnabar red colors illustrating the lifestyles of the ancient slaughtered people.
What Can We Learn from Ancient Death Rituals?
Having skirted over some of the ancient world’s death rituals, we are now hopefully better equipped to answer those questions that our children will inevitably ask us. You might be well served to offer your child the words of author Robert Fulghum: “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
I remember the first time I touched a dead body. It was at my grandfather’s funeral. You know the scene: attendants in boxy black suits, the cloying scent of flowers, tissue boxes, breath mints, dusty funeral parlor furniture. As the sad murmur of relatives droned all around, I stepped up to the coffin and quickly reached in to touch his embalmed hands, folded nicely on his belly. They felt like cold, soft leather.
That was when death was still an anomaly to me, an outlier. Now it has become familiar, a recurring pattern in recent weeks and months. For the past several years, I’ve served as a pastor in a suburban parish, an evangelical who made his home in a mainline church. I don’t run the show, since I’m a lay pastor, but I’ve been there for most of the funerals. In the past few years we’ve had almost 40 in our parish. Those are a lot of faces I won’t get to see any more on Sunday mornings. Death is no longer a stranger to me; it is a regular part of my life.
This has been one of the more difficult parts of being a pastor, seeing people who faithfully served our Lord over decades take ill and start a steep decline. These deaths don’t have the shock of tragedy, of teenagers hit by cars or babies born without breath. Still, the dull ache of sorrow is there.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up in a thriving megachurch (by Canadian standards, anyways), and I took it for granted that slowly and surely our congregation would continue to expand. And it did, all through my teen years. As I looked out over the congregation on Sunday mornings, I could see a diverse group of people from ages 15 to 60. But children were most often annexed to their age-appropriate ministries, seniors were few and far between, and funerals were not a constant. The bulk of our congregants were in the prime of life.
Later, when I began my pastoral ministry in a congregation that skewed to those over 65, I became frustrated as our church struggled to thrive. Growth no longer just seemed to happen. And though we saw many young families drawn deeper into the life of Christ, we also lost many veteran saints. I learned to care for the very young as our nursery filled up, and I learned to walk with the aging as they lost the strength to sit in our pews.
Though I looked longingly at congregations that seemed to expand effortlessly, I learned to love the slow work of pastoring a struggling congregation. I took in the beauty of a woman in her 80s dancing with toddlers and singing worship songs. And I remember the 70th wedding anniversary of a couple that faithfully attended worship for just as many years. These quiet miracles don’t have the same luster as other “vibrant” ministries I’ve been a part of, but nonetheless, they witness to the patience and love of God. I came to appreciate the church as the body of Christ formed of the whole people of God, from young to old—even those heading to their graves.
Pastoring an Aging Congregation
Death does not fall outside the life of Christ’s Body; it is a threshold through which we all must walk. Recognizing death as part of our common Christian life allows for a more expansive vision of God’s redemption, which begins the day we are conceived and carries us into our dying
I’ve come to appreciate my close experiences with death. When I look at large, booming churches or hip, thriving church plants, I wonder if their pastors experience the regular privilege of burying octogenarians. I’m glad for these growing churches, insofar as people are having encounters with Christ and his Word. I wish so many of the churches in my denomination would thrive like that. Yet I’m learning to appreciate aging congregations like my own in which the whole community of faith mourns with the death of each faithful servant.
I recently read Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 35. She was enjoying a vibrant career, academic success, and a wonderful home with her husband and toddler. The news of her cancer seemed to crush all of that. Life had to be put on hold for chemo, rest, and preparation for dying.
She writes in her memoir about churches in which blessings come as the direct result of fierce faith. She writes, “The prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart. … The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way.” Bowler writes that she tacitly held to a tamer form of prosperity gospel logic. She expected that, if she followed Jesus, things would go pretty well because God loves her and wants her to have a good life.
I often find myself believing the same thing about my church: if we worship Jesus and do his will, he will bless us with new members and increased vitality. Stagnant membership and death in the congregation feel like punishments for lack of faith.
But God throws wrenches in the wheels of our theological systems. We get fired. We get divorced. We get sick. We die.
Our local congregations lose their liveliness. They suffer from conflicts. They struggle to raise funds. They shrink
Christians believe that “death is swallowed up in victory” (Isa. 25:8, 1 Cor. 15:54). Our faith is built upon the fact that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. But our experience of death is not always so straightforward. Our sojourn still leads to our bodies being cremated or placed in a coffin.
Helping People Reckon with Death
In many churches I’ve attended, death was pushed to the margins. It was treated like an interruption to God’s work in the world, not as an instrument by which God draws people more fully into his own life. I’m not saying we should love death—after all, it’s still “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). But part of living as disciples is learning to die well.
Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, writes,
“To die well” is to locate what is good somewhere outside our control—in the God who gives and receives our lives. It is also to allow that alien goodness, the goodness of God’s transcendent superintendence over life and its temporal duration, to inform the very meaning of our vulnerability to illness, suffering, and death.
In other words, by embracing death in our churches, we allow our creator to give meaning to our human weakness.
Stanley Hauerwas notes in God, Medicine, and Suffering that Western culture shifted from preparing Christians to die well in the medieval period to franticly attempting to cure us from death in contemporary society. He writes, “We have no communal sense of a good death, and as a result death threatens us, since it represents our absolute loneliness.” According to Hauerwas, we need to learn once again how to grapple with our mortality.
Stories like Bowler’s, then, make me wonder about the kind of church we ought to be. What might it mean to be a church where people regularly come face to face with death? How can we present the gospel in a way that changes hearts, but also ministers to people whose earthly lives will never return to “normal?”
One way in which pastors can deal with death is by talking about it openly in sermons and in conversation. I remember talking with a friend who has since passed away from cancer. He told me that many of the Christians he encountered didn’t want him to talk about the possibility of death. They wanted him to stay positive, focusing on things he could do to get better. He knew that he wouldn’t, but he felt the pressure to stay positive for the sake of others. When I talked frankly with him about the possibility of death, he seemed to breathe easier. In naming death, he allowed the grace of God to come to him even there.
We talk about illness and aging as “battles”; to die is to lose these battles. But staying alive is a battle we all lose eventually—some quickly, some slowly—so we might as well invite God’s presence into our dying. In the cross we understand our living and our dying. What better place to learn this than the church? Who better to initiate these conversations than pastors? Sure, I want my church to be dynamic, vibrant, growing; I pray to God for this. But I also want to cultivate a church where people can reckon with death, worshiping a savior who won his victory hanging from nails pinned to a wooden cross.
I’m uncomfortable with death. A staunch atheist who grew up Christian, I used to believe heaven or hell awaited me on the other side. It took years of anxiety attacks and therapy to come to terms with mortality, with there being nothing afterward, and I find peace by not thinking about it.
But tonight, the whole point is to think about it. The mortician warns us that at any moment, someone’s dead body could interrupt the show. Even mine.
Tim Lilyquist coolly gives the omen to the 25 or so seated at the Chapel of Angels Mortuary in Grass Valley. His death-positivity group Posy-Filled Pockets is just beginning its October presentation. The projector screen reads: “Death. Everyone’s doing it.”
It’s not like we’ll see a literal dead body (though if we hear commotion in the back, Lilyquist says it could be because of that). A fresh corpse would remind us that, even though we’re all here to laugh, learn and contemplate our unexistence, death strikes at any time. Tonight’s topic of discussion: the afterlife.
Lilyquist and founder Rachel James open the night by defining death positivity, which boils down to allowing death to be a part of everyday conversation, even if it’s scary.
“Death is something our culture is extremely weird about,” James told SN&R. “We don’t talk about it, we don’t plan for it, and anyone interested in it is considered morbid or weird when it is the only personal experience besides birth really that we all have.”
Four speakers gave talks that were funny, morbid and informative. One made a case that seances, mummies and telephones were ways humans tried to call up the dead. Another theorized that water is a parasite that infects and animates our otherwise lifeless bodies. She used The Stuff as a metaphor. In the ‘80s B-horror movie, railroad workers discover a tasty, yogurt-like substance growing out of the ground, which they package and sell like hotcakes. It turns out, it’s alive and mass-consumes its consumers. To add to the strangeness, she offered everyone water before she started. Sneaky!
In the modest church space, it felt somewhere between awkward youth group night, lo-fi Ted Talk and a giggling gathering of goths. But it’s more than that. At the front of the show, James told the crowd that the talks are meant to lure you into the workshops—the less peculiar part of the project—where they help people with more pragmatic issues related to death, including how to create a living will, who to call first when a loved one passes, and eco-alternatives to embalming. You know, stuff we should be planning for, but our culture’s aversion to death gets in the way.
Several recent studies confirm this. One in 2017 by caring.com showed that only four out of 10 Americans have a trust or living will. A 2013 survey by the Institute of Medicine showed that 90 percent of Americans thought it was important to have end-of-life discussions with their loved ones, but only 30 percent did. And a 2013 Pew Research Center report showed that 47 percent of Americans have experienced a death in their lives.
If listening to macabre presentations softens people enough to start planning for death in a responsible way, then James says she feels like she’s succeeded.
Though Posy-Filled Pockets started in 2016, it went on hiatus that year when James found out that her father was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. His death, and her similar diagnosis a year earlier, made much of what she advocates become crystal clear.
Death positivity is now a national movement. One of its most prominent figures is Caitlin Doughty, a mortician who wrote a morbidly funny memoir titled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and founded the death acceptance organization called Order of the Good Death, which shares death-positive content online and hosts similar gatherings to Posy-Filled Pockets.
James was one of the first people to join the Order. At the time, she was the editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, an offbeat travel site with her own personal focus often being on death-related destinations, like an abandoned brothel in Lassen County that is rumored to be haunted.
“I’ve always been drawn to [death], and I think for most of us who are in the death industry, it’s because we experienced death in early age or had an experience that left us with a lot of questions,” James says.
In 2015, James’ surprise breast cancer diagnosis led her to move back to
Grass Valley, her hometown. She put writing on hold and got a double mastectomy while in her second trimester with her now 3-year-old son.
She’s in remission now. The experience was shocking, but James says it showed her death wasn’t an abstract concept.
“I had never thought about a [living will], or anything like that,” James says. “How can I be so involved in this topic and still not have thought about the practicalities of it for myself? It kind of got me more serious about the topic.”
Later that year, she met Lilyquist. As a kid, he imagined himself as a homicide detective, but with no real interest in law enforcement and a dead-pan sense of humor, it transmuted into death industry work, which he’s happy doing. He says he enjoys the questions folks have regarding his career choice, like what happens in the cremation process.
“Once I started working at the mortuary, I saw how widespread it was that people considered death a taboo subject,” Lilyquist explains. “Especially the topic of grief. It definitely helped expose me to a greater variety of how it’s affecting people.”
James insisted that he co-host a death-themed monthly event that was distinctly Grass Valley. The initial Posy-Filled Pockets was a success, something James wasn’t sure about at first, since the Nevada County small town is no Los Angeles or San Francisco, where similar Death Salons are sometimes held at convention centers.
Lo-fi elements are part of its charm. Many of the speakers aren’t professionals, including Courtney Williams, who’s spoken twice at Posy-Filled Pockets. Once about how “fashion kills” (about people wearing dresses dyed with arsenic, for instance) and a second time about her ex-husband’s suicide.
“People are normally uncomfortable in mortuaries,” Williams says. “You think it’s probably an awkward conversation so maybe people won’t be raising their hands and laughing about stuff. People were really engaging with the information, which was surprising to me.”
In 2019, Posy-Filled Pockets have several themed events and workshops lined up, a new website, new speakers and a podcast in the works. Lilyquist and James are resurrecting their efforts to get people talking about death.
But after watching Posy-Filled Pocket’s presentation, I realized that death-positivity isn’t just about thinking about the end; It’s about cracking jokes, finding weird stories to spin and studying all the oddball edges of this scary seemingly straight-forward topic, and having fun with something we are told is in no ways fun.
It is pretty strange that we all eventually cease to exist one day, and why not celebrate that? My dog, who’s blissfully unaware of death, will never know the joy of laughing at her mortality.