How the Absence of a Funeral Makes Death So Much Harder For the Living

Olivia Claire Friedman on Trying to Mourn Without Ritual

Rippingille, Edward Villiers; The Funeral Procession of William Canynge (c.1399-1474), to St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, 1474

By Olivia Clare Friedman

In January 2021, I lost one of my very favorite people. Frances was seventy years old when she died. Her death wasn’t COVID-related. I’d known her since I was twelve. She was in her thirties then. She was divorced—had been for years, her ex-husband lived in another state, I never met him. And she had no children. I was the closest thing to her child. I was her daughter, she said.

Because of the pandemic, her funeral was put off. I’d just turned in a draft of my novel Here Lies, set in a dystopian future in which the government cremates the bodies of the deceased and then keeps the ashes. A young woman named Alma tries to re-claim the ashes of her mother. All the while, Alma must find her way through grief and mourning.

Just after I’d finished the novel, Frances was gone. I found myself inside the cloud of grief, trying to sort through it and finding no answers. I became a mourner-in-waiting. For Frances, we had no funeral. Family members didn’t want to risk a gathering, and I knew, in pandemic times, this was the right approach. Frances wished to be cremated, and so she was. When the time is right, we’ll have a celebration of life, a friend of Frances’s said. Maybe something on a boat. We’ll scatter her ashes. Since then, we haven’t made plans.

My mourning feels suspended in time. Something inside me is holding its breath.

I found myself inside the cloud of grief, trying to sort through it and finding no answers.When I cried for Frances, I cried by myself. I didn’t want to upset my baby or my husband, so I shut the door to our bedroom and wept. But my husband understood. He lost his father to cancer ten years ago. He says he felt like his life broke in half. There was everything before his father’s death, and everything after.

Even though I’d closed the door, my baby could hear me crying. My husband said she asked for me, pointed to the door. Later, when I thought I was done crying, I’d go and do something else, like prepare for teaching or take care of laundry, and the grief would circle back, coming up all over again. That is the difficult part, when the grief returns without a warning. Grief that bubbles months later, years later—that’s the grief that lands a surprise blow.

My sadness has no order. It can be hard to see a trajectory, a way out, just as it has been hard to see a trajectory to the virus, a real sense of an ending. Of course, in writing, we try to find an arc, a shape to things. Right now, Frances’s death hasn’t had a shape. She was here, and she is gone, and there hasn’t been a funeral or ritual to mourn her.

In the middle of the pandemic, this was a heartshatteringly common story—deaths and no ritual to mourn. I wonder too about others who have felt relief. Not everyone wants a ritual for their grieving. Some won’t want to mourn at all, or they won’t want to go to a funeral, maybe because they were estranged from the deceased, or they don’t want to travel, or they’re too raw-hearted, or just ambivalent. There are those stories too.

My mourning feels suspended in time. Something inside me is holding its breath.The decision about what happens to our bodies after death is one of the most personal choices we make. Traditional burial, cremation, a green or natural burial…we choose. It’s a choice that might be rooted in family wishes, religious expectations, cultural traditions, personal preference, or all of these. Still, we choose. We can also not choose. Even the decision to choose—that decision is ours.

We already know that rituals of mourning are part of the heart of most cultures and traditions. I think about luxurious rituals, brimming with people and songs. I think of opulent funerals and horse-drawn carriages and the blasts of trumpets. I think of the Terracotta Army, a massive assembly of terracotta sculptures of thousands of soldiers, chariots, and horses buried in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. I think of the many sounds of New Orleans’ “funerals with music,” what were called jazz funerals, and second lines. I think of photos I’ve seen of massive funeral pyres. Of long processions of cars I’ve driven by on local roads, or images of funeral crowds overwhelming cathedrals, people pouring out of the doors.

There is also quiet mourning, silent mourning. During some periods in British culture, the length of mourning was expected to be nine months. Wearing all black, of course, visibly signaled your mourning state to everyone around you. Nine months—the period of gestation! And I think of Dickens’ Oliver Twist going to live with the undertaker. Oliver has “an expression of melancholy in his face,” the undertaker says, so he decides Oliver would make “a delightful mute,” staying silent and wearing all black, walking alongside the coffin at children’s funerals.

I think about solo mourning. Recently, I was discussing the subject of funeral rites with a friend, and he brought up Antigone. Antigone is the Greek mythological figure, the daughter of Oedipus, whose story concerns the burial of her brother. Because of the nature of her brother’s death, his burial is punishable by death, King Creon says. Even mourning him is punishable by death. But Antigone can’t abide this. She still buries her brother on her own.

The decision about what happens to our bodies after death is one of the most personal choices we make.Even with a ritual to mourn Frances, a part of me would always feel suspended, like I was holding something in. But a funeral, a celebration of life, can give mourning a location, its own spot on the map of grief.

Grieving can make you feel selfish and ridiculous and angsty and tangled. One loss summons previous loss. With Frances’ death, a string was pulled. My grief brought up past deaths. I thought of the deaths of my grandmothers, great and great-great, from years back. One died of cancer, another grandmother died of natural causes. All of the grieving gets knotted together.

Frances’s obituary was longer than other obituaries I’ve read. The act of reading it was a kind of ritual, because it captured her so well, the experience of knowing her. She loved animals close to the way she loved people. She was one of the most generous souls you ever met, and she was also very candid and keen. She lived with an illness almost all her life. She lost her parents at a young age. At the end of the obituary were the names of loved ones, family and friends, in Frances’s life. And seeing that, everyone’s names together, made me feel like we were all standing there, physically somehow, in print but side by side. In ink—and I do believe in the power of ink—we had a kind of ritual mourning for Frances.

I have my own rituals to mourn her. They’re simple, seemingly small, but to me they’re not small at all. I look out the window more than I used to. I look at the sky more than I used to. Are these rituals? Yes, I’ll call them that. And if I wanted to, I know I could have my own made-up ritual. I could light a candle and sing. I’m not sure what the words would be. My crying too is mourning, a ritual of mourning. Going outside in my yard by myself to cry or just to think alone—yes, I’m coming to understand, all this is a ritual too.

A funeral, a celebration of life, can give mourning a location, its own spot on the map of grief.In February, one month after Frances’s death, a small gray cat started coming to our door. This was significant—Frances had adopted many cats, maybe thirty-something. She stopped counting; she was embarrassed; her house was overrun. As soon as you walked in through her front door, you’d smell cat pee. She had cat beds in rows on top of her own bed. One time I saw a tomcat pee on an electric socket, and the whole thing started sparking.

So this little striped gray cat kept coming around our door, and of course my husband and I fed her, and of course she wouldn’t leave.

I waited to name her, because I knew when I did, that’d be it. And anyway, when I did start to think of names, it was torturous to find the right one. How about Lady Grey? “No, not that,” my British mother-in-law said. Other ideas were the names I’d wished I had when I was a kid—Fiona, Michelle, Serena. I thought about her face, her expression and eyes. I’d try out one name, and then I’d scratch that and decide to start over. We left her nameless for months. Then one day, I went all in. I finally decided on a name.

Annie is wild and scrappy. Her tail is three-quarters gone. She leaves mushed-up mice and lizards on our welcome mat, dead voles with pink claws in the air. These are her gifts. She’s been with us for months. We’re used to her now, but I’m not used to Frances gone, and sometimes I have to remind myself: She’s not here. I don’t know if we’ll gather with her ashes, but here comes the gray cat when I open the front door, ready for breakfast. Here she is—rolling in dirt, sniffing the air.

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