When I told my father I’d be writing about the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, he nodded with a clever smile, as if he was about to let me in on an exclusive piece of information.
“We do that too, you know,” he said. “We” being Dominicans.
As it turns out, Jews aren’t the only group that practices consecutive days of prayer and mourning after a death.
Catholics in many Latin American countries, prominently including Mexico and the Dominican Republic, practice los nueve días or novenario — nine days of mourning, named for nove, the Latin word for nine. It’s a practice in many ways almost identical to that of shiva — the Hebrew word for seven — the Jewish custom of mourning a death communally for seven days.
And like many who follow the traditions of shiva, many who practice novenario have plenty of opinions about how to observe the custom correctly.
My father, for one, holds deep resentments toward those who take los nueve días as an opportunity to party. He would not describe himself as spiritual or religious in any way, but he believes the dead should be respected. And if you show up to a novenario for fun and festivities, in his opinion, then you’d better have just stayed home.
Sharon Rose Goldtzvik, who wrote about shiva for the Forward this year, shared a similar reflection from her mother on sitting shiva. “We are not there for the food. We are not there to catch up with our friends. We are there for a specific purpose: to comfort the mourners,” she wrote.
That last part, my father said, is, in his experience, lost on some.
As Jews do, Catholic Latinos start the mourning process the moment the dead are buried. But when someone is buried varies between the two religions.
Jewish law holds that the dead should be buried no more than 24 hours after death, although today, the strictness with which that mandate is observed varies by denomination. So a shiva might and often does begin shortly after death. But because the Catholic church prefers that the deceased’s body be present for the funeral mass, their burial may take days.
For the nine days that follow that burial, things look very similar to shiva.
Family and loved ones gather at the deceased’s home to offer support, both spiritual and material. The long hours are spent remembering the dead, praying, sharing stories and lamenting the loss.
If the mourners are more well off, you show up empty-handed, bringing only emotional support. If the family has little money to spend on refreshments, everyone pitches in.
Joaquina Chavez, who immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, to the United States as a teen in the late 1970s and now lives in Woodside, Queens, New York, says los nueve días is especially precious for Mexicans living away from their home country, since many families transport the deceased back to Mexico to be buried. The long period of communal mourning following that burial gives them an opportunity to come together with family members and friends whom they haven’t seen in years, sometimes decades.
“It’s also a time when people in my town forget about politics and issues and congregate and just pray for the family and the dead together,” she said, speaking in Spanish.
One key difference between shiva and los nueve días: While Jews often literally sit shiva — using low stools or pillows to symbolize feeling low in their grief and to be close to the departed — in a crucial part of the mourning ritual, Latino Catholics walk.
On the first day of mourning, a cross is erected next to an altar in the family home that the family will carry to the deceased’s final resting place on the last day, symbolizing the long journey the departed will take to divinity, and their family’s efforts to help get them there.
In the nine days leading up to that final passage, ofrendas, or offerings, are also placed at the base of that altar, to be cleared up when the period ends. These can be small gifts one wishes to send off with the deceased — rosaries in vivid colors, fresh flowers and fruit to brighten up an otherwise dreary occasion.
Finally, for those who practice novenario, the mourning period always ends in a feast. In the Dominican Republic, a cow is traditionally killed to feed a crowd. By this point, word has spread across the town, and all are welcome. Whether you knew the deceased or not, no one is turned away.
Despite my father’s caution against a festive novernario, he was moved to tears describing the scene of those in his small hometown between two mountains, many of whom had little money for food, sitting around a fire pit and eating together — lending strength in numbers to help a family grieve.
In Mexico, the feast is also part of the ritual, although it can look different. In her experience, Chavez said, at gatherings before the final feast, the table is laid with “tostados, tamales, tacos, something small to offer.” But on the last day, she said “we make their” — the departed’s — “favorite meal to share with everyone.” In these last crucial steps, the transfer from the hands of loved ones to the hands of God is marked.
In both mourning traditions, this time of communal mourning can give a grieving family the strength to go back to work and to their daily lives. By leaning on each other, they share the burden of loss so it is not too heavy on any one person, they believe, leaving both the soul of the deceased and the spirit of the living intact.
In sum, it’s a way to tell one another that they’re not alone.
If you aren’t someone who goes to church regularly, then you might be intimidated by the idea of going to a Christian burial. However, you shouldn’t be worried. While Christian burials certainly have their rituals and traditions, most burials are accessible to secular individuals.
Every religion has its versions of a burial service. For example, a burial at a Catholic church is going to focus less on the deceased person and more on religious readings. This means that there won’t be any eulogies by friends or family.
However, you shouldn’t let that put you off Christian burials entirely.
Many Christian funerals, such as Protestant ones, are more low-key and modest. They tend to focus more on the person who is being mourned.
So if you are interested in learning about Christian burials, then keep on reading and we will take you through everything you will want to know.
What Happens During a ChristianBurial Service
A Christian burial will usually take place about one week after the death takes place. A lot of Christian families will choose to hold a wake before the actual funeral.
Christian burials all have some religious aspects, regardless of the denomination that the person followed. These rituals tend to be laid out in programs that are handed out at the beginning of the service.
If you do not attend church regularly and you are not sure what you should be doing, then just follow along with what everyone else does.
The Wake Before the Service
Wakes tend to be held a few days ahead of a funeral. However, there are some instances where they take place on the same day.
In the case of wakes that take place on the same day, the wake will usually occur in the same church as the funeral.
A lot of wakes tend to happen at a funeral home.
Christian beliefs about burial traditions and death allow for embalming. So the casket might be open at a wake. This will depend on a lot of different factors, including the wishes of the deceased and the person’s family.
If you have never been to an open viewing before, then you might be a little unsettled by the experience. It can be hard to see the person you knew and is no longer alive.
You can still attend the wake even if you do not want to go up to the casket to say goodbye or to get a better look. Instead, you can simply focus on interacting with fellow mourners in the spirit of the event.
Typical Service Program
Mourners will take seats at the burial site or in the church. After everyone has settled down, a pallbearer will bring the coffin to the gravesite.
If the deceased was cremated, then someone will come with an urn of ashes.
After this happens, a lot of Christian services will include a hymn in their program. Someone who was closed to the deceased will then read a message of hope.
This could be a piece of secular text or a passage from the bible. Whatever the text is, it is meant to honor the deceased and give hope to the people who survived them. The minister might also read a message of hope.
After, there will be a section for remembering and reflecting. The church might choose to play music.
Families will sometimes ask people to lay a flower or other item on the casket.
These kinds of burial rituals are meant to create a sense of connection to the deceased. After this reflection, another hymn is going to play to encourage everyone to go back to their seats.
The ceremony will end with everyone saying goodbye. The minister might also ask you to bow your heads while another piece of music plays. This tends to be the most emotional segment of the event.
Christian Burials and Post-Funeral Practices
Every religion has traditions around burials and cremations. Christian denominations aren’t any different. Christian beliefs about death will inform the burial rituals and other practices.
Cremation and Burial Customs
In a Christian burial, the body of the deceased person is usually interred in a ground that’s consecrated. Cremation used to be forbidden to Christians because it was believed that it interfered with resurrection.
However, those rules have relaxed over time. For Catholic people, cremated remains are still buried. Other Christian denominations will allow for ashes not to be interred. However, some have rules against scattering ashes.
The proper funeral attire in the United States is all black. You should dress formally with men wearing dark suits and women wearing conservative dresses. Funerals in other cultures may dress differently.
The Importance of Knowing What Happens at a Christian Burial
Hopefully, after reading the above article, you now have a better understanding of what happens at a Christian burial. As we can see, while a lot might take place at a Christian burial, you really only have to participate as much as you feel comfortable with.
In the end, it is simply about respecting the traditions and mourning the deceased. If you do that, then you shouldn’t have any issues.
Are you looking for other helpful and interesting articles? If so, then check out the rest of our site today for more!
Seven years ago, Seattle’s Michael Hebb launched Death Over Dinner through the University of Washington.
“With the very simple, but kind of ambitious idea to get people to talk about this taboo topic of end of life, of death, of our mortality,” Hebb said. “It scaled quite significantly; there have been more than one million death dinners since we launched seven years ago. That has been all word of mouth. People having powerful experiences, hosting their own dinners, and then sharing it with others. It’s become a bit of an international phenomenon.”
Based on that success, Hebb just launched a website called EOL.community in partnership with wellness brand RoundGlass.
“Its longer name is the End of Life Collective,” he said. “What we learned with Death Over Dinner is that people want to have this conversation, they don’t want to be in an insurance office or talking to an attorney or an oncologist. They want to be among family and friends. Once they’ve talked about their wishes, and their fears, and their goals, they want to do something. The resources for getting prepared to create an end of life plan were very thin and very scattered. So EOL was designed to be that one central place where you can get prepared and find providers and community and meet experts, et cetera.”
The website is free and offers everything from guidance on making a will and an advanced care directive to any other resource you would need to plan for your own death or to deal with a loved one’s passing.
“Whether that is a legal provider or insurance provider, or a palliative care provider if you’re at that point, we’ve made it very simple for the user,” Hebb said. “So you can find a grief therapist, an end of life doula, you can decide what you want to have happen to your body. Do you want to turn into a tree? Do you want to turn into a diamond? All of these things are now in one place, which has never happened before.”
There’s a “Death FAQ” page on the website, and each question has a tag, labeling it as “religion,” “philosophical,” “grief,” “legal,” or “terminal illness.” There are answers to hundreds of questions like, “What is an end of life doula?,” “How can I be less afraid of dying?,” and “What happens if I don’t have a will when I die?”
I have always assumed that end-of-life planning was for older people, or people with children, but Hebb says all adults should get prepared.
“I think we live in really interesting times. Before COVID, it was primarily people getting prepared as they were closer to their last chapter, or those of us on the fringe who are like, ‘Everybody should get prepared!,’” he said. “There’s a lot of terrible things that have come out of COVID, but one thing that I think is very positive is it now just seems sensible and rational for every average person to just have an end of life plan. It’s very clear that we don’t know. A death can happen in our family or our close circle of friends.”
Hebb started Death Over Dinner to remove the stigma of talking about death and to get families talking about this tough, uncomfortable topic. He says having the conversation and doing the actual planning is not as dark as you may think it is.
“It does make people feel more calm to have a simple plan. It does make people feel more anchored and centered,” he said. “It really is a great way to clarify what your priorities are, what matters most.”
Is it too much to ask people to follow through on previously expressed wishes for assisted death? An expert report suggests it may well be.
When Canada legalized medically assisted death in 2016, the legislation excluded a trio of particularly difficult circumstances, committing to studying them in detail over the following two years. Those reports—on advance requests, mature minors and cases where a mental disorder is the sole diagnosis—were authored by three panels of eminent experts from a variety of disciplines, and in spite of the resolutely neutral and delicate language in the documents, they make for deeply compelling reading.
Of the three complex circumstances, it is advance requests—which would allow someone to set out terms for their medically assisted death, to be acted on at a future point when they no longer have decision-making capacity because of dementia, for example—that have drawn the greatest interest and agitation for change.
The working groups behind the reports were not asked for recommendations, but rather to provide detailed information on how other countries have grappled with these issues, what a modified Canadian law would need to take into account and how fields like ethics, philosophy, health care and sociology might help us puzzle through these issues.
And while they explicitly take no position on what the government should do, a close reading of the evidence the expert panel gathered makes it virtually impossible to imagine that advance requests for Canadians could exist and be acted upon.
That is not because the will isn’t there; many people with dementia or other illnesses that will eventually consume their cognitive capacity profoundly desire some sense of deliverance and control of their ending, for reasons that are easy to understand.
It is not because requiring help with every task of daily living, or being unable to communicate one’s thoughts or conjure up the names of loved ones is not a real form of suffering; for many people, that is just as intolerable as the spectre of a physically painful death.
And putting advance requests into practice doesn’t seem prohibitive because people who want them would be unsure about where to draw their line; indeed, that threshold is glaringly obvious for those to whom it matters most, and robust documentation and communication with health care providers and family members could provide much-needed clarity.
Rather, the reason it seems virtually impossible that Canada could have—and, crucially, use—advance requests is because it is simply too heavy a burden for those tasked with deciding when to follow through on the previously expressed wishes of the person before them, once that person can no longer meaningfully speak up for themselves.
“Evidence from international perspectives suggests there may be marked differences between stated opinion on hypothetical scenarios and actual practice,” the report notes. In other words, while people generally understand why others want advance requests and broadly support their availability, almost no one can bring themselves to act on them.
“It’s to be expected that these will be heavy decisions to be made, and I’m not sure that we would want them to be light, either,” says Jennifer Gibson, chair of the working group that examined advance requests for medical assistance in dying (MAID), and director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics.
Gibson’s group and the two other panels that examined MAID for mature minors and for people with a mental illness were chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps and convened by the Council of Canadian Academies, a non-profit organization that “supports independent, science-based, authoritative expert assessments to inform public policy development.”
What is striking in reading the report on advance requests is how profound and deeply human it is, and how quickly the debate becomes almost dizzyingly existential—much more so even than the issue of assisted death in general. “There’s this human experience that we’re all sharing. We’re all in that together—that we are mortal, that we will die, that we will lose loved ones in our lifetime,” Gibson says. “That unavoidable vulnerability sort of encapsulates a lot of these policy and clinical and legal discussions that are unfolding.”
The report delves into concepts like the meaning of personal autonomy; how we care for those we love by shouldering the responsibility of making decisions when they no longer can; the concept of suffering and who defines it; how we weigh the interests of the patient against what their doctor and family are asked to handle; and which safeguards might help reassure those gathered at the bedside who have to make a decision.
“We can think about it as burden, but it’s not just about burden—it’s also about care….there is no question that burden is part of what comes with uncertainty. These are excruciating decisions that someone has to make on behalf of someone who is no longer decisionally capable,” says Benjamin Berger, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and a member of the working group. “But a way of thinking about the burden is also, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”
And a deeply conceptual sense of the self is central to the report: if in the present, you decide on and record a series of conditions under which you would no longer want to be alive, and you later become incapacitated, are your present and future selves the same person given how profoundly you’ve changed? If, once you are incapacitated, you appear perfectly content or even outright resistant to the MAID procedure you once requested, which version of you and which set of wishes and desires takes precedence, and why?
“Under what conditions might we expect that somebody would so radically lose those core compass points, if they lost capacity to make certain types of decisions, that they would become an entirely new person?” Gibson asks. “It is an existential question.”
And the report puzzles at length over this: can you really know from your present vantage point what your future self will want, how you might suffer or find joy in whatever your life looks like over the next horizon?
Research demonstrates that we are not very good at estimating what our quality of life would be if we fell ill or had some form of disability. This phenomenon, known as “the disability paradox,” is “pervasive,” the report notes. “The underestimation of quality of life by able-bodied or healthy people, rather than its overestimation by those living with a disability or chronic illness, drives the disability paradox,” the expert panel notes.
But again, in the debate over advance requests, this circles back to a deep concept of self: even if you are completely content once you are incapacitated, how much does that matter if your past, competent self loathed the notion of spending years in a long-term care facility needing help with every daily activity?
“Simply pointing to the idea that autonomy is respected and autonomy is important fails to wholly solve the most difficult issues in this field,” says Berger. “The question everybody is trying to ask is, understanding that autonomy is a core issue, what is the right method of ensuring that we respect autonomy?”
But for all of these sprawling legal, philosophical and ethical conundrums, it is when the report explores the experience of other jurisdictions with more experience practicing MAID or more liberal laws than Canada’s that the true difficulty in putting advance requests into practice for people with dementia becomes obvious.
Just four countries—Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—allow advance requests for euthanasia in some form. However, “nearly all” of the information we have about advance requests in practice comes from the Netherlands, the report notes, because of “lack of implementation experience” in Colombia and Luxembourg, and very little detailed data available from Belgium.
The 2002 Dutch law that formally permitted the practice of euthanasia that had been going on for decades allowed for written advance requests for anyone aged 16 and older, in which they must clearly lay out what they consider unbearable suffering and when they would want euthanasia performed. Those would apply when people could no longer express their wishes and would have “the same status as an oral request made by a person with capacity,” the expert panel reports.
But while the annual reports from RTE, the regional review committees that govern euthanasia in the Netherlands, do not report the number of deaths due to advance requests, they do show that between 2002 and 2017, “all or most” of the patients who received euthanasia due to suffering from dementia were in the early stages of the disease and still had capacity to consent.
A study of 434 Dutch physicians between 2007 and 2008 found that while 110 had treated a patient with dementia who had an advance request, only three doctors had performed euthanasia in such a case (one doctor helped three people to die); all five of those patients too were “deemed competent and able to communicate their wishes.” The paper concluded that because doctors could not communicate with the patients otherwise, “Advance directives for euthanasia are never adhered to in the Netherlands in the case of people with advanced dementia, and their role in advance care planning and end-of-life care of people with advanced dementia is limited.”
Indeed, in 2017, a group of more than 460 Dutch geriatricians, psychiatrists and euthanasia specialists co-signed a public statement committing to never “provide a deadly injection to a person with advanced dementia on the basis of an advance request.”
And while family members of people with dementia support the idea of MAID if their loved one had an advance request, when it comes to acting on that, the majority—63 per cent in one study and 73 per cent in another—asked a doctor not to follow the request and actually provide euthanasia, but instead to simply forego life-sustaining treatment. “Some of the reasons given by relatives were that they were not ready for euthanasia, they did not feel the patient was suffering, and they could not ask for euthanasia when their loved one still had enjoyable moments,” the report explains.
Other Dutch studies show distinct contours in opinions on advance requests in cases of advanced dementia; the general public and family members of people with dementia view it more permissively than nurses and doctors, and doctors are most restrictive of all. “The authors of these studies hypothesized that this could be due to the different responsibilities of each group,” the working group wrote. “Physicians actually have to carry out a patient’s request, and when a patient cannot consent, this act comes with a heavy emotional burden.”
Here in Canada, the federal government has said it has no plans to alter the law to permit advance requests, even in the face of intense interest and pressure around the issue in a particular context a few months ago. In November, Audrey Parker, a vivacious Halifax woman with Stage 4 breast cancer, died by MAID two months earlier than she wanted to, because she feared cancer’s incursion into her brain might render her unable to provide final consent for the procedure if she waited. Parker spent her final months as the highly visible and compelling face of people like her, who are approved for MAID but forced to seek it earlier than they want to—or reduce badly needed pain medications—for fear they will lose the lucidity required to consent.
When it comes to concerns about determining when a patient with an advance request is ready for MAID, how clear their conditions are and whether they may have changed their mind if they can no longer communicate, the report suggest that cases like Parker’s would be the simplest and least controversial in which to permit advance requests. “These issues would likely not arise if a person wrote a request after they were already approved for MAID,” the working group notes. “In this case, they would be able to confirm their current desire for MAID themselves, and may even choose a date for the procedure.”
But when it comes to dementia—the condition which seems to inspire the strongest public desire for advance requests, and for which the disease trajectory is longer and more uncertain—the situation is much more difficult.
It is rarely useful to frame a public policy debate in terms of factions of winners and losers. But with the notion of advance requests for people with dementia, it is difficult to avoid the sense that in order for one group to get what it very understandably wants—a sense of control and escape from an existence that is at least as intolerable to some people as physical suffering—another group must shoulder a different sort of crushing burden—namely, the medical practitioners tasked with actually performing MAID and the family members or substitute decision makers who would have some role in sanctioning the procedure based on their loved one’s recorded wishes.
But Gibson argues that the solution to a heavy burden is not to make it light, but rather to ask what supports and measures would be required to bear it if such a thing were available in Canada. “And some members of the panel were really doubtful that anything would be sufficient to bridge those uncertainties, whereas others on the panel said, ‘I think we’ve got some experience with this, I think we could,’” she says. “There’s not going to be some external adjudicator to tell us we got it right.”
And while there is something distinctly fraught in decisions about MAID, she points out that families all over the country contend every day with life-and-death medical treatment decisions behalf of the people they love.
“It’s part of the ways in which we express love and caring for our loved ones, is we care for them even when they’re unable to care for themselves,” Gibson says. “We ought not to be surprised that these decisions are burdensome. And at the same time, they’re burdensome precisely because of these human connections that we have.”
The immense weight of these choices, then, is the price of admission for the bonds we share, and for the meaning we assign to life itself.
When somebody dies in the Catholic tradition, people generally know what to do. There’s the saying of the Last Rites at a dying person’s bedside, the vigil for the deceased — also known as a wake — and, often, a formal Mass of Christian Burial.
In the Jewish tradition, there’s the practice of sitting shiva: the week-long mourning process during which the family of the deceased remains at home, and friends and relatives call on them to pay their respects.
In the Islamic tradition, the deceased’s body is ritually bathed and shrouded in white cloth before Muslims of the community gather to perform the Salat al-Janazah, the customary prayer for the dead.
But what happens when you die and you don’t follow any faith tradition?
When Iris Explosion — an entertainer and social worker who prefers to go by her stage name — was widowed unexpectedly at age 28, she and her friends had to create the memorial service for her husband, Jon, from scratch.
Explosion and her husband were not conventionally religious — she describes herself as a “lax Jew,” while her husband, a queer man interested in alchemy and other occult practices, often felt alienated from the born-again Christianity of his parents. The memorial service her friends created a few days after his death, she says, contained a blend of traditions and practices individual to Jon.
A Jewish friend recited the Mourners’ Kaddish. The group told stories — some reverential, some “bawdy” — that reflected all aspects of Jon’s personality. They played an orchestral rendition of the theme song to Legend of Zelda, Jon’s favorite video game. Friends from out of town dialed in on Skype to share their stores. Numerous friends gave Explosion rose quartz, a stone associated in some New Age and occult traditions with heart healing, as a gift.
The memorial service — as well as a second funeral service, which took place a few months later, and was similarly eclectic in style — focused on Jon’s personality and interests rather than being constrained by a specific set of traditions.
Explosion is just one person among the 24 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated. For the religious “nones,” the issue of what happens when you die is an open question in more ways than one. According to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the most recent year for which data is available, 29 percent of Americans do not anticipate having a religious funeral, for whatever reason, and given the steady increase in religious “nones” over the past decade, that number will likely only rise.
But what do secular funerals — or death rituals more broadly — look like? What can they provide that religious death rituals can’t? What are the challenges involved in putting them together?
And as secular funerals become increasingly individualistic, tailored to the preferences and needs of the deceased, rather than a given religious or spiritual tradition, what does that mean for the sense of community engendered by ritual?
Secular funerals are part of a wider “unbundling” of religion
It started with weddings.
Scholar and psychologist Philip Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life, suggested in a telephone interview that secular funerals are just the latest iteration of the secularization of major life stages overall.
Its genesis, he said, lies in the proliferation of secular weddings in America. In 2017, just 22 percent of American weddings took place in houses of worship, a nearly 20-point drop from 2009, according to data from the wedding website the Knot.
“The first thing we saw was zillions of people going online and registering with the Universal Life Church,” said Zuckerman, referring to an organization that virtually automatically ordains people over the Internet, “so they can perform their own weddings for friends and family, so they can still make it sacred but not under the auspices of religion.”
Different states have different laws about the extent to which Universal Life ordinations are legally valid for performing weddings. Funerals, however, have no such restrictions.
Zuckerman posits that among the people he’s interviewed for his book research, the desire to have a secular funeral isn’t just about not wanting to affirm the existence of a God or an afterlife that the deceased may or may not believe in. Rather, he says, it’s also about wanting to preserve a sense of the deceased’s individuality.
“They just don’t want fairy tales. They don’t want to be told, ‘So-and-so’s in a better place now,’ or, ‘So-and-so is now suckling the bosom of Jesus’ — they can find that talk annoying,” Zuckerman said. “We want to curate our own Facebook page. Why wouldn’t we want to curate our own funeral?”
More and more, Zuckerman said, he sees people choosing their own music and their own speeches that they want to be read after they die. “I think that is part of our growing individual and less of this care of tradition … more and more people want to feel the idiosyncrasies of the dead person and the specialness of the dead person.”
This attitude, he said, is particularly prevalent in the United States. “We all like to think in the United States that we’re special. Why wouldn’t we want our funerals to be special too?”
Certainly, for Iris Explosion, commemorating Jon’s life in a way that felt true to his personality and character was a priority. From sharing Jon’s favorite Spotify playlists with his friends to curate the music selection for the services to working in references to My Little Pony — a show Jon loved — Explosion and the couple’s friends created a memorial for Jon that fit his character.
By contrast, Explosion said, she declined to attend other memorial services, like one hosted by Jon’s family in his home state, that had a more Christian focus, instead circulating an email to attendees of that service asking them to donate to Planned Parenthood, which she felt better reflected her husband’s values.
Explosion’s experience dovetails with a phenomenon called religious “unbundling.” A term coined by Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thomas, who have covered how phenomena like CrossFit and Soulcycle function similarly to religions for their participants, “unbundling” refers to the way both the religiously unaffiliated and the religious alike are increasingly willing to pick and choose elements of spiritual traditions.
Someone might, for example, be a committed Christian but also practice Buddhist meditation or yoga, or be an atheist but attend Jewish family holidays and read tarot cards. In a pluralist landscape, in which people are used to gathering information and ideas from multiple sources (not least through the internet), a more individualized approach to religion and life rituals is all but inevitable.
As a culture, we still haven’t figured out what secular death rituals should look like
Even for those of traditional faiths, death is a phenomenon that defies easy answers. But for the religiously unaffiliated, processing and dealing with death and its aftermath can be an especially loaded task.
Brad Wolfe is trying to help them do that.
Wolfe is the founder of the week-long Reimagine End of Life festival. The singer-songwriter and author was inspired to work in the end-of-life space after watching a close college friend’s struggle with terminal cancer. The festival, which takes place in New York and San Francisco, partners with community centers and artists to curate a 300-strong series of events — from talks to workshops to performances to museum displays — dealing with the subject of death.
“Death is often the central coalescing element around which many religions are formed,” Wolfe told me in a phone interview. “As we’ve become more secular in some communities … there’s an increasing hunger for that space … to come together and explore this topic.”
The New York festival, which took place around Halloween, featured a range of explorations: a class on how to write your own obituary, doctors talking about dealing with their patients’ deaths, live musical performances exploring themes of loss and bereavement.
What connects each event is a sense of intentionally: that people are actively setting aside time and space to deal with a weighty topic.
Both Wolfe and Zuckerman identify similar elements of what that “coming together” looks like. Ideally, both say, it involves elements of ritual, community gathering, and a sense of meaning: How do we conceptualize a person’s death as part of a bigger picture?
Wolfe suggested that we might be better off looking at this “coming together” not as a nonreligious event but as an expansion of the definition of what religion means. At least two Reimagine events are, fundamentally, immersive theater performances. In one, participants are invited into a phone booth to have conversations they wish they’d had with somebody who has died.
In another, participants role-play members of a fictional bereavement support group. Speaking about these events, Wolfe argued that the lines between art, ritual, religion, and performance are deeply blurred.
“The boundaries between art and religion are more porous when it becomes a practice explored with intention,” he said. What matters is the sense of significance shared by participants: “Having a practice, a shared system, allows us to connect in ways that give us a sense of comfort and something we know we can turn to.”
The idea or combining artistic creation and end-of-life ritual is far from new to Janie Rakow, president of the International End of Life Doula Association. As a “death doula,” Rakow works in hospices, helping those facing the end of their lives develop rituals and practices around their death. While she works with patients from a wide variety of religious backgrounds through the hospice, she tailors her work and approach to the individual in question.
One of the most important parts of the end-of-life process, she says, is the act of creation. She helps her patients develop what she calls “legacy projects”: individual artistic works, from a memory box to audio letters.
“Everyone has a legacy,” Rakow says. “So [I ask myself] what kind of legacy project could we possibly create with this person to really leave behind a sense of who they are or were?”
Next, she asks patients to help plan their own death — where they would like to be? What music they would like to be listening to?
“There may be some ritual work done around that,” she says, even if it’s “as simple as surrounding their bed, holding hands, saying a prayer or saying poetry, reading something to them, [or] lighting a candle.”
The point is to help dying people take an active, creative role in the story they leave behind.
Often, Rakow says, these rituals are tailored to individual passions. She gives the example of one man she worked with, who was dying from ALS, a degenerative neurological condition that prevented him from being able to move. With his wife, Rakow created a series of guided visualizations for the man, who loved hiking, “so we would bring him with his eyes closed on the most detailed and specific hike that we could from the very beginning to hiking all the way through.”
She’d walk him through ”smelling the forest and feeling himself walking up the hills and hearing the birds chirping and looking over at the crystal clear lake. And the more descriptive we could get, we were able to bring him back into his body that he wasn’t able to use through his mind.”
Secular rituals present their own set of challenges
One of the most difficult parts of creating secular death rituals is compensating for the lack of built-in community, or built-in structure, that often accompanies more established religious traditions.
Zuckerman pointed out that the secular bereaved don’t necessarily have a clear road map, or community support, to help them deal with the pragmatic aftermath of a death.
“One of the biggest problems for secular culture [is that] you have to cobble together and make it yourself. If you want your kid to have a bar mitzvah, it’s all taken care of. You want your kid to go through confirmation class in the Episcopal Church? Boom, they’re enrolled. If you want to do a secular version of that? Good luck. You’re on your own. You have to figure it out, explain it to people, rent the space, find people, figure out how to write up your own program. … It’s a lot of effort.”
The lack of intentional secular communities, Zuckerman said, only intensifies this problem. “With religious communities,” he said, “not only is the structure of the funeral in place, but there are going to be people who are going to immediately sign up to cook dinner for your family for a month and they’re going to deliver food to your doorstep and they’re going to help you get your kids to school and they’re going to do a lot for you. And when you’re secular, you don’t have those kinds of resources.”
For some secular Americans, the idea of having a “chosen family” — a close-knit network of friends — helps fill in the gap. Just as Friendsgiving has become a phenomenon among urban millennials, friendship networks more broadly have become an increasingly vital part of social cohesion, replacing both extended family structures and traditional organized religious communities.
That was certainly the case for Explosion. She cites her friends’ involvement in making the service possible at a time when she didn’t feel capable of planning herself. “I needed camaraderie and community,” she said, and I feel like I had it.”
At the same time, she says, she had less of a blueprint for how to cope with the next stages of grief after about six months.
“People go back to their own lives,” she said. “And it was hard to feel that sense of community. Without a church or synagogue to bind us together, it maybe felt like it dissipated. People missed their friend and their co-worker. But for me, it’s like, I miss my husband who lived with me, and it was hard to feel that sense of community after time had passed.”
The next step forward might be intentional secular communities
Explosion’s story points to a wider tension in the world of secular funerals and the creation of secular culture more broadly. On the one hand, the benefits of the “unbundled” religious landscape, for many secular Americans, lie in the opportunity to create truly new, individualistic rituals and experiences. We have the opportunity to curate our identities and public personae event after death, creating experiences that feel unique to us.
On the other hand, what risks getting lost in the process is precisely that feeling of collective identity that demands subsuming our individuality in a wider whole. Religious rituals and language, from Catholic ceremonial liturgy to the Salat al-Janazah, may not feel fully and uniquely “us,” but they nevertheless define and orient a wider community and give us a sense of shared values.
The 19th-century sociologist Émile Durkheim saw religion primarily as a shared construction of identity; in his seminal 1912 work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he wrote, “The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social.”
As more and more Americans leave organized religion, the next question is whether, and how, many of them will gather together, and how an increasingly individualistic conception of identity can be reconciled with the real, human need for group belonging. As secular funerals and death rituals become the new standard, we may see some of these rituals become more group-centric.
For Explosion, for example, the process of grieving led her to an unexpected new ritual. During her husband’s life, she said, she often played a video game called Destiny with him, looking up the location of objects hidden in-game and giving him hints to find them. While she never particularly got into the game, she said, she enjoyed playing it with him. After his death, she started watching YouTube videos of people playing the game, or its sequel, to remember the time they’d shared. Then she decided to buy the game’s sequel to play it herself.
“I’ve been playing this game I wouldn’t have played if he hadn’t died. And it’s been meditative for me. Finding the little things, like doing these things we used to do, felt like a pilgrimage in a way,” she said.
Sometimes, Explosion communicates with other players in the game online. While she’s only told a few of them about her personal history with the game, she’s nevertheless found a community that can accompany her in a time of grief.
“When we do a big quest or a raid together, there’s always a moment for me of, you know, okay, he would have done this. He did this in the old game. Now it’s me kind of picking up this mantle.”
The secular funeral liturgies we see in the future may transition from being individualistic to being based on other nonreligious elements that bring a community together. They may involve the music of My Little Pony or the playing of video games.
Ultimately, they’ll represent two fundamental human needs. First, to make sense of a beloved’s death. And second — and just as importantly — to not do it alone.
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]t’s personal because I have just booked flights back to Switzerland to go to the funeral of my much loved uncle Albin. He died two days before Christmas, aged 82, gently and peacefully with his family around him. About six years ago his younger brother Otto also died peacefully with his family around him. The difference was that Albin died of old age and dementia, Otto died of a nasty aggressive brain tumour. Albin died ‘naturally’. Otto, being Swiss, was able to request and receive the help he needed to die in a dignified and pain-free peaceful way. This merciful intervention in no way changed the fact of his death, and even now the sorrow is hard to bear, but it did cut short the last bitter agonies of the manner of his dying.
It is professional because in the parish where I work there are a lot of funerals. Mostly the bereaved tell me of the immense kindness of all around; family and friends, doctors and nurses. They tell of the shock of sudden unexpected death and also the oblique conversations about the use of morphine. They also sometimes tell me of bad deaths. Deaths where there is no way of giving the dying person their final wish: ‘Please, dear God, please help me to die.’
Don’t tell me that the time of someone’s death is purely God’s business. That at the moment when all a human soul wants is for it to end, God stands at the end of the bed and says: ‘No my child, it is my will that you suffer just a few more days.’
That is pure fatalism and superstition. Even people who would use language such as ‘God has a plan for your life’ don’t actually mean that everything that happens to them from birth to death is controlled. Of course not. We rejoice in our free will, even in the knowledge that we risk misusing it. That’s part of the deal. Our conception is a risk. We may be born to loving parents, or our mother might have been kidnapped and raped. The will of God? Throughout our lives we make choices and many of them are life and death choices. To smoke or drink or over-eat. To enjoy extreme sports, to ride a motorbike. For all those things we choose and we also take responsibility.
When our lives are nearing the end there are now many societies where that degree of both choice and responsibility remains. That is not the case in the UK.
Just when you might think we need our freedom the most, the medical profession, by law, takes it away from us. Just when you might think that God would most honour the freedom he has given us, the Christian community takes it away from us.
I’m with Hans Küng. If the time comes, and it is necessary for me, I would find it a fulfilment of my life of faith to be able to say to God: ‘Loving Father, I thank you for the most wonderful gift of life. The burden of it is now too much for me to bear and so with every ounce of love and gratitude I can muster I give it back to you.’