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They were here: How people use rituals to keep their dead alive

We have been told that we live in a death-denying world. In it, we are said to have sequestered or relegated death to the margins of our social and cultural lives. We have also been asked to believe that grief is an emotional experience, something that happens in stages. These stages end when we ‘let go’ of our dead, and move forward in life to create new attachments (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2005). However, this is simply not the case. We do not grieve in stages and we certainly do not live in a death-denying world. Death is all around us, it is on full public display for all to see and engage with. And millions do. We also do not look to banish our dead. In fact, we often do the exact opposite. In this sense, it can be argued that today the dead have never been so alive (Walter, 1999). Much like in the past, we continue to create, use and develop means to keep them alive, albeit in increasingly innovative ways (Myers, 2016). In many instances, this process begins with the funeral service.     

The first chapter in the new life of the dead

How do we keep our dead alive and have these methods changed over time? Within Ireland, funeral services mostly take place within a Catholic church. Secular funerals, including civil and humanist services, have increased in popularity, but their numbers remain quite low. Of the religious services, the rites themselves have become contested. What we are seeing is a call for increased personalisation in the funeral service, made manifest typically in requests by the bereaved to play a secular song at the service and the recitation of a personalised eulogy. Anecdotes about the conflict between the clergy and bereaved families at funeral services are commonplace throughout Ireland and wider Europe (Quartier, 2009).

But commemoration does not stop there. Throughout history, people have commemorated the dead in deed, word and song. This includes visiting graves, holding anniversary services and the performance of religious rituals. In both the UK and Ireland, we often find roadside memorials punctuating streets, lanes and highways. These are public commemorations of private loss. However, new innovative technologies have allowed people to publicly mourn in ways unavailable to their parents before them. Where once religious institutions acted as the primary gatekeepers between this world and the next, the media has begun to take over much of this function. It often happens from the top down. Corporations such as Google include commemorating segments in most of their annual Year in Search videos. Many will also be familiar with Facebook memorial pages, and more recently the development of a feature referred to as a legacy contact, which allows users to nominate a friend or family member to take ownership of their page after death. These are not the acts of a death-denying society.    

They were here

Perhaps the central goal for much of these practices relates to an almost innate wish to remind people that their loved ones lived at all. Funerals, months minds, and Facebook posts offer people the opportunity to keep their dead alive, if only for another moment before they are heard of no more. These rituals are plays, stories told by the bereaved, in an attempt to make the lives of their dead signify something.


References

Quartier, T. (2009). ‘Personal symbols in Roman Catholic funerals in the Netherlands’, Mortality, 14(2), pp.133-146.

Kübler-Ross, E & Kessler, D. (2005) On grief and grieving. Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York: Scribner.

Myers, K. (2016). Keeping the dead alive: Death and use of social media in contemporary Ireland. In S. Ryan (Eds.). Death and the Irish: A miscellany. Dublin: Wordwell Press.

Walter, T. (1999). On Bereavement: A Culture of Grief. Philadelphia: Open University Press.


This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Funeral Service Times

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