"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How We Grieve Today

I have made no secret of my dislike of the funeral industry in North America, nor of many Christian funerals today, nor of our culture's denial of death and unwillingness to allow people to grieve. Equally, I cheered at the emergence of new practices, which I discussed here in my interview with the Orthodox deacon Mark Barna and his wife Elizabeth about their excellent book A Christian Ending, which pastors and parishes should read and put into practice where possible.

Now along comes a new book with a wealth of fascinating detail: Candi Cann, Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century (University of Kentucky Press, 2014), 212pp. 

I began reading this book last fall in preparation for a lecture I've been asked to give at Baylor University at the end of February on Byzantine funeral liturgies. As someone who thinks that the Byzantine funeral liturgy as it is most often celebrated today remains a great gift to the grieving, I am nonetheless also aware of how odd it appears to many North Americans today. If Christians are to continue to preach a message of the risen Christ, then we have to understand how our contemporaries view death and grieving today, and Cann's book aids that process. It is wonderfully written--clear, crisp, cogent. The research and learning, which are considerable, are lightly worn. For someone who spends a good deal of time dealing with sociological research, Cann does not burden her reader with the academic jargon and ponderous pseudo-insights one often finds among academic writing in that discipline.

I confess that as I've made my way through the book, some of my dislike--bordering on snobbery--for the practices she describes began to melt away. I have been a staunch traditionalist when it comes to grieving, horrified by people who show up at funerals in anything other than black suits (for men). (I have lost track of the number of funerals—as well as weddings—I have attended where people show up at the church dressed as though they are en route to the nearest beach. It seems deplorably common today that more and more men know no intimate congress with a jacket and tie. To be too poor to own a suit is quite understandable; showing up as a slob too lazy to put one on is not.) 

Thus I was prepared to dislike some of the new things Cann documents: e.g., the rise of car decals after someone has died. I initially thought them rather impermanent and cheap, but she made the helpful analogy to other, earlier, "transitory" forms of mourning that involved public expressions: e.g., appearing in black, or wearing a black armband, for a year after a death. Given how much time we spend in our cars today, and given, as she says, how much "car culture" is imbued, especially in the United States, with a sense of personal identity, and given, moreover, how little time one is given today to formal periods of mourning, the use of car decals is an interesting way to let people know one remains in a state of mourning--and also to ensure people do not forget the deceased, either.

Other trends, again just in the last decade, include the rise of memorial tattoos. Here my snobbery has not abated: I think tattoos ugly and vulgar and bourgeois. But I now understand and quite accept why people get them as memorials. Cann recounts several moving interviews with tattoo "artists" who relay how they are turned into priests and therapists when working on a client who is having an image of a dead loved one engraved on their body. The very process of "inking" becomes therapeutic and almost spiritual-sacramental for some. Moreover, it is now even possible (though apparently of dubious legality) in some places for the tattoo ink to be admixed with the cremains of the dead person, so that the one being tattooed now bears in his or her body some part of the very flesh of the decedent!

Additional ways in which forms of grieving today are changing are further documented in the book. I will discuss those in the coming days. In the meantime, Candi Cann's Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century remains a fascinating work and I commend it to your interest.

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