Amanda's View: Ritual
By Amanda Knox
At 29, I’m fortunate to have not yet lost very many loved ones. To date: two grandparents, a great aunt, a cousin, an uncle, and a family friend. Having just returned from the funeral of one of those grandparents, I realize that I still haven’t fully wrapped my mind around the end of a life. I feel confused, and conflicted when taking part in the funeral rites which are as much concerned with respecting the dead as with reconciling the living with the general idea of death itself. It makes me wonder about what my own death will mean to the people who love me, how I would prefer that manifest itself, and whether my preference even matters.
I understand parts of the ritual. The loss of an individual life tugs at the social network. Dispersed relatives and friends are drawn together to the empty space the person left behind, and it’s like the weight of our combined presence amplifies the afterimage of that person. We exchange memories and condolences. Well-wishers recognize the burden of the bereaved and offer assistance: a ride to the airport, a prepared dinner. My late grandmother’s jocular neighbor staged rubber turkeys wearing Seahawks scarves in the front yard, to cheer my widowed grandfather’s spirits.
I even understand the somewhat crude but necessary wrap-up. We sift through the stuff left behind by the deceased and everyone goes home with an artifact of sentimental value. A scarf. A cane. A necklace. The rest is dropped off at the nearest Goodwill.
Somehow, it’s the more traditional parts of the ritual that I have trouble digesting. The ceremony, the recital of religious tenets, the reception. These rites come across to me as impersonal, one-size-fits-all, automatic. I have trouble reconciling them with the unique individual whose death brought us together. I sit on my bench, avoid looking at the coffin, and wonder, Is this what I would want? Viewings are quite common in the U.S., but do most people actually cherish the idea of their body being embalmed and on display? And the eulogy! Why is it so often that the person summing up our loved one’s life is someone (usually religious) who didn’t actually know them? Why does the funeral parlor serve ready-made appetizer platters, chips, and macaroni salad on a line of fold-out tables in a generic cafeteria? It all seems very mechanical, mourning via conveyor belt, and it makes me squeamish.
And yet, when I deconstruct these traditions, I can’t dismiss their value. I recognize that some people find closure through seeing and saying goodbye to the physical presence of the person after they’ve passed on. The mourning process is already such a burden, it must be a relief to rely on a culturally-approved, time-tested institution to coordinate the endless series of small tasks that seem impossible to handle when someone close to you has died—the food, the drink, the seating, the programs, parking, accommodations, not to mention the burial. When the depth of your grief leaves you speechless, it helps to have a figure of authority, religious or otherwise, host a service that does justice to a loved one’s memory and addresses the congregation’s grief and existential anxiety. If these rites comfort the bereaved, does it matter whether they reflect the wishes of the dead? And if they do reflect the wishes of the dead, does it matter that they don’t comfort me?
My grandfather smiled throughout the reception, and kept saying, “Grandma would have liked this.” He’s right. And because of that, I’m glad everything went down just the way it did, even though I felt worse after the funeral, instead of better. I guess I’m just not the ideal funeral attendee. I’m distracted by existential questions and a desire to personalize tradition. I’m self-conscious about expressing emotions I’m struggling through. And deep down, I feel like closure is an illusion, that loss can’t be punctuated. I don’t have an easy answer for how to reconcile the desires of the dead with the needs of those left behind. I only hope that the response to my death will better resemble how I experience mourning: an unfolding, an opening, an invitation.