Posted by: jaimemwsanders | February 20, 2021

Grief and Ritual

Yesterday we buried my father. Well, to be precise, we interred his cremains in a columbarium niche. Since the accident on January 6 that put my father in the Emergency Room and then the Trauma ICU and then the morgue, I have been living a chapter in my life entitled “my father’s death.” With the Burial Service yesterday, I feel I have moved on to another chapter. Yes, grief is still present and will return again and again in the years to come. But it is no longer consuming.

This is what ritual does for us. For as long as human beings have been human beings, we have buried our dead with communal rituals. Those rituals connect the individual human life with our community and our collective concepts of the eternal; whether by ancient Egyptian preparations of the deceased for an afterlife, or by modern Jewish ritual of mourners casting dirt on the coffin. In ritual, we individuals reeling from the death and loss of someone we love are surrounded by our “tribe,” and the life lost given meaning in the context of our shared worldview. The collective ritual act tells us, “your loss is real, but survivable.” It encapsulates our grief with meaning.

My father was 88 years old when he died. He was born into economic privilege but emotional scarcity in 1932; he attended (and graduated from) Reed College during McCarthyism; he witnessed Jim Crow laws and lunch counter sit-ins as a graduate student in North Carolina; he was a young husband and father trying to make a career in universities in the 1960’s; he was a participant in anti-war demonstrations in 1968 and the husband of an organizer for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign; he was the author of a social psychology textbook and a teacher and advisor to multiple generations of undergraduate and graduate students; he was one of the founding members of a new Urban Studies department at Portland State University, and a member of the search committee that called an extraordinary head for that department who put PSU on the world map; he had a child who died at 45 of cancer; he loved bicycling and sailing and gliding; he was an amateur actor . . . He had a full and interesting life, and any attempt to summarize it in an obituary or eulogy is going to distort and leave things out.

So I am grateful that in my church, one does not have to try to depict the fullness of the deceased’s life. We do not have an “open mic,” or a video, as part of the burial service. The time for those things, for the telling of stories and the laughing and crying, are at a wake or reception or family meal after the service. The burial service is for prayers for the deceased, whom we believe has entered into the fullness of God’s love, and for those who mourn. It is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, with some choices to be made by the family with the help of the priest.

We also have inherited from our parent church, the Church of England, the tradition of being open to burying anyone. Most people in England don’t actually attend their local church – but they are entitled, if they want, to be married and buried there. Today, our “standard” service assumes that the deceased was baptized as a Christian, but we also have an authorized service for “The Burial of One Who Does Not Profess the Christian Faith.”

With the secularization of society, one of the losses is of communal ritual. When my brother died, because he was not a member of any faith community, there was not a ready form to hold the grief of his many friends. We had to create something, and although that something was made beautiful and meaningful by the contributions of all his friends, many of whom were musicians, I wished that in our time of shock and grief we had had a community, a minister, an established ritual, to turn to. I am grateful that with my father’s death, my family was not alone. I am grateful that I did not have to find all the words, or rely on words of a minister who did not know David. I am grateful for the words of the Book of Common Prayer:

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him.

May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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