In America, death is often regarded as the classic Monty Python routine about the Spanish Inquisition. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.”
Death surprises and scares us. Despite the fact that humans have a 100% mortality rate, we don’t expect to die. If you don’t expect to die, you’re unlikely to pre-plan a funeral. And that leads to problems like family discord, higher costs, meaningless rituals, and unnecessary stress added to grief.
Everyone is too young to die. Cancer and other diseases claim both young and old before their time. Patients look to modern medicine to prolong life by any means. Teenagers, who think they’re immortal, are devastated when a peer tragically dies in an auto accident, suicide, overdose, or some other mishap. Even the centenarians featured weekly on the Today Show will pass on some day.
We are mortal. Our bodies eventually stop working. Many religions teach that the soul, the spirit that resides within our bodies as long as we breathe, lives forever. So why the fear of death, and by extension, of funeral planning?
I think it’s because people don’t know what to do anymore when it comes to death. Robert Fulghum, who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, also wrote a lovely book called From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives. He described visiting the Greek island of Crete, and witnessing a Greek Orthodox funeral there.
He wrote, “The religious customs of the Greek Orthodox Church so permeate the lives of people that when someone dies, everyone knows what is to be done and how to participate in it. Life and death are so carefully interwoven that the rites of passage from one to another are seamless and unquestioned.”
I think we’ve lost that sense of what to do when there’s a death in the community. Our pluralistic society is a good thing in many ways, but when it comes to death, funerals and mourning, we’ve lost sight of traditions we may have once had. As Fulghum said, “For most of us, once we die, we are no longer in the care of our families and friends — strangers and institutions take over… Death is not in our school curriculum.”
Fulghum added, “Instead of a normal part of life, death is treated as an unexpected emergency, something that happens when the medical community fails. We always die ‘of something’ – as though if it weren’t for that disease or accident, we could have lived on. ‘Old age’ or ‘worn out’ or ‘life completed’ are concepts not found on death certificates or in obituaries. Death in our time means crisis.”