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Monday, April 7, 2008

Death in America

We are a diverse nation with many different traditions, but by-and-large Americans tend to be influenced by this country’s Calvinist stoic roots when it comes to grief and saying goodbye to a loved one. Of course each person handles grief in a different way, but the stiff-upper lip attitude is something that I cannot identify with. Perhaps it is because of my personal make up of loving too deeply and caring too much that I cannot understand the desire of anyone to sweep the ashes under the rug as it were.

In the last nine months I have lost three family members of my parents’ generation, the most recent of which was this weekend and came rather unexpectedly. Each passing out of this life, my life, has been a blow to me—another of the grownups gone. This one was particularly special to me, my father’s little brother.

I have written extensively of my father and his older brother and quoted from my father’s memoir. Their little brother, younger by four and six years, was enough their junior to have not been a party to much of their hijinx or hunting or to have been at Pearl Harbor, although he did manage to get in to WWII toward the end and later Korea. My father wrote that his younger brother was left to find companions in the small animals on the farms they lived on and it was his opinion that this fact made him the tender hearted of my grandparents’ sons.

My mother, who loves to repeat stories until we can recite them with her, tells of my first encounter with Uncle Rex when I was not yet a toddler. She had brought me from Wichita, Kansas to Vancouver, Washington to meet both her and my father’s families. In her account of my first laying eyes on Uncle Rex I reached out for him, hung on his neck and would not let go. I do not remember this trip; just that I always, always loved him.

Whether it was because of his solitary musings as a child or because of his different war experience than that of his older brothers, the fact that my uncle had a heart of gold and was the gentlest of men is a fact acknowledged generally. As a child I longed to belong to him instead of my own father. My father was not mean or cruel, but was as emotionally distant as he claims in his memoir owing to his experience on December 7th. In addition, he was geographically distant a great deal of the time due to the nature of his work for the Boeing Company. I worshipped my father, but it was from afar. I envied Uncle Rex’s sons (who were sweet and would have made excellent brothers) having a loving daddy who came home every night.

Uncle Rex’s wife passed away last August. Her passing was not marked by funeral or memorial per her wishes. It seems that his wishes were the same. My question to you, reader, is for whom is a funeral or memorial service? I believe that those rituals are for the living and ought to bring some sort of closure, comfort, or release to the bereaved and acknowledge the passing of a life from this world. How do you honor the loss of a loved one? Are there traditions in your family (or a lack thereof) to remember members now gone? Do you think that we, as Americans, are less demonstrative in our grief and is that a good thing or bad?


JosephMcG said...

I really am the last one who should respond to this post... I have not yet gotten over my mother's passing... sometimes I think she died five years ago; other times I think she died ten or twelve years ago...
I let myself be in the situation of being the minister at her wedding... I had a dear friend do the homily; that was wise, but later that day I cried and cried and cried...
At the service, the music, the people, all helped so very much

When I die, I want friends to share in the wonderful gospel music that inspires me constantly, and to have time to be with each other...

Thanks, Stephanie, for sharing so much of yourself and for giving me another chance to become a more reflective human being

Stephanie Frieze said...

Joseph, I do not believe that anyone ever recovers from the loss of a loved one including a parent and you are very much one who should respond since you deal with the human spirit and condition daily.

I am grateful to my step-mother for having had a memorial service where everyone could share their grief and memories. Such rituals are for those of us left behind. Yes, we may believe that our loved ones have gone to a better place, but we are left alone and have a right to our grief and anger to be bereft of their company and counsel.

Kim Thompson said...


Wow. This is a powerful post. I wish there were things I could say or do to help with the hurt of your recent losses.

I think this post demonstrates two things. The first being storytelling and family lore. It's critical to the emotional, spiritual and historical survival of the family unit. We believe in this powerful entity in both sides of my family and the best gift we can give each other are our stories and to keep passing them down.

Second, you question memorial services or a gathering place for those of us to say goodbye. I am one of those people who do not want a funeral. I want friends and family to travel to spread my ashes (I am very specific on this) and I would love to have them go out to dinner, do something joyous, to weep if they need, and laugh of course.

My feeling? There is probably a strong reason for folk's last wishes. Some may think they hate funerals or think it's too sad, some may not want the fuss and/or expense, some may wish to have a different experience for their survivors.

I guess whatever the reason, our dearly departed give us the opportunity to create our own experience to say good bye, regardless of their plans.

I am still young. I haven't lost many family members, so I have much to learn. But I know what I need to do to grieve (fresh air, alone time).

I am eager to hear more discussion this.

With Love,

Stephanie Frieze said...

I think it is very well to have last wishes, but in the end it is for the comfort of the living that celebrations of lives are done. Perhaps you are right that in the end it is up to each person to mark the passing of a life from this world, but I believe there is value in honoring the lives of loved ones. Of course, it is important to honor them while they are still living.

Kim Thompson said...


I think you hit the nail on the head. Honor our loved ones and friends during LIFE. Good reminder, in fact, great reminder.



Elaine Williams said...

My husband wanted to be cremated and have his ashes shot up into our back field with a blackpowder rifle. My three boys knew their father's wishes, so we did this as he wanted, and it was for my boys, to help them find closure. elaine

Stephanie Frieze said...

I think anything, regardless of how nontraditional it is, is important for those who are left to grieve. Acknowledging grief and loss is important for health and healing.

Aura Mae said...

I have always found funerals to be oddly creepy, ridiculously expensive, and overwhelmingly morose. I understand the need to grieve, but I have always found it to be a very private matter. For me, warm wishes from others at an event are overwhelming and almost seem forced. But I am not a fan of large gatherings in general. Once I am gone, no one has to listen to me any longer, so I guess it hardly matters what I want.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Your observation about the cost of funerals is certainly true, Aura Mae, although perfectly lovely memorials can be done without huge expense. I think you reflect a general feeling regarding funerals/memorial services in this country. TAlthough there is real value in honoring the passing of a life,in general our society has moved toward making death as convenient/unobtrusive as possible.

Lorraine Hart said...

My sincere condolences on your family loss, my dear Stephanie.

I agree with you. In seeking to distance ourselves from death in this society, we've left ourselves bereft and bewildered...and more frightened than many cultures who keep their birthing and dying in the midst of their everday living.

I believe we should make our wishes we would like our "earthly vehicles" handled, after our passing and whether or not we would like religious services. That having been said, I would not presume to tell my loved ones they were not to have some sort of ceremony that eased their pain and allowed them their goodbye.

This was one of the tugs in my calling to minister to those who fall between the cracks of major religions. I facilitate "Spirit Release" ceremonies and they are, indeed, for the living. We "let go" the spirit of a loved one, wish them well on the journey they believed...or just back into the One-ness of All, the Creator Space between the atoms. To have that goodbye and that solace.

The first of these ceremonies came about when a friend of my daughter (they were eleven or twelve) committed suicide and the family held no service. My daughter was absolutely swirling in her grief and bewilderment, so I told her we would have our own. It is about focusing our intent on goodbye...and the amazing Love which gets to stay with us always, connecting through the veil.

I agree with you Kim, that some can have this ceremony all by themselves but, as you grow older and say goodbye more and more, your feelings may well change to want the community of friends and family involved. You already recognize the need by wanting your family to celebrate your life together, should anything happen to you.

My first husband used to say, "All you NEED is food, clothing, and shelter," but I disagree. We need each other, in the coming...and in the going.

Peace be with you.

Kim Thompson said...

Hi all:

This is good discussion--thanks Stephanie for moving forward with this post.

Lorraine, you are correct. I am young, and haven't experienced much loss. Yet. I take your wisdom and experience and tuck it away, because I will get there, too.

You know, I suspect, that the non-funeral folks had a bad experience in the past with funerals. I own that--I did. I lost my gentle grandfather, suddenly, tragically, and painfully at age 9.The funeral was very formal (not a style my grandpa owned) and our little family was stuffed in this "grieving room" that was hot and weird and we couldn't see anyone. When we finally got to emerge, I started to sob. I actually overheard some people say, "Why is that little girl crying so much? Poor thing--she'll get over it."

No and shame on them. It was the 70's and hey, just like all generations, sometimes folks just didn't get it when it came to kids.

I was pushed into going to the viewing prior to the weird funeral(not my parents fault--they thought it would help). I thought my grandpa looked like Dracula and weird and he wasn't wearing normal clothes (a suit which he disdained while alive).

So, to give a possible answer to Stephanie's original question on death in America, I think folks recognize in their heart of hearts that folks should have a process and gathering to mourn, remember, and love each other. I suspect though, for those of us short on experience, and what experience we did have was horrible, we don't want that for others.

Not sure if I am expressing myself well, but something to consider.



Stephanie Frieze said...

As usual, Lorraine has better identified my heart than I. I believe that everything everyone has written here is valid. And as usual my dear Ana hit the nail on the head when she said, "We need the opportunity to feel a part of the family."

Like Kim, I did not appreciate being stuffed into a family room at my grandmother's funeral and refused to view the body having been traumatized by being forced to with a grandfather, but my step-mother did a lovely job of having a memorial service for my father and the opportunity to let others pay their repects. It did my heart good to see the church overflowing and to know that so many cared enough to come.

Lorraine Hart said...

When I was twelve and my brother nineteen, his girlfriend was killed in a car crash...tragically, on a night they argued. It was my first wake/funeral experience and it frightened the hell out of me. For three days I watched my brother lose his mind, standing next to this coffin that held an embalmed doll, talking to her and stroking her hair. No adult stepped in responsibly; her mother went through electric shock treatments for grief and was never the same. My brother was never the same. This didn't seem to be the way to remember a girl's sparkling essence...the girl who let me play with her make-up and took me to see "To Sir, With Love."

It still doesn't seem right.

The fear came, for me, in the artifice...the embalming, make-up, clothing, claustrophobic boxes, and the roiling emotions only a half-inch under the surface of whispered, measured control. Then I found no words of comfort in the service.

Though I can only speak for myself, I know a lot of us who left traditional churches, stifling-sweet funeral homes, and graveside proclamations of sin...for gentler, open-air or at- home, loving goodbyes.

There's no one way that's right for everyone, I guess, and the best we can do as friends is to support each other, listening as to how, in the grieving process. Dying's a part of living...and living is a part of dying. Letting our wishes be known is a conversation worth having...two ways.

I do think it's really important, especially, to help children through. As our stories bear witness, they too are in shock and so often unseen on the periphery of the family scene.

Kim Thompson said...

Oh, Lorraine. I got misty reading this comment.

Stephanie: You do a great service by bringing this to discussion. My husband and I had a spirited discussion and it was really excellent. And important.

Stephanie Frieze said...

A beloved friend has recommended that I extend the garden I started when my father died to include my aunt & uncle so I have a place to go to remember them. I still would have liked an opportunity for the extended family to gather together and share stories of their lives, but creating the garden will be something enjoyable for me and hopefully benifical to the enviornment. I have an artistic son who has also done a little landscaping so I hope to have help.