“When words are inadequate, have a ritual.” — Anon.
“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.” — attributed to Sir William Gladstone
“When I die, I want my funeral to be a huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action…I want paparazzi and I want publicists making a scene! I want it to be Hollywood all the way. I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents…I want to be buried in a Valentino gown and I want Harry Winston to make me a toe tag. And I want a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyoncé’s” — Joan Rivers
As the baby boomers, those harbingers of cultural transformation, begin to pass the milestones of later life; it seems appropriate and indeed necessary to reflect upon what their funerals ought to look like. In this day and age, we find our funeral culture at odds and in disarray, as social change and warring points of view have dismantled the traditions of the past without presenting a consistent alternative approach. Survivors find themselves at sea without compass or chart when confronting funeral matters, which is in grave contrast to the simple and reliable mores of generations past.
A brit in the 1960s, one Jessica Mitford told the American public in her seminal work The American Way of Death, that funerals were so much phony hokum and film flam. Twenty-first century funeral directors would agree that the review and regulation of choice-limiting business practices from that era, has done an important public good. The dying and those who survive should have an array of options and price points available—this has been accomplished. But what of her cultural attacks? Mitford may have had the right to question and dismantle practices that artificially inflated costs and which exaggerated the efficacy of certain products and services, (just as it is appropriate for the FDA to limit the promises made by dietary supplement makers) but nevertheless, is it right for a woman from a different world, to now limit the choices of the dying in another way, through the ridicule she once heaped on more elaborate or creative funeral rites? She repudiated the pomp and circumstance of her own upbringing, but does that mean we must all pursue the pauper’s alternative? After all, the boomers were but children at the time of her book’s publication, haven’t they the right to question and possibly dismantle the constraints Mitford wrought, just as the boomers have done at every prior stage?
According to the oft quoted Gladstone attribution above (another brit, but from a different era), how we mark the ending of our lives gives measure to our entire society. And by this reckoning we may well have reached a sour ebb in a half century cultural battle over funeral rites.
This year will mark the point when cremation passes burial as the majority choice for disposition in America. In and of itself, this statistic does not enumerate cultural degradation. Peoples around the globe and for thousands of years have practiced variations of both cremation and burial, depending upon practical concerns and the particularities of religious observation.
However, the widespread methodologies of American cremation increasingly involve a fading and even active prohibition against participation which may well represent a decline in the “tender mercies” of our society.
Unlike cultural practices throughout the millennia, our approach to cremation has turned sterile, industrial, bereft of sentiment, communion and love. Where the simplest burial invites participation and invokes in the heart and mind a clear sense of passing, and the passage of life from a state with inner light, to a state without; current cremation practice tends to cut short participation or even refuse participation for efficiency’s sake. Perhaps we do not need to wail and eulogize over the mortal parts for days and days, but have the bodily remains lost so much meaning in our culture that we can be proud of packing father or mother, sister or child into an unmarked cardboard box (Mitford’s preference), their name replaced with a generic serial number, and have them unceremoniously shoved into an industrial furnace by a disinterested technician who took the job with no more than a few days training? Is it truly enough?
Joan Rivers, in her remarks quoted above, shakes the cultural ground with a brash and blaring “NO”, it is not enough to leave in an unobserved puff of smoke. Which is not to say everyone ought to exit this life with a celebrity gala. Joan is an entertainer, which means it is her role to present a vision of funerals larger than life and exaggerated for effect, so that we may see more clearly the contrasts and more easily engage with a broader vision of what can comprise funeral rites.
So, does it make any sense that we should allow a world changing generation such as the baby boom—which blasted out of the post WWII era, displacing Perry Como with The Beatles, and Bob Hope with Richard Pryor—to fade away to nothing in their ending times? I think not, the boomers’ raucous first act deserves an energetic finale. But then comes the question, where do we go from here?
For today I leave the question open and ask you the reader to provide a comment or two. In the months ahead you will find my own thoughts about how best to go “Out with (the) Boom(ers)!”
MemryLane is an outreach of MemryStone, makers of ceramic markers which survivors inscribe with a message and send through the cremation process with someone who has died. The MemryStones return intact as a personal form of identity confirmation and as a lasting touch-stone for memory. Purchases may be made through a rapidly growing network of affiliated funeral and cremation providers. For assistance finding an affiliated location, use the contact links on our website.