On unmarked deaths

By Kit Carlson

I saw it again yesterday. Side by side in the Lansing State Journal’s obituary section, three separate obituaries announced that no services were planned for the departed. One said this was in accordance with the deceased’s wishes. The others were silent on the reason.

Since I am in the “service industry,” as it were, I began to wonder about this. Is this a trend? Why would someone who left behind a long list of survivors — wife, children, grandchildren, cousins, neighbors, friends — request that those people not mark the passing in any formal way?

So I asked my friend Clark, the funeral director, what this might portend. He said that at his funeral home, they see this fairly often. Generally, he observed, it is someone from the university community, someone intellectual and secular and rational. But not always. Some families do it to save money, others simply to avoid the hassle. Clark said that he and his colleagues feel bad when people see the funeral directors as “pushing” the option of a memorial service, since there are so many less-expensive ways to honor someone: in a church, a fraternal lodge, even in someone’s home or in a park. But some people, he said, just want it all to be over with as quickly as possible. They think it will be less difficult for the survivors.

I understand that not everyone is religious. I understand that not everyone believes in some kind of life after death. But everyone is human, and this latest turn of events puzzles me, as a human being. Throughout human history, death has always been marked with ceremonies. Funeral pyres, mummification, burial mounds, pyramids, graveyards, even the practice of launching someone’s ashes into space — all of them recognize that death is a passage of sorts, even if one believes it is only from this life into a kind of nothingness. Death has always been seen as a sacred time to honor the person for who they were on this earth, and to send them on their way to whatever happens next.

I have experienced and celebrated at any number of memorial services in my almost half a century on this earth. I have been at services for a teen killed in an auto accident, for a Liberian woman dead of cancer at an early age, for a beloved matriarch of the church, for fellow clergy, for atheist cousins, for a homeless man, for a friend with AIDS, for both my parents. Each of those people held a different idea about life and about life after death. But all of them were honored and remembered in some public way. All of them were held up and cherished in the presence of their communities. The reality of their lives and the inevitability of their deaths were solemnized by their friends and family members.

I did not know any of the three people in the paper who were not going to be remembered at a public service. But even so, I felt cheated in a way, as I read that they would not be publicly honored. Their lives mattered enough to list in the newspaper. Their stories mattered enough to fill up several column inches. But apparently, they did not matter enough to gather the community to say farewell.

As a pastor, I understand the challenge and difficulty of saying farewell when someone has died. But as a pastor, I have also found that the process of planning that farewell service, of walking through it, of public remembrance, of public declaration of whatever hope we might hold for the future, of prayer and mourning in the presence of our loved ones and the presence of God, actually makes it easier for the survivors. It pours balm on the wounds. It offers a chance to bear witness to that person’s life, loves and works. They were here, and now they are gone. But the fact that they were here matters, matters enough that we all get together to observe the passing.

There was an awkward memorial service I conducted once. The woman who died had been an Episcopalian, but had not attended church for years. Her adult children were a mix of the completely secular and the evangelical. No one knew quite what to do with the Prayer Book liturgy. No one quite knew what to say when I offered them a chance to speak about their mother and grandmother. Finally, one of the daughters asked if a granddaughter could play the piano. “Begin the Beguine” was her grandmother’s favorite song, and the girl had learned it years ago to play for her now-dead grandmother.

There in that nearly-empty church, the young woman got up and went to the piano. We sat in silence as Cole Porter’s tune soared up into the rafters, played with perfection, played with all the love that girl could muster.

We knew the moment she ended that it had been the most necessary thing. A service rendered in the service of the dead, and in service of the living.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., where she blogs at Saints Alive!

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  1. Heidi Shott

    Thanks, Kit. I find it a puzzling trend as well. Just last evening we were talking with an agnostic friend about the otherness that surrounds a death and how similar, in some ways, it is to a birth. There’s the same human need to recount the story to those who weren’t there. It’s almost Old Testament-like: “And when they arrived at that place they reiterated the Covenant.”

    When my father, who wasn’t a churchgoer, died eight years ago, we held a simple, short service at the family farm: favorite poems were recited, stories were told, a young grandson played “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the trumpet. But what helped me the most was when, in the days following, I went through all the family photos, scanned some from every decade of his life and built a memorial website for him. Probably only a few dozen people ever saw it, but the act of creating it and revisiting it over the next few years was a balm to the sore spot of his passing.

  2. I fear this is one reflection of the atomization of our culture and sense of personhood. I speak all too often with those who will die and know it. Too often they insist they “don’t want a fuss,” and/or “don’t want to bother people,” including family. It is perhaps the saddest statement that we view our lives as valuable in proportion to productivity, present and future, and not in proportion to our relations with and impacts on others.

    And families are all too eager to comply. Some certainly imagine they can “fast forward” past their grief. But more often, I think, they don’t view their own lives any differently from the loved ones they lose. They don’t know how to honor and value relationships because they have long been surrounded by a culture that focuses on utility instead.

    If there is value on our focus on “radical welcome” or “inclusion” beyond the immediate issues of polity and politics within the church, it is in this. We can teach and we can model and we can proclaim that the God who so seriously wanted relationship with us that he came to us as one of us, wants us to value all of our relationships, not as means, but as ends in themselves.

    Marshall Scott

  3. Gerry

    I don’t understand this phenomenon but it is becoming increasingly common.

    When my father’s sister died at 87 two years ago she left instructions for no requiem, no church service recognizing that many of her nieces, nephews, etc. were not regular churchgoers and would be baffled by the BCP.

    Her trustee and her Church family decided they could not honor her wishes completely and arranged for a full gravesdie service using the 1928 Service (her favorite). It was lovely and attended by old friends and my wife and I and our 12 year old daughter, bringing closure for many.

    Her parish also scheduled a Memorial Service for the Autumn to reognize her four decades of service to the Parish and community.

    Gerry Hough

  4. One of the saddest things I’ve done was to receive the ashes of a former parishioner whose daughter handed them over to me in the parking lot one morning while shushing me so that her 10 year old grandson sitting in the car wouldn’t know what she was doing. I buried the ashes in our memorial garden with prayers, but it filled me with sadness and wondering that her daughter wanted no part of it.

  5. Kris Lewis

    I should add that months later, we found this woman’s burial plan, filed years and years ago. I’ll never know if the daughter knew about the plan, nor do I know anything about their relationship, but it is still sad.

  6. Patty Mueller

    I think it’s a bit of a logical leap to assume that because there was no service, the death went unmarked. And I think it’s even more of a disservice to family members to assume that because they didn’t provide the type of fanfare that so many have come to expect as typical that they didn’t honor or respect their loved ones.

    I am an introverted person. I don’t prefer a lot of fanfare in my life. I don’t like big, flashy events. When my sister died many years ago, the entire funeral process was excruciating for me. To have to put on a good face for the hoards of people who came out to pay their respects when all I wanted to do was go home in private and cry was almost more than I could bear. I didn’t find the funeral aspects helpful. It was an obligation that I bore for the sake of my parents and for the sake of appearances.

    I have told my husband that should I die before him, first of all I’m dead. The process is for him. He is to do what he needs for himself. But if he feels the need to honor me, the best way for him to honor me in death is to honor me the way he has honored me in life, by offering the type of memorial that would befit the person I am. I hope he will be more concerned with what will comfort and help him and less concerned with what other people think he ought to find comforting or what ought to honor me. And what would be in keeping with the way I have lived is to remember me privately, with only the closest people in my and his life.

    Anyway, I just wanted to offer another perspective

  7. When people who are dying tell me they don’t want a service I tell them it is not for them – they will be dead. (maybe not that bluntly, however). For those who are stuck with the wishes of a person who told them no service but they want something – we try to figure out something that will honor their need to gather and mourn and still be respectful to the dead person. But if I err it is on the side of the survivors. The others can take it up with me if we meet up in some afterlife.

  8. Donald Schell


    You hit a nerve with this one. Good work! As it happens I was thinking yesterday about other things disappearing from our culture and what difference they make to church. Family meal is one. Music-making is another. And touch. It was the last one that got me thinking about it. A Spaniard who volunteers at one of our church camps was amazed and appalled at the (very good) camp’s insurance driven rules about touch. In his culture and family (as in much of the world) greetings always include affectionate, respectful touch – in Spain a light hug and kiss on both cheeks. Visiting Africa, I’ve seen the custom of handshaking (both hands) which will stop a meeting of any kind to include a late-comer greeting everyone. We seem to be in a time when our culture is rejecting nearly universal human rituals. Those rituals are the building blocks of sacramental community. So I worry about it two ways – can we actually do church without these building blocks (in other words, how immedidately counter-cultural do we have to be to engage Gospel community in the shaping of persons in Christ?). And what kind of people will we be and what kind of culture will we have (even apart from the question of church) if we turn all art into a consumer product rather than something we make together (no song), we choose not to mark passages (no birth rituals, no marriages, no funerals), and, for fear of abuse or trespass, we try to live our lives wholly ‘out of touch’ from other human beings.

    Patty Mueller’s concerns for an introvert are important and distinct from this concern. I’m an introvert and know that ritual and sacrament CAN be designed and led in ways that are wildly and inappropriately invasive. But I think the reason these pieces of human behavior – touch, eating together, and shared marking of passages, probably should add gesture and movement – have been universal is that they can mark circumstances of terrible isoltion and loneliness, and, when blessed or ritualized can bridge loneliness and make communion.

  9. Kit,

    A great piece. And timely. I am personally fond of reminding people that memorial services are not for the dead, but for the living!

    There seems to me lingering pain in the community when a family declines to have a public memorial of some kind.

  10. Patty Mueller

    Donald, I found your comments on community very insightful and interesting. I wonder, though, whether those things you describe as building blocks of community might in other situations more rightly be considered outcomes of community. Eating and touch can all help build community, that is true. At the same time, however, I must already feel some sense of community in order to be comfortable sharing a meal and touch. Without the relationship, the meal and the touch can easily become meaningless gestures. It’s the community that supplies the meaning to the gesture for me; not the gesture supplying the meaning for the community.

    Which makes me think of the biggest weakness I see in the church today. For all of its stress on community, in many ways and for many people it is not really. It is either a shell of a community or a faux community which provides all of the motions but none of the meaning. And in some cases, it can even end up being a manipulative community, where the language of closeness and vulnerability is used even though it is not safe.

    In my experience, too many churches have the trappings of community, with all of the public rites that go along with it. But underneath it is either shallow or even completely meaningless. And my experience in situations like that is that the largest community that never scratches the surface can be the most lonely and isolating place to be.

    It’s like the most beautiful present under the tree at Christmas. You can’t wait to open it because you know it must be wonderful. You admire it for weeks. Then when it is finally time, you tear into the beautiful package only to discover it’s empty inside. Afterwards, you might try to recreate it. You can painstakingly repackage it so that it looks just the same as before. It returns to its original beauty. But after that, it is never really the same. Because now you know at the end of the day all it is is an empty box.

    To me that’s what the ritual of community without the experience of community becomes -an empty box.

  11. George Clifford

    Not holding a service to commemorate a death communicates several messages to me. First, hope in life after death is on the wane. Second, a growing number of people no longer identify with any religion, so why would they want to have a religious service in the absence of belief? Third, religious expectations and norms are losing their power in our society, so people feel less obligated to conform to those norms. Cultural expectations often seemed the driving force behind many of the funerals and memorial services that I conducted as a military chaplain. Fourth, people who identify themselves as an integral member of a community (something that Robert Putnam observes is diminishing in his book, Bowling Alone) may find other communities (e.g., family, a sports team, work, etc.) a more important than any religious organization. In these cases, as some have noted, informal commemorations and story telling may replace formal religious services. Fifth, many years of military ministry have taught me that people increasingly distrust organized religion, often perceiving organized religion as unimportant for spirituality and life. Why would these alienated people turn to a religious group to commemorate the death of a loved one? Finally, I suspect that much of the comfort anyone derives from a religious service commemorating the end of life is a function of having been part of that organized religion for years. The Episcopal Church’s failure to function on its core mission of helping people develop a meaningful relationship with God fuels additional people drifting away from our ministries.

  12. Kit,

    Thank you for this posting, and for the thoughtful comments. I think that we, “the living” are really missing out on many of the blessings of having services for “the dead.” The Anglican practice of ars moriendi (arts of dying) would lead us to see the riches of remembering that death is always with us, but that this is not the last word, is really a gift to us, if we are able to recapture it!

    Kit’s observation about the growing general lack of these observances seems to go beyond only the Episcopal Church. However, I am challenged by George Clifford’s take that:

    “The Episcopal Church’s failure to function on its core mission of helping people develop a meaning relationship with God fuels additional people drifting away from our ministries.”

    Originally, I wanted to quibble with his observation, but perhaps he is onto something – we clearly can do so much better to help people develop a relationship with God!!

    Thanks for this thoughtful post and these helpful responses,



  13. Donald Schell

    Patty, thank you for your careful reflection on what builds community and what is the fruit or result of community.

    Funerals (and weddings) are powerful examples of how ritual can be empty and disconnected from the people gathered or, done in a different spirit, it can forge strangers into community.

    I’ve been thinking about what you said here:

    “Eating and touch can all help build community, that is true. At the same time, however, I must already feel some sense of community in order to be comfortable sharing a meal and touch. Without the relationship, the meal and the touch can easily become meaningless gestures. It’s the community that supplies the meaning to the gesture for me; not the gesture supplying the meaning for the community,” and the simplest answer is hospitality, beginning with the divine hospitality Jesus expresses in welcoming all to feast with him (in his meals that included Pharisees and notorious sinners).

    You’re certainly describing something we both recognize when you observe it doesn’t always work, but I still do think the primordial gestures, done with openness and care, bind welcoming group and stranger and even stranger to stranger.

    I often remember and quote words I heard from John Westerhoff just as he was coming into the Episcopal church. Speaking from an anthropological perspective that has powerful consequences for liturgy and ritual-making, he said, ‘We don’t think ourselves into ways of acting; we act ourselves into ways of thinking.’ That’s what I mean by building blocks and that’s what so many church communities have learned from the startling power not just of Sunday liturgy, but the hard or joyful liturgies of funerals and weddings.

    Again thanks. I think we’re pointing at something we both recognize and emphasizing different faces or aspects of it.



  14. Interestingly enough- the Episcopal Church does more funerals than it has members dying. Not sure what that means in terms of what George Clifford says, though.

  15. Kit Carlson

    Just to clarify, I was remarking on the lack of any kind of service of remembrance, religious or otherwise. There are many ways and places to honor the dead. These announcements made clear that there were none, not even private family observances.

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