- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - For much of his 30-year career as a Baptist minister, Doug Manning once believed it was his job to keep mourners’ emotions in check.

“If I got through a funeral and people didn’t cry, I thought I’d done a good job,” said the former Baptist minister. After all, he’d grown up in a mid-century culture with a “horrid fear of any public demonstration of grief.”

That changed for him in the 1970s when he tried to calm a devastated mother who had suddenly lost her 18-month-old child.

“Don’t take my grief away from me. I deserve it, and I’m going to have it,” she told him.

“That woman changed my life,” said Mr. Manning. “I realized I didn’t know anything about grief, but it made sense to me if somebody was hurt, they ought to have a right to grieve.”

He eventually left the ministry, focused on writing about grief and created an Oklahoma City-based institute that trains people to become funeral celebrants - conducting customized memorials that often diverge widely from traditional religious services.

But even the religious have joined in a seismic revolution of Americans taking ownership of their public grieving.

In some religious traditions, the traditional funeral liturgy has held firm, but even many church funerals would have been little recognized by the Pastor Mannings of yore.

There are elaborate video tributes and samples of the favorite music of the deceased. There are open-mike times for anyone to offer a eulogy, which some find cringe-inducing but others welcome.

The reverent and the playful can be blended, said the Rev. Dawn Lynn Check, pastor of United Methodist churches in McKeesport and Dravosburg.

“Everybody grieves differently, so a worship service, a celebration of life, needs to be customized,” said Rev. Check. Among the most healing funerals she’s conducted include one where everyone wore baseball caps similar to those that had always adorned the head of the deceased and another in which the church ladies distributed hot dogs in tribute to the departed’s favorite food.

Changes in the funeral rituals represent only a portion of the vast revolution over the past half-century in how Americans publicly grieve their dead and commit their bodies to elements.

With the rise in cremations - increasingly accepted in many Christian churches, but still a marker of the growing shift away from traditional religion - memorial services are now often conducted without the body being present.

And public mourning isn’t limited to the wake, funeral and burial.

Memorial vigils and spontaneous shrines now routinely arise at the scenes of violent and other untimely deaths. People pour out their grief on social media and bear lasting witness to their losses on their very own skin.

That’s why Joseph Ginser of Arlington last year had tattoos of his mother inscribed on his left arm and of his father on his right arm.

“They took care of you when you were little and then as they got older, we started taking care of them,” he said. “It’s just a reminder of what they did for you.”

America’s turn toward public grief was gradual but marked by definite cultural milestones.

In 1963, people widely admired Jacqueline Kennedy’s stoicism after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In hindsight, “I’d have given everything if she had broken down, crumpled to the floor and cried before the world,” Manning said.

When he saw the effusion of grief after Princess Diana’s death in 1997, he said, “We’ve come a long way.”

In between, the installation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the 1980s elicited an outpouring of gifts left at the site, from cigarettes to letters to toys. Such became the norm for public memorials after everything from 9/11 to individual accidents.

“When JFK was killed, this didn’t happen, but when his son died (in a 1999 plane crash), it did happen,” said Jack Santino, director of the Center for Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and editor of the book, “Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death.”

At a time when often people die in institutions and their bodies are prepared and interred by professionals, Santino sees new rituals as “a public reaction to the denial of death.”

“It seems to me people are reclaiming their right to grieve as they so choose.”

And all of these trends bear on the most central grieving ritual of all - the funeral.

While nontraditional memorial services are more common in socially liberal regions such as the Pacific Northwest, changes are evident everywhere.

“Western Pennsylvania is more traditional,” said Roland Criswell of Coston Funeral Homes in East Liberty and the North Side. But “you’re starting to see services where people have no church connection (saying), ‘We don’t want a priest or minister preaching.’”

He added: “The traditional liturgy is being squeezed out because there’s so much more time being spent on the other things. Now you have videos, you have performances. You might have a granddaughter and she does mime, and that’s how she wants to do a tribute.”

In Protestant churches, where funeral traditions vary widely, some have accommodated changing tastes more than others. In Catholic churches, however, the funeral liturgy is more fixed.

The Catholic Church tries to balance the personal and universal in its funeral rubrics - for example, prescribing a limited selection of hymns and scriptures, but having the family choose from among them, said the Rev. David Bonnar of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Mt. Lebanon.

“The family is telling the story of their deceased,” said Father Bonnar. “We as a church are telling the story of our faith, that after suffering and death there is the resurrection.”

There are other points, such as the after-funeral meal, when someone can perform “Danny Boy” or recite the deceased’s greatest golfing moments, said Father Bonnar.

Most Catholics, he said, understand such distinctions.

But while most Catholic funerals involve a full Mass, some take place outside the church, particularly in a religiously mixed or indifferent family. A Funeral Liturgy Outside Mass can take place at a funeral home, but it lacks the rich symbolic texture of the Mass with its incense, holy water and the presentation of the Easter candle.

“I would say the trend is people are turning more toward the Funeral Liturgy Outside Mass,” said the Rev. James Gretz, director of worship for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and pastor of All Saints Church in Etna. “My guess is even though the deceased is a regularly practicing Catholic, that may not necessarily be true of the family.

Pastors try to incorporate stories of the deceased in their homilies - but one reason why the church limits eulogies by family and friends at Masses is that some people don’t let go of the microphone. “In one of my assignments there was a gentleman going on and on,” delaying a second funeral scheduled after that one, said Father Gretz.

Jewish grieving rituals are facing changes of their own, said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland. They continue to have ancient prayers such as the mourner’s kaddish. But whereas traditionally only a rabbi delivered the eulogy, increasingly family members now want to speak as well.

“In our age, where we live with an expectation of self-expression and do-it-yourself experiences, it’s appropriate that Judaism reflect these new mores,” he said.

With an influx of immigrants, Pittsburgh is also seeing a growing number of funerals taking place under various Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim rituals.

But perhaps the biggest change is taking place among those who attach little or no importance to religion.

More than a quarter of Americans don’t expect to have a religious funeral, according to a 2008 survey by researchers at Trinity College of Hartford, Conn.

In 2015, 67 percent of adults 40 and over said it was important to have a religious component in a loved one’s funeral - down from 79 percent in 2012, according to online surveys commissioned by the National Funeral Directors Association.

More than a fifth of all American adults, and a third of young adults, now claim no religious affiliation, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

“The Gen-Xers are getting ready to bury us. They have no language, no commonality for what a religious funeral would look like,” said Glenda Stansbury, Manning’s daughter and dean of the Oklahoma City-based In-Sight Institute, which trains funeral celebrants to conduct services tailored to the story of the deceased and the grief of the survivors. Lay people, clergy persons and funeral directors have taken such courses.

The mainstreaming of this trend was evident one morning last year at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in East Liberty, where students turned a small auditorium into a ceremonial hall where they practiced funeral celebrations.

The fictionalized memorials included:

.A biker funeral, where mourners in bandannas and leather jackets raised shots of Jack Daniels and played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

.A mishmash of sunflowers, New Age crystals, incense and a recording of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way,” the mid-70s prom anthem for the deceased and her husband.

.A video tribute to a young woman who had taken her life, which included a public-service announcement on suicide awareness.

It’s “definitely not your father’s funeral service,” said Barry Lease, a local funeral director who taught the course. “We practice these because that’s where it seems our industry is going.”

One student, Ericka McKissick, said that she’s worked in both nursing and funeral homes and gained a sense of the fragility of life, and the need to grieve properly.

“I know a lot of people have had bad experiences with funerals,” she added. “I don’t want that to happen to somebody else. … It’s very rewarding to help a family going through a hard time.”

Some, however, fear that much is lost when funeral tradition is replaced.

“One of the values of ritual is that you don’t have to make all the choices,” said the Rev. Thomas Long, author of the 2009 book, “Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral,” and professor emeritus of preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

He’s not defending the sterile 20th century funeral productions but rather the centuries-old tradition of symbolically accompanying the dead on their final journey to heaven.

Mourners, he said, “get to walk through a path in the forest that is older than you are, wiser than you are.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/22n6CHY

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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