[This is written to participate in Forward Thinking, which is a blogging series about Values and the Making Thereof. Since, despite being a nihilist, I am basically the hugest fan of values, I've decided to participate! The current prompt is about developing ways of collective mourning.]
Like Fincke mentions in the prompt post, it’s very easy for people to say “everyone should mourn as they want!” That would be the easy default for me, too. Social norms smack of People Telling Me To Do Things, and my entire political philosophy basically boils down to this:
[Pissed off movieverse Loki saying "I do what I want Thor!" Original artist.]
Nevertheless, I think that rituals are important. For one thing, people who are mourning often don’t want to have the entire weight of planning the mourning process themselves. For another, a shared ritual offers a way of resolving conflicts like “Pat thinks the appropriate way to mourn is to get really really drunk” and “Robin thinks the appropriate way to mourn is tearing your hair out and covering yourself with dirt.” For a third, humans often find shared rituals beautiful and comforting, which is particularly important in a time of grief. The loss of ritual is actually one of the things I worry most about in a more secular society– possibly because I really like ritual myself.
So what are things we’d include in a secular funeral?
If I were designing it, the core of the ritual would be an opportunity for everyone to share their memories of the deceased. I’m not sure what to do about honesty: sharing only the good memories is dishonest and might rob people of the complexity of their feelings towards the deceased, while sharing bad memories might be rude to some of the others who mourn. One’s speech may be preplanned or improvised, short or long, and those of us who are afraid of public speaking are welcome to have someone else read.
In addition, there would be certain things that are repeated every funeral. My family has someone recite Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night at the end of each funeral; other people may have other suggestions. Probably most traditions would be unique to each subculture, group of friends or family, or belief system, because nothing is going to be meaningful to every group of people. Some people don’t even like Dylan Thomas! Bizarre, I know.
I think you’d need to incorporate things that remind you of the deceased. Favorite songs is an obvious one, as is the deceased’s favorite flowers or a slideshow of pictures. If the deceased knows that they’re going to die, they can plan this ahead of time with their loved ones. (Public announcement: when I go, you assholes better put a quarter under my tongue for Charon.)
Finally, I think you’d end with a dinner, potluck, drunken party, or some kind of social-group-appropriate celebration and opportunity for socializing. The end of the funeral has to reaffirm life and the fabric of the community united by grief.
I really like the idea in some religions of an annual remembrance of the deceased on the day of their death, although I’ve never had someone die who was close enough to me that I would feel obligated to. I might come back with further notes on that when I have more experience of death.