Essay: Death Ritual Comparison

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Death Rituals

Death and dying are natural parts of life, just as conception, pregnancy, birth, and maturation. Yet, the cultural paradigms surround the issue of death and dying change considerably by culture, chronology, and even geographic location. Based on the last century or so in the United States, contemporary society has institutionalized, marketed, packaged, and managed the end of life. Death and dying have lost all semblances of spirituality and reverence, instead becoming a mind-numbing set of products to market and industries to support. Author and grief counselor Elisabeth Kubler-Ross similarly asks, "are we becoming less human or more human" in terms of how we treat the dying? (Kubler-Ross, 2005).

In primitive cultures, the process of death and dying was reverential. It was expected that, at some point, one's body would simply tire and one's soul ascend back to nature, or to a specific spiritual place depending on innate cultural beliefs. For most of history, recorded or otherwise, it appears that once the spark of humanity materialized in the proto-human brain, the idea of mortal awareness helped shape a certain reverence and respect for not only aged members of the group, but of the inevitability and process of death. Because societies were far more connected with the cycles of nature, death was seen as part of the continuum of life -- a journey in which the participant is honored as they reach the stage in which life ebbs. Preparing for death, honoring the individual, and then celebrating their life was a ritual in which the community could reflect on the process of death, and also reaffirm the force of life (Kellehear, 2007).

As humans congregated into urban areas, death was around them constantly; through pestilence, disease, starvation, and the inhumanity of humans toward each other, death became an everyday occurrence, almost numbing the individual towards the overall paradigm. Modern society, though, has become desensitized to death, "in great contrast…. In which death is viewed as taboo, discussion of it is regarded as morbid, and children are excluded" in the process of death rituals (Kubler-Ross, on Death and Dying, 1969, 140). Combined with a rather irrational fear and paranoia over a natural, inevitable event, humans seem more comfortable comprehending the death of thousands than the death of a single individual -- or are it that death in large numbers simply anesthetizes our cultural sensibilities? (Huttenback, 2007). Ironic, is it not, that in a century of such marvelous technological advances, science has solved many of the endemic killers of the past, only to have the dual realization that the 20th century was the most bloody and violent in recorded history and that our wisdom of end of life care has not kept pace with our technological expertise (20th Century Democide, 2001).

And how is it contemporary America treats its aged citizens and those who are ill and ready for death? Typically, "as a person with no right to an opinion" (Kubler-Ross, on Death and Dying, 141). In fact, we are more comfortable institutionalizing those who are dying, paying lip-service to their care, but really wishing their issues, their needs, and indeed the process, would simply disappear from our self-imposed sense of reality. Too, rather than allowing one to die with dignity, on their own terms, we legislate the morality of life and death decisions -- preferring that our elderly remain vegetative, on life-support, all dignity of personal decisions and private matters torn away, simply so we can justify that we did "everything possible to keep our loved one alive" (Messerli, 2007). What then, is the quality that makes us human? Philosophers have been asking this very question for thousands of years. Certainly, compassion and empathy must go to the top of the list, for how can a society consider itself civilized unless it truly shows compassion for all stages of life?

Personal Case Study -- I am a 50-year-old male, born in London and moved to Ireland when I was an infant, immigrated to the United States when I was but five. I was raised a strict Catholic. At my age I have seen both the process of death and the way death rituals are conducted within my family structure. For example, my father committed suicide when I was 10-years old, a gunshot after locking himself in the bathroom. I had five sisters; one just recently died by drowning due to an alcohol related incident. Our family was very strict about religion until my Father died, in the 1970s the Catholic Church was fairly rigid about the issue of suicide, and their lack of acceptance and tolerance rather pushed our family away from the Church. Of course, having been an altar boy most of my childhood life, I simply could not understand the juxtaposition of what I heard preached during Mass about unconditional love, God's acceptance, and the realities of death with the circumstances of my Father's demise. Although our Priest did allow for my Father to receive Mass and be buried, there was a whispered assent that he had been of sin when he died.

According to the strict interpretation of Catholicism, suicide is a grave or serious sin. The basic argument is that a person's life is the property of God, a gift to the world, and that anyone who would knowingly destroy life is to assert dominion and decision-making over God, which is a tragic loss of faith and hope. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2283 states, "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives" (Cathechism of the Catholic Church - Part 3 - Life in Christ, 2010).

The Traditions of Catholicism and Death- Every religion has its special rite of saying goodbye to the departed -- the funeral rite. A Catholic funeral refers specifically to the rites in the Roman Catholic Church, also referred to as the ecclesiastical funerals. The basic focus is to provide spiritual support for the deceased and honor their bodies, as well as to try to provide a measure of comfort and hope for the family and friends of the deceased. The specifics of the Catholic funeral are found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canons 1176-1185 (Code of Canon Law, n.d.)

Historically, that is Pre-Vatican II, the funeral Mass, also known as the Requiem Mass, was quite florid and complex. After the Second Vatican Council, though, a number of the rites that were traditionally associated with a funeral were provided with a simpler set of rites, in the vernacular of the specific Church, but still keeping with what the Vatican felt was the basic framework of the original text. Instead of emphasizing judgment, fear and despair in death, the new Mass now urged hope, faith, and a celebration of the resurrection (Bugnini, 1990, p. 773). Additionally, this attitude was reflected in the manner in which the priest dressed -- from black into white vestments; the Dies Irae is no longer used in every text; and the Mass consists of the reception of the body at the Church, liturgies of the word of God and Eucharist, and the final committal (Bokenkotter, 2005).

There are other parts of the process within the Church, dependent upon the wishes of the family, prominence of the deceased, and circumstances surrounding the passing. A well-known head of state, for example, may receive a different set of rituals than an individual, but the rites and ceremonial vestitudes are still available to all. These are, but not limited to: Viewing, Funeral Sermon and Prayer, Month's Mind, and Wake.

Funeral Sermon and Prayer -- the Funeral Sermon and Prayer, post Vatican II, is designed to provide spiritual comfort to those in attendance of the Mass. Typically, the deceased is celebrated by friends and family, as well as the Priest. The overview is to allow comfort to those in pain and sorrow, realizing the God has engulfed the dead into Heaven, and therefore everlasting life (Champlin, 1990).

Month's Mind -- Very historical and very traditional, the Month's Mind comes from Medieval England and is a service and perhaps a meal, held one month after the death of someone special. The idea was to bring people together after a period of mourning to celebrate the life and toast the memory of the loved one. The Church Service is still common in England and Ireland today, but has fallen off in other parts of the world (Vidmar, 2005).

Requiem Mass -- also known as the Missa pro-defunctis -- Mass for the deceased is a formal, liturgical service dating back to early Christianity. The term "requiem" is the Latin form of the noun "to rest" and focuses on the idea of Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine ("Grant them eternal rest, O Lord." Numerous musical compositions have been composed for the Requiem Mass, following a strict Roman Rite (Introit, Kyrie eleison,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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