In 2017, Vermont was determined to be the least religious state in the nation. While that may be the case we know we are deeply spiritual. And we have seen what that means for the many Vermont weddings we’ve attended: outdoor ceremonies, a melting pot of rituals from various religions, internet certified officiants, but what does it mean for how we bury or say goodbye to our dead?
Historically people died at home, were laid out at home, had a funeral at church, and were buried in the cemetery next to their forebears and friends. Funeral services followed the standard of the particular religious denomination of the family. The church community wrapped around the family helping with planning and organization of the viewing, ceremony, and the following reception.
With the advent of embalming during the Civil War, it became more and more common for families to use funeral homes for dispensation of the body and for the wake before a church funeral was held. Those unaffiliated with a house of worship used the funeral home for a Memorial Service as well. In concert with those changes and the advent of modern medicine, death increasingly happened in hospitals, thus saying our goodbyes in the familiar surrounds of home was nearly completely taken out of the equation. And the public lost its familiarity with mortality, something that has ever widening effects on our cultural psyche.
But, as Bob Dylan so famously sang to those of us of Boomer age (and continues to sing to our children), “times, they are a-changin’…” As Bob portended, Boomers have never settled for the staid, the norm, nor the traditional, and they are making their mark on funeral rites and ceremonies. While most families still use a funeral home to take care of the body of their loved one (increasingly by cremation by the way) and have a viewing or calling hours, some are taking their dead home and holding home funerals back in those familiar surroundings. People are increasingly looking at “green” options for burial: the un-embalmed body laid out in wicker or bamboo caskets, green cemeteries with no marker but a geo-locator so you can visit where your loved one is resting among the pines or meadows, or a pod fill with the ashes from which a tree grows.
In conjunction with these green trends, many are creating their own ceremonies, often termed Celebrations of Life, where they both grieve and rejoice in the life lived, the relationships had, the challenges and the triumphs of the person they have lost. These happen in all kinds of venues from homes to community centers, from restaurants to mountain sides or lake shores. They may be led by family members, friends, or Celebrants who are trained in the art of creating ceremony. Food is in abundance, toasts are made, jokes are told, and tears are shed. Jazz riffs, classical requiems, the Grateful Dead, or Iggy Pop tunes may be heard. Floating lanterns may be launched (biodegradable only please), bonfires sat around, songs sung, and ashes scattered.
All of these ceremonial elements show that while Vermont may be the least religious state in the nation, it is not lacking in spirituality, creativity, nor in the need and desire to honor those we have lost in authentic and meaningful ways. The Celebration of Life invites all of these elements into the creation of ceremonies that acknowledge the pain of loss while encouraging remembrance, laughter, and the telling of stories that fully capture the life well-lived.