Death and Ritual in Mormonism
I recently watched a fascinating Ted Talk by Kelli Swayze entitled, “Life that Doesn’t End with Death.” She talks about her husband’s home culture in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, and how, in the Torajan culture, physical cessation of life is not the same as death. Rather than quickly burying or cremating a body after death, the dead bodies of their loved ones are preserved, placed in their ancestral home, and symbolically fed and cared for. They’re treated as continuing members of the family, even being included in pictures and family events, up until the time when the family can marshal the resources to have a burial ceremony with the entire community (which sometimes doesn’t happen until years after the person has physically died). To quote Kelli Swazey, “Torajans socially recognize and culturally express what many of us feel to be true despite the widespread acceptance of the biomedical definition of death, and that is that our relationships with other humans, their impact on our social reality, doesn’t cease with the termination of the physical processes of the body, that there’s a period of transition as the relationship between the living and the dead is transformed but not ended.”
I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. My dad died a couple of months ago, and as I’ve been processing the experience, I’ve been particularly grateful for the rituals that Mormons have surrounding death. Family members gathered from across the country. We had both a viewing at the funeral home and a funeral at the church. Several members of my family and my parents’ ward helped dress my dad in his temple clothes prior to burial. We had a family prayer immediately preceding the funeral before closing his coffin for the final time. And, in one of my favorite rituals, the Relief Society inundated us with food, both before and after the funeral service. People were bringing by meals and snacks and casseroles to put in the freezer to eat a later date when cooking would just feel too overwhelming. In a particularly touching gesture, one member of my parents’ ward headed up a collection of toys, coloring books, games, and snacks for my dad’s grandchildren (including my children) to enjoy during the often long (and, to kids, super boring) hours of the whole affair. We buried my dad in a cemetery near other deceased relatives, and had people say a few words of comfort and recall some memories before dedicating the grave and lowering his coffin into it.
It was so comforting to have rituals that felt familiar during this time of grief and despair. I knew what to expect, and I felt surrounded by love and comfort (and food) (seriously, there was so much food). It felt like a social affair and in some ways, it validated my grief at the loss of my dad’s life to see so many people show up to communally mourn. In some ways, having so many people be present with us made my tremendous grief feel appropriate: yes, this man was important and his life was worth celebrating and his loss was worth grieving.
Since then, though, I’ve felt a yearning for rituals surrounding mourning. The entire death/burial process felt like a blur – the whole death-to-burial period took less than ten days. And after that, we were left to privately mourn. The flowers sent by well-wishers wilted. The family members and friends returned home. Life just kept moving on, but I felt like the warm blanket that ritual had provided before was removed, and I was left to grieve in ways that felt uncertain and vulnerable. How am I supposed to do this?? Am I crying too much? Too little? How much should I talk about him? Does it make others uncomfortable when I mention it? How do I go about integrating this tremendous loss into my life?
I think this is why Swazey’s Ted Talk profoundly moved me. I don’t know that I necessarily want to go the route of the Torajans and have my dad’s preserved body hanging out in my living room, but I do wish that we had better rituals surrounding the transition period (from relating to the deceased as a person who’s living to relating to the deceased as a person who’s an ancestor) that the Torajans honor. Even though my dad was on hospice at the end of his life, and death was expected, it felt so sudden to go from him being an active and involved person in my life to being dead. I admit craving some sort of action or ritual that I could perform to help me sort out my relationship with him once he had passed away. My dad was a lifelong member of the church and completed all of his temple ordinances while he was alive, but I admit longing for a temple ordinance that I could perform on his behalf to somehow cement our relationship to one another, even if that was already ceremonially completed when my parents were sealed and I was born in the covenant.
So I’m left to create my own rituals of grief, as many in Western cultures are left to do. For his funeral, we put together a slideshow of pictures from throughout his life, and I look at them when I want to feel connected. On his birthday, I’ll probably make my dad’s favorite foods and watch his favorite movie. I’m sure I’ll mark the anniversary of his death in some way. But after watching Swayze’s Ted Talk, I’m giving myself a little bit more latitude in grieving this particular transition period from relating to my dad as a living being towards relating to him as an ancestor.
What do you think about our rituals in Mormonism surrounding death and grieving? Do you have any particular rituals surrounding grief or loss that have been helpful to you?