Elon Musk has said that the internet has become the nervous system of the world.
And he’s right. Your community is becoming less and less defined by your geographical position and more by your cyberspace connection. The globalization of your relational connections is upon us.
Pluralism is dead. Pluralism assumed that our communities had set characteristics that defined us from them, part of those characteristics being geographical in nature. Now, we live in fragmented globalization, where our only real unity is our humanity, and our dividing characteristics are less and less apparent.
So that a Muslim is Facebook friends with a Jew and a conservative retweets a liberal and I, a Pennsylvanian, am wrapped up in the tragedy of the Oklahoma Tornados.
In fact, on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook page, I posted this:
Within minutes, a number of people from the vicinity of Moore were commenting on how they had yet to hear from some of their family members. And then, it became real for me too. I was touching a people group that I barely knew through the internet, so that Oklahoma’s tragedy become mine.
My feelings – and everyone else’s feelings – were valid for the Moore community. And our support for Moore – both financial and physical – underscores our humanity. And yet, those feelings, a couple days removed from the tragedy are beginning to dissipate. In fact, unless you are directly connected to Moore, you may have already begun to forget about it.
Robert Dunbar believes that the human person / human brain only has the maximum capacity to understand /experientially know 150 people … everybody that we meet outside of those 150 will be relegated into a category and/or generalization that we’ve created from the milieu of the those 150. Outside those 150 is “the other.” Everyone outside of those 150, in some sense, aren’t human.
Dunbar’s hypothesis is now popularly known (thanks to “Cracked”) as “monkey sphere.” Here’s a bit from Cracked “Monkey Sphere” article
Those who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They’re sort of one-dimensional bit characters.
Remember the first time, as a kid, you met one of your school teachers outside the classroom? Maybe you saw old Miss Puckerson at Taco Bell eating refried beans through a straw, or saw your principal walking out of a dildo shop. Do you remember that surreal feeling you had when you saw these people actually had lives outside the classroom?
I mean, they’re not people. They’re teachers.
“So? What difference does all this make?”
Oh, not much. It’s just the one single reason society doesn’t work.
It’s like this: which would upset you more, your best friend dying, or a dozen kids across town getting killed because their bus collided with a truck hauling killer bees? Which would hit you harder, your Mom dying, or seeing on the news that 15,000 people died in an earthquake in Iran?
They’re all humans and they are all equally dead. But the closer to our Monkeysphere they are, the more it means to us. Just as your death won’t mean anything to the Chinese or, for that matter, hardly anyone else more than 100 feet or so from where you’re sitting right now.
“Why should I feel bad for them? I don’t even know those people!”
Exactly. This is so ingrained that to even suggest you should feel their deaths as deeply as that of your best friend sounds a little ridiculous. We are hard-wired to have a drastic double standard for the people inside our Monkey sphere versus the 99.999% of the world’s population who are on the outside
With monkeysphere in mind, I wonder if the world isn’t becoming like some funeral directors when it comes to tragedy. Funeral directors see tragedy on such a constant basis that we seem to be accustom to it. So much so that we can forget who we buried last week.
In fact, one of the most common questions I get from acquaintances is this: “How can you not become numb to all this?” And the truth is, we aren’t numb to a tragic death … it affects us … it always affects us. But, that tragic death only sits with us for a couple days and then we can, to one degree or another, move along. It isn’t to say we aren’t compassionate, this isn’t to say we aren’t dedicated; it’s to say that we serve you when YOU have lost YOUR loved one.
And we, who are locked into the global nervous system of a fragmented community become so accustom to our nerves being touched by tragedy all around the world that we too feel compassion and act on that compassion, but we only feel as close as we are to the situation and sometimes we quickly forgetabout the whole thing in a matter of days … sometimes in a matter of hours.
Who here remembers Haiti? The Haiti earthquake of 2010?
The one that left an estimated 300,000 children orphaned?
When is the last time you remembered them?
This isn’t to say we don’t care. Just like funeral directors, when I’m working a funeral … I’m fully present. Fully aware of your circumstances and more than willing to do what I can to serve you. But, you aren’t my closest friend, you aren’t my relative and you probably aren’t apart of the 150 that I call “person.” You are other. And I can’t help it. As much as I try, you’re deceased isn’t my loved one.
Oklahomans are my fellow Americans. I’m connected to various people through Facebook. I donated to the Red Cross. I grieved for those children in the elementary school. I vicariously imagined the terror they must have felt. And we move on, while those in Moore, Oklahoma struggle to piece a broken world back together, we move on.
Is this wrong? Should we seek to overcome this “Monkeysphere”?
After reading this article, how does it make you feel?
Four months after Newtown, People magazine has published a series called, “Life After Newtown Shootings” where the parents describe their grief and how they are coping. It’s a beautiful series and well-worth your time and the three dollar Kleenex box that you’ll go through.
One of the parents mentions that she still sleeps with her son’s pajamas so that she can be soothed by “his smell.” Certainly, considering the tragedy of Newtown, there is nothing abnormal about her practice. In fact, it’s healthy and I can’t help but feel the heaviness of her grief as I think about it.
Here’s a question: A what point has her son’s smell disappeared and what she thinks is her son’s smell is actually her own smell. At what point in sleeping with his pajamas have they stopped smelling like her son and started to smell like her?
At funerals, you’ll often hear people say, “Cathy lives on in all of our memories” or, “Cathy will never die as longs as we remember her.”
There’s a difficulty that comes with remembering our loved one.
I remember an old man, who was married to his late wife for over 50 years, stopped into funeral home to pay his bill and he said, “I both grieve the loss of my wife and the distortion of my memories of her. Even now, when I remember her, I ask myself, “Is this memory real or is it my mind’s adaptation of her? I only want to remember the good, but I miss the bad and messy nearly as much because it’s who she was.”
There’s a time when the smell on the pajamas becomes our own. There’s a time when memories are distorted by our desires for comfort. But, this is why we must grieve in community … so that community can help us piece together the real.
Grief must take place in community! We have to share, we have to be vulnerable with our friends and family.
Share at your family dinners … over the holidays.
Be brave an ask your parents old friends about mom/dad. Ask your child’s friends … your spouse’s co-workers.
Have people write down their memories.
Talk. Talk. Talk. Talk about your deceased loved one. Don’t let the memories die. Don’t let them become distorted.
Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed — cultures see death as less alien. I’ve come up with two major reasons:
Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death. Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes. For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.
The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions. So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.
Two. We lack ritual. There’s three reasons why there’s a lack of ritual:
1.) We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community.
2). We tend to dislike tradition.
3.) We are becoming post-religious.
The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.
Muscle memory is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.
Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.
I just came back from indoor rock climbing.
I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes. Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.
Climbing is both strength and technique muscle memory. And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.
Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice. I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.
You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.
This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.
While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.
You didn’t create it. It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.
This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:
Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.
The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.
If we have community in place,
if we embrace tradition in times of death
and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,
we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.
Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome). It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster. Nor does make death more tolerable. And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”
Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.
Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.
My good friend Luis shared this video with me.
It’s beautiful in so many ways. For one, it starts with adoption. Two, it highlights the goodness of palliative care. And three, it underscores the life in death.
Death is one of the very few places in the life of an industrialized nation where we slow down and take time for one another. There’s so few times that we allow for family. So few times that we allow for community.
And then death.
Death for life.
The following are my thoughts in process, so bear with me:
In times less graced by natural science, the mysticism of death and the haunting of the disembodied soul kept death on the outside of community.
In fact, even those who handled the dead were the “other”. We were ostracized, considered unclean and sometimes we were considered untouchable.
In the Canary Islands from 900 BC, the “Guanche” embalmers were well paid for their practices, but were considered contaminated and lived in an ostracized community. In Judaism the Torah specifies that “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days” (Numbers 19:1).
In fact, as recent as 1300 AD Pope Boniface VIII issued a Papal Bull that prohibited the cutting of dead bodies for the purpose of burial under threat of excommunication.
The Dark Age gave way to progress, and natural science enabled us to touch death without fear of haunting. It demystified death to the point we could gather around and feel the life of death in community. It enabled embalming. It enabled extended viewings. It enabled us to understand causes, manners and the process of death and dying.
Yet, as science and technology advanced, the agrarian society began to diminish as the industrial age progressed. And as we’ve moved away from an agrarian society where death (of children, of animals) was a normal part of life, death has again become more of an outsider that has been institutionalized and handed over to the care of the medical professions.
Science demystified death and then mystified it again.
In an agrarian society, death occurs in the context of community. In an individualistic, industrial society, death becomes institutionalized, being pushed away – again – to the outside of our lives and the outside of community. And while the advancements of modern medicine are praiseworthy, they’ve placed the care and the end-stage of life in the hands of the experts instead of the hands of family and friends.
Nursing homes have become storage houses where the death professionals aid the transition from this world to the next world, and rob the rest of us of the community treasures produced by dying and death. At one time, death was mystical and placed on the fringe of community because of our lack of understanding of death and dying. Today, our understanding of death has again caused it to be mystical, as it’s found itself outside community and in hospitals and nursing homes.
Today, death is on the outside of life. And that’s why it’s so awkward for us. And that’s why we fear it. That’s why we shield our children from it and dread speaking about it.
And yet finding a way to invite death back into our lives is becoming possible with the advent of palliative care, home deaths and green burials.
In an industrial society, a person’s worth is often tied to what they can produce. As soon as we begin the end-stage of life, productivity stops and we too often view the dying as dead, at which point we ship our dying to a nursing home or hospital where they can completing the dying and death away from us.
But in dying, there is life, for both the sick and the caregivers. Hospice and palliative care allow us to get the most life out of death while still providing the advantages of medication; and for many who are dying, hospice care is given for free through Medicare.
We should find that when death is invited into our life, it will only strengthen us and our community. And it’s time we take advantage of the invitations hospice has given us. It’s time we find a way to include both dying and death instead of excluding it. It’s time we learn to live with death and grow out of this awkward phase.