Sunday, February 14, 2016

Between Death and Burial

Photo by Don LaVange.
People who know me in person recognize that diplomacy isn't my strongest suit.

However, I do understand that the space between a person's death and their burial is a particularly tender time. 

I perceive this space as sacred, best met with reverence.

This time should focus on articulating the decedent's virtues, strengths and legacy. It's a time to comfort their friends and family members.

The catalyst for my thoughts is the announcement yesterday of the unexpected passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  However, this is a concern I have long held while observing people of lesser fame and power pass.

It is not the time to discuss how to fill the power vacuum of their death or to enumerate their faults. Instead, we should pause in the present moment, look over the decedent's past, and project a positive legacy into the future.

True, if the person is a public figure, I can see the need to discuss pragmatics for filling a power vacuum. However, speculation and jockeying for position can wait until after the burial at least.

When someone dies, we have an invitation to reflect on our shared mortality.  One day death will come to claim us. It's a sobering time. 

When people immediately focus on pragmatics in the wake of another's passing, I'm reminded of the opening scene of LA Law.  One of the attorneys dies at work, and his co-workers immediately start laying claim to his corner office.

Bad form.

I have known people to ask surviving spouses questions such as, "Will you move? Will you remarry? Will you still wear your wedding ring?  Will you get life insurance?  Are you selling one of your vehicles?"

No, no, no.

Even when a person of questionable character dies (such as a convicted criminal), I still see the value in meditating on our shared humanity, the need to mourn for the person they could have been, the opportunity to scrutinize my own character for flaws that I might amend with the gift of continued life.

Being gleeful about a person's death seems ghoulish and inhumane.

As John Donne explains, "Any man's death diminishes me / Because I am involved in mankind." ("For Whom the Bell Tolls").


Comforting the Bereaved

Films about Older People Active in the Dying Process


  1. Well said. At my mother's visitation, I was peppered with questions about caring for my father. Would he live with us? Would we sell the house? All questions that would need to be considered in the coming months, but not immediately. And I had no idea. Thanks for speaking up about the "sacred space".

  2. Your article gave me goose bumps. When that happens, I know someone has hit the mark! Thank you for this thoughtful, and frequently avoided topic, and for making us think!

  3. Karen, we're writing about two aspects of the same topic today--the aftermath of dying. You touch upon some much more serious considerations than I--and things that all of us will need to face eventually. Gleeful is definitely NOT something to be when someone dies. But there can be joy--and fun--in celebrating the life that someone lived. I appreciated your post a lot.

  4. I was thinking similarly about what seems the greediness of it all in his passing. But then again it is politics in an election year and maybe he is getting more national attention for his service than he would have had it not been?