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Inside The Perimeter

Writer and photographer Shannon VanRaes spends her days with the Manitoba Co-operator and her nights covering urban affairs in Winnipeg. Look for her in Metro every Tuesday.

VanRaes: Funeral rituals quietly dying in a secular world

Death remains taboo. We don’t talk about it and we don’t plan for it, we are hesitant to build new rituals, writes Shannon VanRaes.

To say that religious edifices are not my natural stomping grounds is an understatement.

Sure, I gave the big four faiths a go in my younger years, searching for answers to the questions we all have as ephemeral human beings. I can’t say I ever found those answers, but I did find a certain level of comfort with the inevitable.

Along the way, thanks to an overzealous scout leader, I also memorized the Lord’s Prayer. At the time it seemed, at least to me, like a quaint relic of a bygone Canada — a few snippets from a different world, one where people gathered in parish halls for tiny sandwiches and neighbourhood gossip before going home to prepare the Sunday roast.

And then my grandmother died.

Suddenly, I was on a flight back to Ontario and before I knew it an actor in a script I’d never read. For many, if not most Canadians, ritual has slipped out of daily life. The secular has replaced the religious, the casual has superseded the formal and family gatherings have been ditched in favour of Facebook updates.

But there are few shortcuts in death.

Perhaps the last call for formal dignity in the modern world, funeral rites are an unavoidable necessity. How to provide that, however, is not an easily answered question as the expected rituals of visitation, prayer and internment so often belong to the generation of those being laid to rest.

Even in a small community where police salute funeral processions while holding back traffic, formalities are yielding to changing lives. Manitoba’s highway traffic act continues to allow funeral processions to have the right-of-way at lights and stop signs — despite a serious accident in Winnipeg in 2010 — but many drivers seem unaware of the significance, refusing to pull over out of either respect or pragmatism.

Back in the chilly Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, glancing furtively at my younger sister each time mourners are called on to respond, desperately scouring psalm books and making split second decisions about whether to kneel or sit, I was a neophyte. Yet I was hardly alone in the wilderness.

So much of what was once common practice is quietly dying its own death, guarded by the few, the elderly. Death remains taboo, we don’t talk about it and we don’t plan for it, we are hesitant to build new rituals. Instead we handover what we can to professionals and wrack our brains to piece together what we can from childhood memories and previous losses, often digging up rituals that are not our own and no longer inspire genuine belief or comfort. It is simply, “what one does in times like this.”

That’s not to say that nothing changes.

Once unthinkable, there was no question my sister and I would serve as pallbearers for my grandmother and while my past brushes with Catholic communion came with stern warnings for divorcees and protestants, a new inclusion brought warm blessings to those not of the faith.

But small changes to fading practices won’t build the new rituals this generation and the next will need in a world where few occasions are formally marked. They won’t replace the kinds of communities we once relied on for comfort and solace. 

After struggling against the pouring rain to place my grandmother’s casket over the grave, the priest began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. For the first time I felt a sense of community and relief — not because of any faith in the words, but simply because I was able to participate fully in a tiny ritual that seemed a little familiar. It’s the kind of feeling I wish there was more of.

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