How We Deal With Death

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 6, 2010 — 10 Comments

Maybe it’s the end of Summer, the recent high-profile passings in our community, or maybe my own recent week-long sojourn to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, but I’ve noticed a decent number of news articles focusing on death, how we deal with it, and what we believe comes after it (if anything). The New York Times recently did a piece on reincarnation, and how that belief in multiple lives has been growing in popularity lately.

“According to data released last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans now believe in reincarnation. (Women are more likely to believe than men; Democrats more likely than Republicans.) Julia Roberts recently told Elle magazine that though she was raised Christian, she had become “very Hindu.” Ms. Roberts believes that in her past life she was a “peasant revolutionary,” and said that when her daughter sits in a certain way she knows “there’s someone there I didn’t get the benefit of knowing … It’s an honor for me to continue to shepherd that.” At Cannes in May, a Thai film about reincarnation, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won the highest prize. In it, an old man on his deathbed sees the dead as vividly as the living, and his past life as an ox is as clear as his present one.”

The article talks about regression therapy, and interviews reincarnation superstar Dr. Brian Weiss, author of “Many Lives, Many Masters”, along with religion professor Stephen Prothero, who thinks this trend is tied to our relative affluence (“Reincarnation means never having to say you’re dead.”). Others, like Clare Stein at The Kenyon Review, reacting to the NYT piece, wonder if reincarnation is our misunderstanding of another phenomenon.

In Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom mispronounces metempsychosis as “met him pike hoses.” In some cases, this is what the eagerness to believe in reincarnation strikes me as: a mispronunciation of the Collective Unconscious, or something like it. The wealth of history inhabiting the places we like to claim as exclusively ours– mistaken for immortality.

I’m somewhat agnostic on the question of if we have lived past lives, or if those memories are part of a collective unconscious, but I do believe that Reclaiming and other modern Pagan traditions are on the right path when they say: “What is remembered, lives”. A look at ancestor reverence and worship in many cultures will show a common thread of keeping those who have passed among us, of involving the dead in our lives.

With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded remains of 17 bodies were removed from the family crypt, some sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed with sparkling wine. Five brass bands took turns belting out cheerful melodies, and each emerging corpse was lifted onto the shoulders of its own set of revelers. The celebrators then joyously trotted about, dancing with the bones of the dead. “It is good to thank the ancestors in person because we owe them everything,” said Rakotonarivo Henri, 52, an out-of-breath farmer who had just set down his dead grandfather and was moving toward the remains of his aunt. “We do not come from mud; we come from these bodies.”

Ancestor veneration, as our movement has matured, has become a larger topic of discussion. We are also more concerned about our rites of burial, how we are buried, and seeing that our dead are properly honored. I feel that as we continue, you’ll see more emphasis placed on our “mighty dead”, and that our rituals and traditions will start to mirror existing indigenous beliefs regarding the ancestors. But even in a secular context, I think the idea of memory, or being remembered, is growing.

“Music lovers can now be immortalised when they die by having their ashes baked into vinyl records to leave behind for loved ones. A UK company called And Vinyly is offering people the chance to press their ashes in a vinyl recording of their own voice, their favourite tunes or their last will and testament. Minimalist audiophiles might want to go for the simple option of having no tunes or voiceover, and simply pressing the ashes into the vinyl to result in pops and crackles.”

For the record, if I’m cremated, I’d like to be made into a copy of the The Cure’s “Disintegration”.

A statue of the Mayo brothers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
A prime example of ancestor veneration in all but name.

Why the increased interest in reincarnation, in ancestor veneration, in being remembered? I think it has partially to do with an impulse that has always been with us. One that, to certain extents, has been discouraged by our post-Enlightenment culture, or only approved in special contexts (saints, national heroes). For so long we have been afraid to acknowledge that we long to make the dead a part of our lives. To not simply “move on”, but to continue to weave them into the tapestry of our existence. That it isn’t morbid, but loving. As we approach Samhain, Day of the Dead, and other Winter holidays of remembrance and ancestor veneration, let us focus on how we integrate those who are no longer with us, but are still very much with us.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Bookhousegal

    Or, quite simply, the more real it is to most families, the less likely they are to admit it right now. So surveys are problematic.

  • A. Marina Fournier

    bookhousegal says:

    Pretty sure Dr. Asimov was quoting someone, there, btw. Tennyson, maybe?

    But, well, it’s easy enough to quip that we hope someone gets poetic justice in the next lifetime, maybe a little harder to accept that whoever you are or how much you remember, it *is* a new life, and that’s actually the point. As you quote:

    “And while all else is old, the world is new.”
    According to Wikipedia
    “Doubleday agreed to Asimov’s new title, but couldn’t find the source of the verse he had given them. When Doubleday inquired, Asimov confessed: “I wrote it myself”.[2] In the end, the poem was attributed to “Anon.””

    In a search, there is very little else but Asimov material using “In memory yet green”.

    • Booohousegal

      Cool. It's not like he was above referring to himself, anyway. :)

  • FreemanPresson

    I'm not so sure about that. I'm feeling fairly peripheral about now ;-)

  • puff

    That kind of makes me think of this comment on America and ghosts:

    "It's like Americans show off even after they die."

  • Avin

    Wow, that’s a lot of judgement there folks. There are many religions besides our own who believe in reincarnation. There are many in the US who are a part of one of these ancient religions and not just folks newly converted to the idea. Its a bit insulting to assume that all that responded to the poll were recent converts to the idea and following some new age fad. Geshh.

  • dandalion

    hehehe… didn't think so, you would be a bit out numbered ;)

    • CrankyOldHippie

      … and a bit pointless – discussing Christian beliefs with Heathens .. PEH!

      • dandalion

        hey that's usually my line about Christians…

    • CrankyOldHippie

      So – How the heck did you end up on this site?
      just curious