They are like the grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; In the evening it is cut down and withereth... . So teach us to number our days, That we may get us a heart of wisdom. -- Psalms 90:5-6, 12
Funeral service workers in New Zealand have watched with interest the changes in our communities' approach to the experiences surrounding death and dying.
Working closely with families, friends and communities and observing the human reaction to loss at a very close and often personal level allows Funeral Directors a unique view of the changes in religious, philosophical and cultural approaches to these events.
The first observation must be that the end of life in the physical sense never indicates the finality the term 'end' seems to carry with it. More, the end of physical life would in almost all circumstances carry more connotations of beginning than of the finite.
Religion has always endeavoured to put a framework around dying and death as a foundation for new beginnings either on the journey toward a higher plane or by suggesting that another form of life follows.
The Christian viewpoint allows the dying human the experience of the natural fear of death and dissolution while still being able to state with conviction "Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
Christianity, in common with Judaism, Buddhism and others, sees the end of physical life as the beginning of existence "secure, calm and happy, unaging, deathless, emancipated".
Hinduism, through the Bhagavad Gita, teaches: "the wise do not grieve for the dead or the living. Never was there a time when I was not, nor when you were not... . Never will there be a time hereafter when we shall not be. As in this body, there are for the soul, childhood, youth and old age, even so there is the taking on of another body after death. The wise are not confused by this."
As the influence of mainstream religion in New Zealand has diminished Funeral Service has observed the confusion that fills the gap left in the community where once belief, doctrine, philosophy and ritual provided an ordered and understandable approach to aging, dying and death in our communities.
The strength of those beliefs did not prevent the natural human fear of death but provided support on the journey and a hope for the future once the death journey was complete.
The nature of rituals for the dying and the ritual farewelling of the dead reinforced people's beliefs and provided that much-needed framework of support. Nor has it mattered much that the theological interpretation of the need for Funeral rite and the understanding of the general populace of that need have often been some distance apart.
There appear to be few people who have adopted an "end" view which involves final dissolution of the organised being as being the end absolute.
Amongst those who have no firm belief in an after life in the religious sense it is more common to observe an approach which looks to the resonance of the individual journey as providing a form of after-life. This resonance being through ongoing influence, be that in the major impact of their life or work upon future communities (e.g. Shakespeare) or in the somewhat less resonant journeys (of the masses) where the influence may be seen in contribution to the family, the community, the gene pool or by (as once heard at a Funeral as the celebrant struggled to find an appropriate phrase :-) "adding just a little to the advancement of the vastness of humanity".
During the last millennial period, medieval man, driven by millennial movements that predicted the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ, or perhaps influenced by the harshness of life in times of plague, seemed to have a preoccupation with the state of preparedness of their own souls. Their fear of death being fuelled by fear of punishment, purgatory or hell.
Funeral rites of the time reflected and reinforced this view. In Black robes the priest would offer prayers of intervention which beseeched God to have mercy on the souls of sinners. Mourners were warned that death required accountability.
As the end of this millennium hovers we have not seen a real revival of Millennial second coming movements; the Y2K Bug being the closest thing we have to plague fear. It is understandable then that our personal states of preparedness are more about the laying in of bottled water and the preservation of the integrity of our electronically recorded fiscal assets than about the integrity of our personal ethics or the preparedness of our soul.
Nothing profound in all of this, we live in a life-reinforcing, death-denying culture that tends to marginalise the experience of dying. In this culture of the individual dying, death and its aftermath is left to the individual. Society now provides only the choice of frameworks of support and any individual is free to choose from these.
A religious death, a secular dying, a traditional funeral, a civil celebration, a direct disposal or, as is more common now, a postmodern borrowing, adaptation and short-term adoption of selected philosophies and partly recalled rituals.
Whichever choice is made however, as much now as it ever was life's end remains less about 'end' and more about beginning. Where once we emphasised the mourning of the loss of one from amongst us, we now emphasise recovery and reconnection, the management of our grief following the loss. The 'after life' is ours not theirs.
End, as dying, death and dissolution, has always been personal, the experience of the aftermath has always been personal and continues to be able only to be experienced in the personal.
Our end like everything else around us has changed. We have discarded some, perhaps much of the societal, cultural and religious frameworks that surrounded our end in the previous millennium. We have yet to build a replacement framework. Presently we allow the individual to choose their support system for their end experiences and this includes the right to choose a pre-built framework, a custom-made framework or the choice of no framework at all.
Should we build on this further? Perhaps it is enough, in a state that champions managerialism above all, that we each remain responsible for managing our own support systems right to the end.