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Virtual death shop
What's so bad about a point-and-click cremation?
This past weekend, I read the saddest article in the Toronto Star.
It profiled a wholly-virtual funeral company. No halls, no funerals, no meeting with anyone face-to-face. You just chat online, pick your crematorium of choice and be done with it.
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You can even crush your loved one into tiny bits and put them into a diamond to someday pawn them off, from the comfort of a sterile chat window.
Loved ones can then decide if they want to do the in-person stuff later.
In the article, the company’s founder says that families who had used the same funeral home for decades were moving to the virtual option. It’s hard not to imagine that accompanying this virutal shift is also a shift away from celebrations of life in general. The benefit of going through the motions with a funeral home is that they’ll guide you through the necessary parts: the wake, the ceremony, the bequests.
As an avid reader of obituaries, I’ve noticed that there are more and more obits that have said that there will be nothing following the death of someone, as per the deceased’s wishes.
As the article is a profile of the business model of this new company, it doesn’t get into any of these philosophical questions: is mourning together tacky, actually? Is it too much hassle to go to a wake? Does anyone actually enjoy the rituals around funeral homes? Do i have to wear pants with a hard waistband to a funeral or can casual sweats (clean) cut it? With so much pandemic-related death, doesn’t it make sense to just get on with our lives?
Those are all fine questions. And I have opinions on all of them.
But. If there’s any example of how damaged mainstream (and let’s be clear — mostly white) society is, it is the idea of a point and click cremation. It’s the idea that any of this stuff should be done through the sterile, impersonal world of the Internet.
White people are notoriously weird about how we deal with death. Many of us have ditched our family’s religions and with religion has gone a guidebook for how to celebrate death.
I used to be a funeral organist. I used to plod through traditional songs for pews upon pews of people who absolutely hated the fact that they were in a church doing church stuff. It was a Catholic church (though I have played non-Catholic funerals, most notably for my own family members) and so there would be like two people in the entire church who knew what to do: when to stand, when to declare the mystery of faith, when to recite the doxology and Great Amen. I would sing How Great Thou Art (though it is not a Catholic hymn). I would sing Amazing Grace (though it is dreadful). I would make suggestions to blank faces.
I would always ask the family member who was left with the dreadful task of working with the organist why in the hell they chose to have the funeral in the church. Why not a hall or a bar or a hotel or a park or the family’s favourite spot. And the response was always the same: our father was very Catholic. These were his wishes.
Fine. So I’d play and sing and be 18 years old hating every second of how terrible this ritual was.
The thing that these families all seemed to not understand was this: the funeral is not actually for the deceased, certainly not if you’re watching a priest recite Lux Aeterna to a spirit that no one in the room actually believes is listening. A funeral is for everyone else. It is for the friends and family left behind. It’s for the squash club buddies, the coworkers who want to get a good look at the corpse, the children who don’t understand what death is but there it is, staring at them. Sure, you want to honour the person who died but what kind of honour is collective torture?
So I understand how attractive an online funeral might be. No mess. No picking out clothes or plots or headstones. No looking at the face of the corpse and telling the stranger with the foundation that they got her colouring right. None of the discomfort in public. It’s all private. It’s all quiet. It’s all in our own heads, just as we live online.
There is no shortage of wonderful death rituals that honour the spirit and allow the living to mourn, but it’s hard (or problematic or impossible) to adopt a ritual that isn’t your own. An era where religion falls away needs to be one where we collectively (we, those of us who might be disconnected from our death-ceremony cultures, though not so much me as, as I said, I worked in this world) develop new kinds of rituals that can honour, mourn and gather. Re-write scripts. Renew communion. Develop something new.
But don’t just give into the trends that every aspect of our live is under pressure to conform to. Don’t allow the private market to exploit our discomfort with death and sell us a “solution” that’s “easy.” Don’t allow these things to pass by online because it’s cleaner and less messy. Because we lose a critical piece of mourning if we agree to do this: we lose everyone else.
More and more, we have lost our reasons to gather with loved ones. Weddings are either too over-the-top that they rot out your teeth or no one gets married any more. Birthdays are too mundane to justify travelling for. Family reunions don’t include friends. If we lose funerals as well, when will we ever get to see people IRL?
Or is that the point? Seeing people IRL is just too much hassle. Plus, with AI, we’ll be able to recreate our loved one and we can chat with them whenever we’d like. We can transcend the need to ever mourn.
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