A New Take On Traditional Catholic, Indigenous and Chinese Funerary Rites


(OPINION) It’s hard to talk myself into going to a funeral.

I fully appreciate the “why” of this type of gathering and have encouraged families to have one, even if the recently-deceased didn’t want anyone to go out of their way to do anything special. As my wife and others have said, “funerals are really more for the living” and a way to celebrate someone’s life by bringing friends and family together.

Every culture has some way of saying goodbye, whether it’s a permanent send-off or wishing them well in the hereafter. Public celebrations encourage people to gather to support each other and perhaps share positive, inspiring lessons from the deceased.

A modern funeral is one of the few forms of social rituals we have left, covering what to wear, where to sit, what to say and what to do.

The funerals for both of my grandmothers were really more positive than negative. They both lived long lives and were well-loved. Their husbands had both died years earlier, so there was hope that their souls would be reunited.

The memorial celebrations for their deaths brought together loved ones literally from around the world and really turned into fun family reunions. I met cousins I’d only talked to on social media and made new friends. Mourners/revelers packed both houses afterward for legitimate parties, especially at Grandma Butler’s, where the stories and Irish whiskey toasts flowed well.

The one for my father was much more somber — but perhaps more challenging since so many people I loved were also having a difficult day, and it’s hard to provide comfort when you’re right there in the middle of the same grief.

Funerals not always easy

Maybe that’s why funerals aren’t always easy. Attending a service is deliberately going into a situation where sadness is guaranteed. Most of our modern life is designed to avoid or reduce any sort of pain when possible, and funerals encourage this pain. They welcome public crying, stranger hugs, general social awkwardness and all those things we’ve been encouraged to discourage in other sections of our lives.

For a family member or close friend, it’s hard to get out of attending. But honestly, it’s a harder sell to get me out the door for a funeral of a former co-worker, a distant colleague or someone I don’t know well or at all.

With that in mind, I recently attended a funeral for a friend’s mother. I hadn’t met her, but I knew she was important to my friend. And I’d be a crummy friend if I didn’t go and show my support.

Right away, there was something different. The family started handing cannabis joints/pre-rolls and lighters to each guest when they entered.

It wasn’t exactly her mom’s dying wish, but we learned that one of her ongoing intentions was, “When I die, I want everyone at my funeral to smoke pot together.”

So her daughter made this happen, likely in violation of all sorts of state and local laws, along with the rules of decorum for at least one Spokane-area funeral home.

No one had more than a few puffs at the designated time, but it really turned into a nice, touching gesture to honor her wishes and celebrate her memory. The celebrant also gave his blessings, discussing how smoke or “smudging” has been an important part of funerals and other religious rituals, going back millennia. 

Symbolism of smoke at a funeral

It reminded me of formal Catholic funeral masses, which can include enough swirling, smoky incense to make you choke. Many Native ceremonies use smoke, whether it’s passing a pipe around or a spiritual leader making a sacred fire. Archeologists exploring 5,000-year-old tombs in China found residue of burned cannabis in the temple areas, suggesting that smoke has been a part of funerary rites for a long time.

Smoke is said to play two crucial roles during death rituals: it can float upward and outward, like a soul, and perhaps lift our prayers to the gods. Mysterious and magical smoke also may reduce the fabric between worlds, make us more transcendent and perhaps better connect us to departed loved ones.

I don’t anticipate free weed at too many conventional funerals in the near future, but maybe this possibility can make it easier to get me there. Regardless, it was an interesting way for people to come together and grieve.

This piece is republished from Spokane FaVS.

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