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Miss Manners by Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin

Traditions Change, But Acknowledging Grief Still Matters

DEAR MISS MANNERS: When two acquaintances passed away, neither had a published obituary anywhere. Not on social media, not at any funeral home website, not in a newspaper, nor any information sent by mail. It made me sad that the story of their lives would go unmarked, but it also made it impossible to send flowers to any service or make a donation of their choosing.

Has this become too expensive? Or are obituaries just an old-fashioned custom?

GENTLE READER: Death rituals are changing, but what Miss Manners mostly sees is the opposite of your experience: celebratory parties; collections of flowers, balloons and teddy bears; even the re-staging of a favorite activity of the deceased, such as a sporting event.

She sympathized back when it was felt that the standard clergy-directed tradition was not personal enough. Speakers were added who could speak about the person’s life, with varying success. Some are skillful in evoking examples of important qualities and charming foibles. Others prefer to talk about how much their late friend admired them.

But all this began to turn into entertainment, and now often evolves into celebrations where mourning is supposed to be banished in favor of appreciation. Light memories are part of grieving, but they are not sufficient, especially when the loss is fresh.

Miss Manners doesn’t wonder that the bereaved are confused, and may not be up to orchestrating such events. However, ritual is of great importance and comfort when dealing with overwhelming emotion. Without a focus point, there is no outlet to express grief or offer sympathy.

What is needed is a combination of the personal, where the individual’s contributions and qualities are recognized, and the traditional, in which the inevitable tragedy of death is acknowledged. There may be amusing moments, but the occasion must be recognized as serious and difficult.

What is unbearable is the thought that someone can leave life without a trace.