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The Farewell Scene - Death and Funerary Rites 
in the contemporary Western Society


Traditional funeral rites have entered a general crisis that is being detected by more and more people every day. In what terms can this crisis be outlined? And what are its possible solutions? These were the questions tackled by the international meeting organized by the Fabretti Foundation and held in Turin on the 28th  and 29th  of September 1999 with the title: La scena degli addii. Morte e riti funebri nella società occidentale contemporanea (The Farewell Scene - Death and Funerary Rites in the contemporary Western Society). The topic of funeral rites was approached on an interdisciplinary basis, in order to take into consideration the different aspects of a problem that has become more and more complex in contemporary Western societies. In fact, our society has progressively lost its ties with tradition and has become a multicultural and multiethnic one, but nonetheless it still shows a primary need for words to face death with.

Perhaps the most interesting outcomes of this work are the great homogeneity of the conclusions reached, after a thorough analysis of the present situation, by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians and philosophers, on the basis of their different disciplines, and the identification of some key-points resulting from the whole of the reports.

The actual crisis of the Catholic funeral rite, for example, was tackled from different points of view. Sociologists tend to relate it to the decreasing number of those who, in our contemporary society, keep seeing  death as a passage and who therefore believe in the immortality of the soul, and, furthermore, to the fact that the traditional social structures that used to sustain and give sense to that rite have lost their significance (Luigi Berzano). From a psychological point of view, the religious funeral, although still widely chosen, is loosing its efficacy in helping to elaborate one’s mourning, as it interprets the gratuitous violence of death as the sacrifice of a scapegoat and, furthermore, it suggests and demands the acceptance of such a sacrifice. The logic of sacrifice is nowadays almost totally absent in the medical practice and this is why the Christian rite is seen as useless, as are all rites based on the symbolic exchange theorized by Baudrillard.

Today, the meaning of a funeral rite is no longer to be found in an exchange, in a reciprocity between the living and the dead, but in an elaboration of mourning based on unselfish love. A love capable  – using a concept taken from Lévinas’ thought – of taking upon itself the ‘responsibility’ for the dead, that is to continue life, to remember and to tell in the name of the dead (Francesco Campione).

Memory, seen as a kind of earthly immortality, as a sense of continuity in the mind of the living, was the main point in many of the reports that focused on the actual range of the new rites while auspicating future ones.

But what do we mean by memory? Should it be a public memory – in the sense that institutions actually organize the rites as in Ancient Greece – or should it be considered as a private remembrance of the beloved ones?

At the roots of the Western civilization the dichotomy public/private rite is clearly showed in Sophocles’ Antigone (Adriana Cavarero): Creon, a character who embodies the polis in this tragedy, represents the political organization of memory, culminating in a public funeral oration meant to underline the belonging of the citizen to his town. In Classical Greece, the citizen wasn’t seen as psyché (soul), but as a physical body: his individuality was linked to his body, which fights and dies for the polis and by it is celebrated. On the other side, Antigone, Creon’s antagonist, who symbolically buries his brother, branded as an enemy to the city, represents the female element, which, for its non-political nature, is seen as “tremendous” and related to the concept of animality. An animality which that specific civilization – that is to say the polis – considers itself freed from. Antigone’s death will not be remembered and it’s a symbol of the solitude of the dying, deprived of the memory and of the pietas by their own town. At the very roots of our civilization man was therefore considered as a political animal and the community as bearer and guarantor of its citizens’ memory.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the trend emerging from the new ritual forms that have recently arisen in Europe as an alternative to traditional funeral rites. We should therefore remark that –according to the interpretations that insist on the predominance of individualism and that of a private, even “tribal”, dimension of the funeral rite in our society – there is a tendency to a “privatization” of the funeral rite. During the meeting, many examples of this trend in our society were produced. Individuals, relatives, the dying themselves – often advised by a professional funeral operator – tend to become the real organizers of the rite in the Dutch lay ritual and in the syncretistic forms of the rite as celebrated by the various ethnic communities living in the Netherlands (Marinus Schouten). The same trend can be seen in the American gay communities suffering from AIDS (Luigi Berzano). In Great Britain there has recently been an extremely fast increase of the number of cremations, often followed by the dispersion of the ashes. All these examples can be easily read as a more and more individualistic attitude towards memory (Douglas Davies). Sociologist Maffesoli, even more explicitly, thinks that the political community and its institutions, shouldn’t participate in the rites organization, so as to allow private initiatives to emerge. In a post-modern conception of the world, cremation – seen as an accelerated process of reuniting man to the universe – becomes a symbol of a “tragic” attitude of the post-modern man, who, identifying himself with contingency, accepts death and renounces to dominate nature and to look at the future. 

However, not everybody agrees with this post-modern interpretation of our society. Sociologist Alfredo Milanaccio would rather speak of a late-modern society, and he refers to the prevailing concept of the body in contemporary Western societies as a symptom of a substantial continuity with the modern tradition, in which philosophical and clinical theories have always approached the body as an object as opposed to a subject, as a machine (Descartes), and even as a mere corpse (we are referring to Vesalio’s famous treatise on anatomy, 1543). Today, the concept of body otherness is changing – due to the development of bio-medical knowledge and to its social power – even if the body is still seen as “other” as regards the subject. The body is considered as something un-finished, an intimate project to be carried out by the subject who has the whole responsibility of it.

How does this idea of the body as a private project behave when faced with death? The physical decomposition – unavoidable defeat in an individual project for the body aspiring to immortality – (Paola Borgogna), is kept in the background, and with it the dead himself. The funeral rite tends to become, according to English sociologist Tony Walter, a moment of  consolation for the mouning ones. Such a rite, oblivious of the body, of the dead, of the soul, and, all things considered, of the person, is extremely poor. Considering this actual trend, we can’t but auspicate a new rite celebrating the life of the dead. 

In some cases, the request for such a new celebration becomes a public affair, or, at least, begins to involve the public administrations of many European towns.

In Bologna, some women’s associations have tried (with not so great results, so far) to be given by the local administration the use of adequate premises in order to celebrate lay funeral rites – just as a lay wedding rite is already provided for – with the aim of preventing the silencing of the non-believers and their sadness deriving from not having their own rite.

The municipal government of Marseille has entrusted artist Michelangelo Pistoletto with the project for non-confessional, or multi-confessional, premises in which all members of a community could celebrate their funeral rites as well as other rites (Michelangelo Pistoletto, Corinne Diserens).

The book