Dr. Candi Cann, assistant professor in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, asserts that this shift toward alternative memorialization processes has not been directly caused by a lack of faith or animosity toward religion, but rather the church’s lack of rituals and practices that adequately meet the needs of families and individuals who are grieving.
“In today’s society, people who are not embedded in a church tradition or do not have a formal way to memorialize their loved ones who have died, still need some form of ritual,” Cann stated. “This is where the ‘do-it-yourself’ memorialization process originated from.”
Over the years, Cann has acquired a background in the subjects of religion and social studies, which give her perspective on both the theological and social elements that influence the grieving process. Her interest in the topic began while researching martyrs who were not officially recognized by the Catholic Church for her PhD dissertation. Cann interviewed the families, friends, and fellow church members of these martyrs, and discovered that their loved ones practiced the same memorialization process that the martyrs would have had if recognized by the Church. It was the discovery of these alternative memorialization practices that inspired Cann to write her book.
“I wrote my book, Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first Century: Virtual Afterlives, partially because of my interest in these new forms of memorialization, but mostly because I felt these people who did not have a formal religious way of memorialization need a voice and to need be recognized,” Cann explained.
She hopes that by giving survivors a voice, she will draw the attention of sociologists, anthropologists, religion scholars and seminarians to the need for families and individuals to memorialize a loved one. Cann hopes that practitioners and academics in these fields will be inspired by her book to start a genuine conversation about the memorialization of those who precede us in death.
In her book, Cann addresses these alternative methods of memorialization as elements of our cultural shift toward secularism. Cann believes that families have turned to alternative methods of memorialization because they are no longer a part of the process of dealing with death. Cann says that the modern industrialization of the death process, where most deaths occur in a hospital, has left families seeking other outlets for their grief. For many, a ‘do-it-yourself’ alternative memorial helps to provide just such an outlet.
In her book, Cann describes hundreds of different and creative ways used to memorialize people today. Some common practices include memorial tattoos, car decals and t-shirts, but she also found more unusual practices, such as shooting the cremated remains of the dead off in fireworks, or compressing carbon from the remains into diamond jewelry.
Cann has also observed some of these new forms of memorializing loved ones in her own life and believes that they can bring about a healthy blending of culture.
“I had a good friend who died recently and her family was split between a Christian and Hare Krishna faith background,” Cann said. “Her family found common ground in the ‘do-it-yourself’ memorial by letting her young children paint a cardboard coffin, and in it put her remains and messages to their mother. They then scattered her ashes. This process met the needs of a multi-faith family that I do not believe one single religion would have been able to meet.”
Through her research into case studies and from her own observations experiences, Cann has come to the conclusion that the ‘do-it-yourself’ alternative is a progressive process that in certain instances, can be the best option. For families that have opposing religious views or those that are not connected to any religion, these alternative processes give the whole family a healthy way to come together to grieve that satisfies everyone’s needs.
Despite these practices’ tendency to exclude religion, Cann believes that the two are not mutually exclusive. In her opinion, these alternative practices do not replace all the benefits that religion has to offer the grieving. She believes that religion uniquely can provide good counsel and a network of support for the grieving in their time of need.
“I believe religion has a place to re-insert itself in memorials and funerals, but I think the reason people are starting to move away from religion in these processes is because they do not feel that religion is serving their needs,” Cann explained. “I think instinctively, humans have a need to memorialize the dead in a ritualized process and I believe that currently the church, for many, is not satisfying that need. If the church can provide those forms of expression, I believe it will naturally fall back into its place in the memorialization process.”
To Cann, the transition to the ‘do-it-yourself’ memorial process has not been perfect, but it is a move in the right direction toward what she would like to see from society — greater openness and acceptance of death.
“After going through this research process and learning all that I have, I would really like to see society break down the barriers and euphemisms surrounding death,” Cann said. “I want people to feel comfortable talking about death, so that we can support one another and express grief in a healthy way.”
This story is part of a series of research highlights by Caleb Barfield, a student worker in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Caleb is a sophomore from Denton majoring in journalism, new media and public relations. Click here to read more of his work.