Glimpsing makeshift white crosses planted on roadsides, most of us think, fleetingly: How sad. But for Graduate Theological Union professor and Episcopal priest Lizette Larson-Miller, they're a formal field of study.
"I noticed those white crosses — they do always tug at the heart — then began stopping on the roadside to read and see, and then began wondering what people thought they were doing as they built them, engaged with them, left things there, and gathered around them," says Larson-Miller, whose October 21 lecture, "Places for the Dead," is part of Grace North Church's (2138 Cedar St., Berkeley) Fond Farewell Speakers Series — which is, in turn, part of a two-month examination of death and dying that culminates in a November 7 Green Funeral Fair.
Berkeley illustrator Ann Arnold, a Grace North parishioner, originally wanted to stage a wedding fair, but was convinced by friends that a funeral fair could be more useful and even more fun. She asked writer Liz O'Connell-Gates to organize it. The idea appealed to O'Connell-Gates, in whose native Ireland cemeteries and the dead are ever-present parts of quotidian life. She quickly set about signing up requiem singers, a shroudmaker, an eco-casketmaker, a Day of the Dead expert, an estate planner, a stonecarver, a UC Berkeley archaeologist, the Mitford Institute's Karen Leonard, Spirit Rock Meditation Center cofounder James Baraz, members of Kehilla Synagogue's burial society, and other participants.
"My interest in the dead and in the sick is closely related to my interest in sacred space," says Larson-Miller, who is Dean of the Chapel at GTU. "One of the primary hermeneutics of naming a space sacred is the presence of the dead." Studying sickness-and-death rites throughout history, she believes that "the neat, clean, and body-free funeral has been one of the biggest detriments to a healthy cultural ability to deal with death in the past century," because "the ability to face the reality of death is diminished when there is no reminder": that is, no corpse, no visits to the site of death or the remains' lodging-place.
"The disappearance of mourning rituals that allow people temporal space in which to grow into a changed life" are another modern problem, she says. "The good news is that, especially since 9/11, this seems to be changing in the United States. From a Christian perspective, I think the lack is an overcapitulation to culture, particularly the inability to face death," Larson-Miller explains. "Facing the death of another is also facing one's own death: a double challenge. Again and again, obituaries ... are pointing to a 'celebration of life' which looks back at the life of the dead person, rather than forward to their ongoing life in eternity. Christian funerals are always threefold: praise of God, comfort of the mourners, and commendation of the dead." We're ignoring the latter these days, she says: Ideally, "the funeral also does something for the deceased, not just for the living." 7 p.m., $10. GraceNorthChurch.org
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