NEWS FEATURE: Aging Boomers Finding New Rituals to Mourn Loss

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) When the Rev. Sarah York’s mother died in 1983, her family faced a difficult question: How does one mourn for an atheist who doesn’t want a funeral?

York, a Unitarian Universalist minister, remembers her mother’s admonition before she died of emphesyma. “Get together and have a party,” she had said when the topic was allowed to come up, York recalled. “This life is all there is as far as she was concerned, and when it’s over, it’s over _ the less fuss the better.”

York’s family did not honor her mother’s request.

“We needed a ritual. We needed to say good-bye, but we also needed a ritual that would honor her spirit and would be faithful to her values and beliefs,” York said.

As the baby-boom generation grays, more boomers confront their own mortality and more face burying their parents. The choices and challenges confronting them are enormous, York said, especially in a culture that denies death. If a mourner is lucky, society gives him or her “three days at best” to grieve and get back to daily life.

“Current practices often deny death and try to protect us from pain,” York states in a new book, “Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death” (Jossey-Bass).

York takes the position that grief that does not “speak” in some way _ through crying, talking, ritual, or tributes of charity or creative expression _ remains unresolved.

For centuries, religion and its accompanying rituals offered space, time and place in which the bereaved could express grief. However, with the decline of institutional religion and changing patterns of belief, such traditional rituals may seem empty to some people today.

“Remembering Well” deals with complex and basic concerns related to bereavement. York explores issues, including violent deaths from murder or suicide, the deaths of children, organ donation and family estrangement. At a basic level, she offers families, clergy, funeral professionals and hospice workers guidelines for planning funerals and memorial services.

York stresses the need to obtain information about local laws regarding burial of cremated remains. And she ensures that even the inexperienced will know how to:

_ Use prayers, readings, music and candles in a ritual.

_ Show respect for the beliefs of the bereaved and the deceased.

_ Sketch the soul of the departed, or draft a memorial portrait that can help set the foundations for appropriate mourning and rituals.

_ Observe significant dates, such as holidays and anniversaries, following a loved one’s death.

_ Be certain that the ritual or service planned reflects the spirit and beliefs of the person who has died.

In the case of her own mother, York and her family found ways to honor her as the complex, gifted and flawed personality she was. “She was full of contradictions: a naturalist who smoked too much, an atheist who knew the Bible better than most Christians,” York writes in the book’s introduction.

Her mother had died at home in the mountains of North Carolina. York’s father arranged for cremation and a private service, but also provided a way for neighbors in his small rural community to say good-bye.

A viewing with an open casket at an evening visitation, typical where he lived, would have been inappropriate. But he did not want to offend his neighbors. So he rented an empty casket and topped it with a spray of yellow roses at the funeral home. Neighbors filed by. One man knelt in prayer.

At the family’s private service, they walked together to choose the site for burying her mother’s ashes _ legal in North Carolina _ and were drawn to a pond where York’s mother had built a waterfall and planted flowers. Each took a turn with the shovel. On a rock above the site was placed a large and unfinished sculpture which York’s mother had chiseled from a tree root. A simple service with music and shared memories followed at the family’s home.

The process did not take away York’s pain at losing her mother, but offered her and her mother’s family and friends an outlet for their grief.

“If not faced and experienced, grief will really emerge later in the form of anxiety or depression,” York said in a telephone interview. “Religious and cultural practices do not often help.”


A Unitarian Universalist minister for 18 years, York was the first woman to serve as minister or senior minister at congregations in California and Maryland. While in California, she was active in Unitarian Universalist work at national and local levels. She has organized interfaith services and worked on projects related to AIDS and to homelessness. A free-lance writer, she conducts workshops for ministers on preaching and creating meaningful ritual.

The daughter of Richard A. Moores, creator of the Gasoline Alley comic strip, York grew up in California and Florida. She holds degrees from Wake Forest Univesity in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Duke Univesity in Durham, N.C. and Harvard Divinity School. She taught high school English for 11 years before studying for the ministry.

“As a minister, having been with lots of people and having experienced what the normal grief processes are in the Protestant world, my chief observation is that the current ritual practices protect people from their grief instead of helping them through it,” she said.

“It’s also tough because people losing a loved one face that consolation blitz. Everyone will call and come over after a death. As soon as the services are over, everyone is gone.”


(Cecile S. Holmes, a long-time religion writer, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina. Her e-mail address is cecile.holmes(at)

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