To die the Boomer death

FairwaylrgOpenI tend to be rather harsh when it comes to judging the religion coverage in my local newspaper, which is the Baltimore Sun. However, I have to say that I have rarely met another person who still takes the Sun, other than some of the people on my commuter train. In other words, no one at my Orthodox parish still takes the local newspaper, and that includes many people who are big-league readers, people who can quote poems on the bottom of inside pages from month-old issues of The New Yorker. This makes me sad, as a newspaper lover and as a journalism professor. I also wish that some of my friends still took the Sun, so I could have someone to talk to about its laugh-to-keep-from-crying religion coverage (when there is some).

But that is not why I am writing this post. I come today to (belatedly) praise a feature story by Sun reporter Linell Smith that ran with the headline "The Middle Ages -- Boomers refuse to be buried like everyone else."

Anyone who reads newspapers knows that America's 78 million Baby Boomers are the center of the universe, the first generation to think, to doubt, to love, to have children, to ask the eternal questions, to bravely go where no generation has gone before. Now the Boomers are facing that last big party -- their own funerals. It is no surprise that they (I should say "we") are once again refusing to follow the rules.

I briefly peeked into this topic a few years ago in a Scripps Howard column about people seeking "brand names" for their souls. Check this out:

Anyone strolling through last year's National Funeral Directors Association convention could catch glimpses of Baby Boomer heaven. The Baltimore exhibits included "fairway to heaven" caskets for those especially devout golfers and NASCAR models for true fans that have seen their last race, at least in this life. The goal, said a convention spokesman, is to offer dying consumers the same kinds of choices that they demanded in life.

What's next? Allowing people to defray some funeral expenses via product-endorsement logos, like the ones on golf caps and racing cars? If there is a Harley-Davidson casket -- yes, there is one -- can a Lexus model be far behind? Could a user re-boot his Microsoft casket?

Smith found some other interesting variations on the quest for the meaningful countercultural funeral, many of which have to do with interesting ways to dispose of the ashes of one's beloved. For example:

Dave and Melissa O'Ferrall savored their trips to Ocean City, often walking the boardwalk all the way south to the inlet. From there, they could see Assateague Island and admire the fishing and pleasure boats.

Now that view comes with a 21st century twist: Three miles off the coast, 100 feet below the waves, is a "living" memorial to Melissa, who died three years ago. A concrete ball containing her ashes has become part of an artificial reef designed to nurture fish and other marine life.

... As aging baby boomers begin pondering their legacies, they are also planning their final expressions. Some are veering far from the traditional funeral and burial path, choosing to send a loved one's cremated remains to be made into diamond jewelry, for instance, or to be shot off with fireworks, or added to the paint used for a tribute portrait.

When it comes to religion, the article's thesis statement does not come until the very end, in the context of an anecdote about Beth Knox, who refused to give a funeral parlor control of the body of her 7-year-old daughter. Instead, she brought Alison's body home for a brief period of mourning before burial.

And here is the irony that the story missed. When it comes to simple, meaningful rites of mourning and burial, many of these "rebels" are actually exploring -- whether they know it or not -- some ancient religious traditions about what it means to die "the good death."

Of course if something is an old, holy tradition, then it must be bad. It is going to be hard for Boomers to rebel against both the funeral industry and the centuries of simple religious ritual that this industry replaced.

But we will die trying. Listen to the "I did it my way" individualism voiced at the end of this article.

As a baby boomer, Knox says she was not satisfied to "do something simply because someone else told us that's the way it's supposed to be done. ...

"We question authority. We question life habits," she says. "We changed childbirth and wedding vows and education and church services, and this is one more ritual. We've been working our way through the life cycle, and now we're coming to the end."

Does that sound brave, or tragic? A yearning for community, or a defiant shout of radical individualism?

Photo: A golf casket

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