How Shall We Mourn?

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


A place of business is the last place in the world one would expect anyone to hold a memorial service for a teenage girl who had succumbed to a rather cruel— and I would add wickedly unfair — form of liver cancer.

The term itself— “place of business”— does not exactly connote healing or peace. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The setting becomes all the more incongruous when one realizes that said business is not at a funeral home or a house of worship, but a house of mirth: The Second City.

If I've learned anything in a decade or so from working with orgs all over the world to design new models for change, it’s that the path to progress is paved with incongruity: deviance by another name. Deviance from social norms that is.

The experience was billed as a "A Celebration of the Life of Eleanor [“Nora”] Finn Leonard,” the daughter of Kelly Leonard and Anne Libera, both of whom have worked at Second City for more than 30 years.

In a LinkedIn post, Kelly wrote," We held a celebration for my daughter yesterday. We held it at my place of business. This is rare. It shouldn't be."

He's right on both counts.

Americans have many social hang ups but none, perhaps, as pronounced as those related to death and dying, certainly when it comes to talking about the "D" word well before Mr. D is on the doorstep. In fact, the surest way to torpedo a pleasant conversation— at the family dinner table, at the office, at the corner coffee house — is to casually suggest as a topic for discussion that other bookend of life.

The only socially acceptable place to discuss death it seems is among families in hushed voices at a hospital when departure from this mortal coil is imminent for a loved one and not a moment before. And at a funeral home, but only after the fact.

To speak anywhere else of the great leap into eternity can be considered morbid, thoughtless or just plain rude.

So we avoid that particular topic, if only to avoid ruining the meals of those who matter to us.

As it is, we don't as a society have the chops for talking about death or thinking about death; certainly not in new, healthier and more imaginative ways within our various reference groups. We don’t have the chops because we don’t have the experience of exploring death— openly, honestly, curiously.

That, I contend, is one of the reasons we haven't been able to innovate our way beyond those old and literally funereal expectations of how we should bid "farewell" to those who move from a visible reality to an invisible one; and, as important, where that “farewell” should occur.

Or to ask if "farewell" is even the right word.

“For millennia, death was constantly in our lives, in our vision,” says Kathy Bresler, a Chicago-based interfaith minister. The rituals and ceremonies of death were as prominent, as visible, as expected as birth— it was in no way as taboo a subject as it is now.

With the advent of modern medicine, Kathy says “the whole protocol around death shifted.” We don’t engage with it as someone living in the 17th or 18th century, certainly not at the same range or with the same optics.

“Now we find ourselves by and large unable to talk about it because the mainstream doesn’t have a lot of experience with it, other than with tv shows and movies.”

And, obviously, with the news— another mediated experience where our relationship is not so much with death but with telegenic— or pixelated— images representing a reality reframed, and several times removed from the actual.

“The extent to which we push the idea of death away is the extent to which we prevent ourselves from fully inhabiting our aliveness.”

— Kathy Bresler

Tragedy, then, like losing a child to a senseless illness, or the equally nonsensical loss of loved ones in a mass shooting or a freak accident—something, anything that was not by our lights inevitable— becomes all the more tragic simply because, as Kathy says, we have cut ourselves off from being open to the possibility that death isn’t what we think it is.

That it might not be the end, in other words.

“There are so many obstacles to treating [death] like an integral part of life,” she says, especially in a secularized and increasingly technocratic society where prevailing norms discourage anyone from giving the slightest nod to the notion that consciousness continues after this life— as many religions have held over time. To do so would not only insult the intelligence of one’s esteemed and learned dinner guests, it would set one up for an evening of ridicule.

“It’s such hubris, really, to think that because we haven't proven through science that consciousness continues [after life] that it shouldn’t even be up for dinner table discussion,” Kathy says.

That’s a huge disservice— especially to the living.

“The extent to which we push the idea of death away is the extent to which we prevent ourselves from fully inhabiting our aliveness,” she said.

One doesn’t necessarily need to believe in consciousness after death; one need only to believe in what Kathy calls a “pinhole of possibility” that it can occur.

What Tennyson called “honest doubt.”

“It’s just a little bit of an opening that allows us to hold for a moment the idea that a person lives on through you. And that we’ll live on through others.”

What if this were true? What would change in one’s life if this were true? The questions themselves offer glimpses of answers and feelings that can help one transcend the sense of existential doom that comes part and parcel with the modern, scientific view of life and death— that this is it.

And death is the end of “it.”

“We think 'my demise!' rather than taking a more expansive view,” Kathy says.

“Affording yourself the opportunity to change your relationship with the idea of death has the power to change the whole game. When you change your relationship with death, it changes the way you live.

“It can certainly change things for those who think that death is the end, and whoever has the most ‘toys’ wins.”

She is careful to clarify that we do not want to normalize tragedy that results in death. That indeed would be tragic. Much of her work as an ordained interfaith minister and “consciousness concierge” as she puts it, centers on helping people connect with a new, different and more meaningful relationship with the effect of a tragedy, for instance, not necessarily the cause.

“The more we normalize death as, for example, a transition from one state to another, the more we are able to integrate it with daily life, the more available we are to live our lives to the fullest” — even as the ones who were left behind, and as people who will one day experience the ultimate “transition.”

Discovering and designing ways to talk openly about this other part of life, a part that has the potential to give meaning to everything that precedes it, will over time reduce the natural, fearful anxiety about it, Kathy says.

“Talking about [death] builds a sense of community, it reminds us we that are all in this thing together, and binds us through a basic and inevitable fact of the human condition.

She says that changing one’s perspective with the idea of death can, literally, breathe life into the present human experience.

“If all you ever did was find the capacity as a family, for example, to approach [death] through the practical aspects, the mechanical aspects, the legal aspects— like discussing a will before one needs to be executed— it's not enough, clearly, but it is one way into a conversation no one wants to have.”

Then there’s Kelly and Anne, who simply deviated from the norms that hold in place collective expectations and beliefs about what Americans should consider culturally "appropriate" venues for wakes, memorial services and funerals.

The end-to-end experience at Second City was, in fact, a different conversation about the idea of death, and how we should acknowledge it.

It also demonstrated that a memorial service can be inspiring, even life affirming for those who mourn the physical loss of a daughter, a sister, a friend; but only if the memorial— or in this case “celebration” — is an accurate and authentic reflection of the life of the person whom we celebrate.

This was such a celebration due in large part to the venue. To connect attendees to Nora, Kelly and Anne invited friends and family to the place that best reflects who Nora was in this life, and what she loved: Second City.

“Scared people seal off their hearts. Brave people open them.”

—Kelly Leonard

To model a new way for how— and where —we mourn, Kelly, Anne and their son Nicholas, Nora’s big brother, needed not only the imagination but the courage to make their vision manifest.

They needed something else, something Nora had in spades: vulnerability.

“[Nora’s] kindness made her especially vulnerable, which, of course, meant that she was also brave,” Kelly said at the celebration. “This is a mistake people make all the time. The mistake that bravery is somehow attached to the sealing off of one’s heart. That isn’t bravery. That’s fear.

“Scared people seal off their hearts. Brave people open them.”

This wasn't a celebration of a life lived to be sure. This was a brave celebration of a life, Nora's life, that one could not help but feel lives on and in many different ways and now with many different faces: in acts of Nora-like kindness toward humans and animals (dogs in particular, as I learned); in unconditional expressions of love and loyalty between family and friends.

And, not the least, in comedy.

"It was beautiful and sad and funny and heartbreaking," Kelly wrote of the celebration in a blogpost the following day. "For those that weren't there, the main stage at Second City was lit in blue, with a screen that played a loop of photos and videos of Nora from being in her Grandma's arms just hours after being born to giving us her trademark grin in a hospital bed."

Mostly, though, there was laughter, which at times must have felt like just another day at the office for Kelly and Anne. It was during those moments when Nora felt the most present in the high and holy temple of improv because, as Kelly put it, she was "f*cking funny."

The laughter didn't diminish or compete with the weeping; it harmonized with it, as death harmonizes with life when, as Kathy Bresler suggests, we allow it to sing its part, and in a brand new key.

And when we make ourselves available to those notes.

It’s a thing of beauty, really, and it can happen when we intentionally design for that kind of fearless music, just like Kelly, Anne and Nicholas did for Nora’s celebration.

Bravely rethinking the venue for such an occasion is a wonderful place to start.

The more incongruous the better. :: :: ::

— Howell J. Malham Jr.