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13 September 2018

Don't Celebrate My Life

My best friend from childhood killed himself this summer. We hadn't kept in touch really, but we would occasionally run into each other when I visited my parents in my hometown over the years. Regardless, his shadow casts very, very large over my formative years.

As seems to be a growing practice, his church held a "celebration of life" service for him. Not a "funeral," but a "celebration of life." When my mother told me this, I briefly remarked that I suspected that it was just a euphemism, but she disagreed, arguing that it was a categorically different event. I worry that this trend is part of (or at least parallel with) the positive thinking movement. (For an excellent takedown, see Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided.) I worry, too, that this is part of the death negative movement that has increasingly dominated American culture for generations. (For solid death-positive work, see Caitlin Doughty's Ask a Mortician). Funerals, wakes, and other traditional mourning rituals serve social and psychological functions. They make us happier in the long term but only by allowing us collectively to be sad in the immediate term. Celebrate the lives of the living; mourn the deaths of the departed.

When I die, I give you permission to mourn, to be sad, even depressed. The pain of loss is not something that can be wished away by focusing on the "good times." Our brains need time to process loss. It is time that shouldn't be avoided by taking a pill or thinking happy thoughts. We are radically social animals, and the ultimate rupturing of a social relationship is the permanence of death. This is why I hope that you will weep when I pass, that you will rent garments, as some translations of the Bible put it. I hope these things because they will help you ultimately to move past my death in a way that no celebration of my life could.


Just to be clear, I am neither depressed nor suicidal. I'm doing quite well mentally and emotionally.

If you are struggling, know that my world is better with you alive in it. Call (1-800-273-8255) or chat online with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You are loved.

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