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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Learning to Grieve in Prague

The Czechs are noted for their impassive approach to death. Rites for Vaclav Havel may change all that, as Lincoln’s death revolutionized funerals in the U.S..


An outpouring candles and flowers at Wenceslas Square

to mourn the death of former president Vaclav Havel

Photo: David W. Cerny, Reuters

Funerals in the Czech Republic tend to be understated affairs or, in many cases, skipped altogether. With the nation’s secular majority and a culture of silence around the subject of death (in part a holdover from the era of Communist rule) there are fewer religious rites here than in most other nations of the West and, according to scholar Olga Nesporova, only somewhat perfunctory services for non-believers.

Her study criticizes Czech funerary observances for their failure to comfort the bereaved or even address the reality of mortal life.

She writes, “Standard secular funerals today are held in an atmosphere similar to that in the 1970s and 1980s. The speech is formal and usually given by a professional speaker provided by the crematorium, who has no personal relationship with either the deceased or the bereaved, to whom the speaker is introduced no more than a quarter of an hour before the funeral ceremony commences.” Any remarks must fit into “a template” limited to about five minutes. No mention of heaven or hell—or the lack thereof—please.

“The brevity of the funeral address is perhaps not surprising since a speech celebrating the working life and social contributions of the deceased may seem insincere when read by someone who had never met them, and since there is little point in talking of the future when there is no conception of an afterlife. “

Surprisingly, to us anyway, Nesporova’s study makes not one mention of flowers. We assume that’s because obsequies are typically so minimal that flowers don’t even come to mind.

This week, however, the Czechs and their friends around the world staged yet another cultural revolution, this one floral, public, personal, emotional. The nation mourned Vaclav Havel, the playwright, heroic dissident and former president who helped topple Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and led the country into a new era.

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Posted by Julie on 12/24 at 02:52 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsSecular CustomsPermalink