If there’s one thing religion has historically been good at, and its clergy and institutions used for, it is death management. Well, these days, with “None” the fastest growing religious identification? (more than 20% of all Americans, and more than 30% of those under age 32, so identified) it shouldn’t be surprising that close to a third of all funerals in America happen without any clergy.
Obviously, people are having funerals and mourning for loved ones. So what are they doing? Rather than engage religious authorities and institutions – the “cathedrals” – people are getting the resources they need to bury, mourn, grieve, and find meaning and comfort – from the “bazaar”.
Recently, the New York Times highlighted products and services arising in this bazaar. Via new social media platforms like modernloss.com and whatsyourgrief.com, people share stories, insights and advice from their own experience with death (“witnessing” in classic religious language), get resources (wisdom and practices) to help navigate this life passage and develop webs of relationships of support, comfort, and care (the classic definition of? “community”).
People seek peers who know the world has changed and that there’s no roadmap for handling grief.
These sites are attracting thousands of people who, in religious language, are a blessing for those who wonder if they’re alone in their emotions or the challenges they face after a loss. These online communities give witness not only to the enduring love people have for those they’ve lost, but for people’s capacity to help each other affirm life, despite loss. They do the jobs we need done when someone we love dies.
Just as technological innovation is disrupting every business model – retail stores, publishing, music, health care, universities, political revolutions, etc. – technology is now disrupting the business model of institutional religion. In classic disruptive innovation theory, a disruptive product or service addresses a market that isn’t being served and offers a simpler, cheaper, and more convenient alternative to the existing product. The usual critique by the incumbent business is that the new product is not as good, as powerful, or as authentic as the existing product (think iTunes vs. a record album, or Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica) but all it needs to be is good enough to get the job done.
What do these new products and services that help people deal with death have in common?? Why are they working for people for whom the incumbent religious institutions and authorities aren’t?
These platforms – along with search engines, blogs, YouTube series, Facebook memorials and Instagram feeds about grief and loss – all respond to the needs and sensibilities of the increasing number of Americans mixing, blending, bending, and switching identities.? All these “spiritual” innovations transcend particular creeds and dogma. And like cable companies, they unbundle religious practices and rituals from their metaphysical and group contexts.
Platforms like these embrace the fact that there are as many ways to experience and express grief as there are people.? They encourage new norms, and invite people to customize their religious and spiritual choices (“have it your way,” as the jingle goes). People do not depend on experts, but on peers who know the world has changed and that there’s no roadmap for handling grief and who want to connect to other people equally confused on their journey.
What does this mean for the cathedrals of organized religion? We’re entering a brave new world for Americans increasingly disconnecting from traditional authorities and institutions. Forces that predominate in our culture, such as new media, entertainment, and information technologies will inevitably shape our spiritual values and behaviors. Will the cathedrals embrace the bazaar, or will the imagination and ingenuity of the bazaar influence the cathedrals? What new spiritual innovations are you using?
Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin’s writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President Emeritus of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.