Monday, October 12, 2009

Banishing the Dead from their own Funeral

Funeral practices could probably take up a hundred posts and still we would but scratch the surface. Suffice it to say that the industry is profit driven and that most funeral directors will do whatever the family wants to please the customer. I am not faulting this but suggesting that the goals of the funeral home may be at odds with the Church.

I for one am not a big fan of the big screen TVs that have shown up in every funeral chapel around. They are fine in the viewing areas where family meets friends and often help put a fuller perspective on a person's life than what someone might know only from the perspective of work or neighborhood. If chosen well it can relieve some of the pressure on the family to rehearse over and over again details and stories that can be easily told in the form of a single photo. But...

None of this belongs in the chapel or in the church. There these screens stick out at cross purposes with the funeral liturgy. Here we focus not on the life of the deceased but on the hope that bestows resurrection and life everlasting -- in other words, we focus on Jesus Christ. But it is hard to talk about Jesus while photos of the deceased and the family trip to Yosemite flash behind or on either side of the preacher. And if the family is non-Christian, why do they gather in the "chapel" at all -- it seems a curious place for people with no beliefs.

I am equally uncomfortable about most of the canned music that is played as either background or front and center during many funerals at funeral homes (and, unfortunately, in churches, too). The music for the funeral is the music of the Church -- the sturdy hymns of old that give melody to the message of death and resurrection, forgiveness and life through Jesus Christ. 'Daddy's Hands" may be good for a ton of tears but sentiment is no substitute for the hope that is within us. For that it must be Jesus Christ -- crucified and risen for me and my salvation. Again this is directed to Christians -- to church members -- and not to the unbelieving world which can play whatever they want (with the exception of music of the faith) -- including "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (ala The Big Chill).

But increasingly we are finding the phenomenon of a funeral in which the deceased is not present. People are doing more and more immediate cremations with memorial services that follow later (often sans even the ashes). In other words, a funeral in which the dead have been banished. But why? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Having the dead present only reminds us that funerals are, well, about death. They make it hard to turn the funeral into a happy event when there is the unpleasantness of a dead body lying right there in front everyone. It costs a bit more and who wants to waste money on a body that is already dead? The person isn't really there anyway so that body is just a shell that has been outgrown, right?

But I am all for having the body there. Even if cremation is the choice, having the body there for the funeral is a good thing. Yes, it reminds us that we have not gathered to remember a life but to bury the dead. But that is the reality of it. Death is real. We can cover it up with pancake makeup, we can dress it up in new clothes, we can make it look like sleep (but isn't that a pleasant thought -- your loved one is sleeping in a casket and about to be closed in a covered up forever), but it is death we must deal with.

The resurrection only makes sense as hope if death is real to us -- the thief who steals away our lives... the result of a sin we were born into and added to on our own... the cold darkness that would swallow us up except that Jesus swallowed it up for us...

All our wonderful funeral practices cannot make this reality go away -- only Jesus can. And we do not do ourselves any favors by trying to make it appear as if death were not real. It is. It is real and personal. Only a Savior who is as real and personal can address it and steal away its victory.

And we do our children no favors by shielding them from death. We won't teach them to pray "if I should die before I wake" because we don't want them to have nightmares. We drop them off at the babysitter so that they don't have to suffer seeing grandma in the casket. Are we helping or hurting them? Or, by insulating them, are we are hurting them?

I have a vivid memory of my mother lovingly and gently fixing the hair of her Aunt Alice when she died. It did not scar me. It taught me. Like the men and women who brought the spices to anoint Jesus' body, this was an act of love. Years ago the family washed the body and this duty of love was not only an acknowledgment of death's reality but pointed to a reality even bigger -- of the love that raises the dead to life everlasting. Years ago every home had a formal parlor whose duties included housing the coffin and the dead for the family visitation. Churches has formal parlors for just the same purpose.

I can still recall when my Grandpa Peters died and the pallbearers lifted the heavy casket and body to carry it out the door of the country church and down the hill into the cemetery behind it. I can still see the long line of people who had filled the building in testament to their love for my Grandpa. I can still hear the dirt and the sound it made on the metal casket as the casket was being lowered into the ground. I remember the tombstones of my great-grandparents nearby and other family members as I looked around that day now forty six years ago. These are not terrible memories but comforting ones. Death was real and honest but life was proclaimed in Jesus Christ who is even more real and more truthful. It all combined to tell me where my Grandpa was, who he was a child of God, and what grace supported him in life and now called to him in death with the life only Christ can give.

Let the body be at the funeral... Let the children come, too... Don't let memories be your only consolation -- let it be the Resurrection of our Lord that lifts your spirit. Don't hide the death in the hopes that it will make it all easier. Let us be honest... honest about death and honest about the life that is ours in Christ. It will help and will not hurt. God promises us this...


Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

These are such important words for everyone to consider. Even if a person opts for cremation, please let there be an open-casket funeral. I can't begin to tell you how comforting it is for family members to have their loved one in a casket and visited by friends. It is a vital part of the grieving process and I shudder to think what I would be dealing with now, on a personal now, had I not had the chance actually to be with my father's body as it was viewed and buried.

Anyone have any doubts? Ask me.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if the tradition in the midwest was the same as the South, but we used to have the body in the home. No funeral homes; that's what the parlor (in a larger home - main room in others) was for.

Death was real, close, and it came into your space.

Anonymous said...

Pastor please help my husband and daughter with the service. I totally agree with your line of thinking. Thank you so much. I will place this blog with my Last Will and Testament.

signed: Janie D. (sure you know who I am)

Pastor Peters said...

Janie... I will help but I hope it is not soon... We need good folks like you... God bless you... Pastor+

janie said...

Right Right Right----if only you had a mega forum to explain these valuable insight even to just our town the young and middle aged people trluly need to hear you.
Keep up the good work
thank you for you
your friend Janie