Friday, October 30, 2009

The Warm Embrace of the Church at the Funeral

A conversation with a funeral director revealed that 98% of his non-Roman Catholic funerals were at the funeral home. Although he personally liked having them at the church, his perspective was to give the grieving family what it wanted. As I listened to him I felt a great deal of sadness in which he said.

The whole notion of comfort in the time of loss has boiled down to giving the family what it wants. But isn't what the family wants to have life restored to the one who is dead? Or are we willing to settle for something else, something far less, something that makes us feel better in our moment of greatest need? As sad as death is, that we are willing to settle for anything less than life is sadder still.

If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is to spend our public grief in a place marked with death -- a place none of us would go to except death has called us there. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is the satisfaction of having death covered up in make up and nice clothing, in a box befitting that person, surrounded by flowers. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is sentimental music that makes the tears to flow. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better are eulogies instead of sermons, the past instead of the future. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is getting it over with and going back to our lives.

How sad that so many are willing to settle for so little! In the moment of our grief, the place that should call us is the place where we sat together to hear the Word of God and where we knelt together to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. In the moment of our grief, what will make us feel better is not a papering over of death's wound but the address of life within the room where Easter's news is celebrated with great joy each year. In the moment of our grief, what we need is not the past to comfort our sorrows but the real promise of life -- not some vague and uncertain life but the 'because He lives, we shall live..."

Thirty years ago you could find a cross, even a crucifix at funeral homes. Thirty years ago you saw in the funeral chapel an imitation of what folks might find in a church. Now even Christian families have given into video screens and living rooms to fill the void that death creates. How sad. The place that we need to be is the place that speaks to us Christ and His life. We need to walk past the font where the living waters first named us as God's own and imparted to us the mark of the resurrection to lives sin had marked for death. The surroundings that scream hope to us are the familiar surroundings of the pulpit where forgiveness, life and salvation are spoken and the Table where we feast upon heaven's bread and salvation's cup.

What have we done in ceding the role of comforter to the funeral home, its surroundings and its staff? Why do we Pastors not challenge more this idea that when death comes near we need to draw near to the sacred space where Easter hymns are sung, where the voice of the absolution rings out forgiveness, where names are written into the book of life through the baptismal pen, and where the wedding guest are fitted with the garments they need to wear for the blessed meal that celebrates the marriage seal between the mortal and Christ's immortality?

I must confess that I tell people over and over again where it is that Christians feel the warm embrace of hope in our time of loss, of the wisdom and blessing of being together in God's House when we lose someone we love. Yet somehow the press of culture and the culture of sentiment has distracted God's people from what I have to believe they know they should be to feel the warm embrace of hope and comfort at the funeral.

Of all the signs of how Protestant we have become as Lutheran Christians, the shift from the Church to the funeral home looms as a large one. How is it that we can settle for something less than all God seeks to give us in our time of loss? Why is it that we are content to be served by the professionals we do not know instead of the folks at Church whom we do know? What is it that draws us to the house of death when what we need is to be in the Lord's House of Life?

Yes, I know that you can proclaim the good news of the resurrection in a funeral home. I am not arguing that it is impossible to speak the Gospel in this setting. What I am arguing is that the Gospel is spoken in more than words when we gather in the House of the Lord to celebrate the end of the journey begun in baptism.

Tomorrow we will gather in the Lord's House for the funeral of one of our members and that is how it should be for those who belong to the Lord by baptism and faith. In the burial of the dead the Church places death in the context of the cross and empty tomb. In the liturgy of the funeral rite the Church extends the warm embrace of God to our grieving hearts and reminds us that we are not to grieve as those who have no hope. We are not ignorant but knowing -- we know death and we know Jesus Christ who is Lord even over death. So why is it so hard to get people of the Church to go there when death touches us or our loved ones?

For as long as I can remember the funeral home in the town where I grew up was small and awkward. There was only enough room to fulfill the essential duties of the funeral director to the body and the family. The church was the place where visitation took place. It was at the Church that the coffin was closed for the last time, the family ushered into the pews, the pall placed over the casket, and the strains of the hymn rise up as the body was brought in for one last time to the House of the Lord (here on earth). Now a new funeral home has been built and even on the plains of Nebraska where you cannot spit without hitting 20-30 Lutherans, the funeral home has become a funeral location.

I wish it were that our first thought was to be together in the church for the funeral instead of a living room of a funeral home. I wish that our first thought was to go where we first heard the familiar Scriptures that have spoken life and hope to us instead of the funeral home. I wish that our first thought was to be together in that place where our memories were formed at the font, the pulpit, and the altar rail, instead of bringing snapshots of those memories to a stranger's house.

98% of non-Roman Catholic funerals are held at the funeral home... Sighing, I admit that it may be an uphill battle... especially in the South... but the Church is where Christians ought to come to rejoice in the completion of what was begun at the font... where we Christians can learn again in faith to acknowledge with Paul, whether we life or die, we belong to the Lord... where we Christians can gather in our moment of loss and tie together our place on earth and the promise of heaven as every Sunday it is declared, "therefore, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising You and singing: Sanctus dominus deus sabaoth!


William Weedon said...

It is actually quite rare for us to have a funeral at the funeral home. And a curious custom has been begun, especially for larger funerals, of having also the visitation take place in the Church.

Charles Henrickson said...

Thank you for this fine article, Pastor Peters. It just so happens that in Bible class these weeks I am doing a series on "The Funeral Service and Christian Burial." So I plan to print out your article and share it with my class tomorrow. Pastor Charles Henrickson