Sunday, March 21, 2010

If you can't get rid of it, celebrate it...

A little while ago I got a note in the mail about a person I knew who had died.  The information on the death concluded with this line:  Because [name] enjoyed life to the fullest and would not want us to wallow in our sorrows over his death, there will be no funeral.  Instead we invite you to come to a celebration of his life.  If you cannot be present, click on the link to add your own (hopefully) humorous stories about how [name] loved and relished every moment of his life...

Now the rub.  First of all, last time I had spoken to his individual he was a Christian -- though no mention of this appeared in this death notice and description of the "arrangements."  Second, this person died an agonizing death to cancer and, although I do not have proof, I am certain that he did not love and relish every moment of his life.  In fact, I know that his last days were tormented by pain that was only slightly relieved by massive doses of pain medication.  Third, if all we have to hold on to when death claims someone we love are a few laughs, well that is pretty sad and no laughing matter at all.  Finally, in the hour of death we do not need a celebration of life.  No, we need the promise of life given to us in the wood of the cross and the hollow sound of an empty tomb.  We need that life sealed to our own lives in baptism where we died with Christ and rose with Him to new life.  We need not a celebration of life but the voice of the Gospel to speak in the midst of death's darkness, pain, and sorrow.

There was a time when I really appreciated the move from the black paraments of a funeral and the requiem aspect of the service to its predominant theme of resurrection and life in Christ.  I thought the move to white paraments (the color of Easter) was a good and needful way to highlight the connection between the rite of Christian burial and our own joyful resurrection with Jesus Christ.  I guess I still do except that I am not so sure that this is what people are getting from this shift.

In an ancient time when paraments and vestments were black, the seriousness of death was clearly acknowledged.  Death is no friend to us but always the enemy.  Now the surprise of grace is that God makes it possible even for an enemy to do His bidding.  In this case, death's end becomes the gate or door to life everlasting through our Lord Jesus Christ.  But this does not erase or diminish death's terrible reality.  Death is still contrary to God's good will and gracious purpose.  Maybe we need to go back to black to remind people that death is not the final stage of life.

And then there is this business of [name] would not have wanted... In this case the man was a retired church worker.  He spent nearly all his adult life serving the Lord in the Church.  Yet even this does not give us the right to decide how our death will be treated by those who survive us.  I do not really care what he would have wanted.  This man was a child of God in Christ -- the identity that trumps all other identities for those who are baptized and believe.  What he would have wanted is not the issue but how the Church  leads us through death to life in Christ through the funeral liturgy.  Besides, he would have wanted not to die this painful death. That is what he would have wanted.  Since he died this painful death, the least we can do is dignify this death by acknowledging its painful reality AND the answer to death which is Jesus Christ and His resurrection.

Let me end with this crap about a celebration of life or of his life.  This is silliness.  Yes, of course, there is a place for and it is highly important for the grieving family and friends to gather and speak together in remembrance of the deceased.  But this is not the last word we speak or surely we will have hoped as those who have no hope and will grieve as those who have no prospect of life and eternity.  A happy memory cannot erase the pain of death or close its mortal wound.  Only the Gospel can speak hope to those who gather to remember someone whom death has stolen from them.  Only the proclamation of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, can speak the Word that makes a difference to tears and broken hearts.  Yes, happy memories are a gift from God and a wonderful gift at that... but this is not what we hang our hopes on at the brink of death and the grave.  There has to be more.

It is not a celebration of his life but a celebration of HIS life (Christ's) that must be spoken.  Remember and recall, rejoice and laugh, cry and commiserate... this is what we do when death comes too near to us... but this cannot replace the answer to death which God has given to us in His Son... nosiree...

It may be comforting on one level to surround the casket with things that relate to that person's life, but the whole point of the shift from black to white was to focus on the clothing of Christ's righteousness which enables us to stand before the Lord and be welcomed by Him into the resurrection and eternity.  A couple of fishing rods or his Harley-Davidson or some other ornament related to his past has only the power to turn us to yesterday... but the Gospel spoken and the ritual of the Christian funeral point us toward the eternal tomorrow which is ours in Christ... and it is to this mercy that we Christians commend those whom we love... and nothing less!



Anonymous said...

Wow. Tell us what you really think, eh?

This is a timely post. I wouldn't be surprised if it was partially sparked by some of my recent facebook activity. I've been pondering this topic at some length since Cancer took one of my friends last week. The funeral home was surrounded with photographs - which is a pretty common thing these days. As a portrait photographer, I love this practice by default. And then at the church just before the burial they had 4 slideshows of photographs and many church members and friends got up and spoke about how this woman was such a good friend and leader (to the youth) and how she was always bold to tell people about her Jesus. She referred to Him as "My Jesus". She was a fabulous person and all the talk about her loving generosity and her love for Christ brought us assurance that she was one of His. I know that's backwards and not a very Lutheran way of looking at things. But moving on, all this has had me thinking about what might/could happen when I die. Would there be lots of photographs? Would people share fond memories? Would there be much good to say about me? Would many people show up? Had I touched many lives? One part of me really wants to be loved publicly and spoken-well-of. Then, the other part of me wonders "What is a Lutheran/Liturgical funeral like?". I've never been to one. Well, actually I was at one, but it was at an LCMS megachurch and they did the slideshow and spoke about how these two fine people were in Heaven (and I have my doubts). I don't think that is anything like they'd have at my church since we're pretty traditional - but I don't know how they conduct funerals. It's probably on the catholic end of the spectrum. A requiem Mass and a memorial slideshow life celebration don't seem compatible. I have been pondering how the two could be properly blended and I'm not a fan of blended worship.

On facebook one of my friends from my pre-Lutheran days talked about funerals being black, serious and morbid. She believed they should be a celebration of life. I guess that's where the blending idea arose from.

But now with your blog post I'm seeing that my wanting a photographic memorial and a celebration of my life is just vanity that distracts from the terribleness of death. And when you remove the harsh reality of death, you diminish the glory of the resurrection to come and life everlasting.

*sigh* I'm torn, but I better understand what I'm torn about. Thanks.

Larry Everett said...

Amen, Pastor This issue needs to be addressed even with orthodox LCMS Lutherans.

The practice of cremation is also one that should be address. Early Christians didn't cremate to 'save money' as some do today. Not that God can't raise up a perfect body on the Last Day. Not having the body present at a funeral is a denial of the fact. Who would want to subject the body of a loved one to the trauma of cremation?

Larry Everett

John said...

Pastor Peters,

Thank you for this fine post.

I have long held that the funeral service is one of the finest opportunities for outreach that there is. What a shame that some congregations/pastors go for the 'feel good' rather than the truth of the Gospel.

God bless!!


Jonathan said...

"Who would want to subject the body of a loved one to the trauma of cremation?"

Well, on the other hand, who wants to subject the body to the tortures of pickling it with formaldehyde and fillers and make- up so it can be put out on display like cold cuts in a deli case? That's equally ghoulish, in my opinion. And it's also designed to deny the reality of the harshness of death.

Past Elder said...

The "shift to white" from black vestments is part and parcel of the phenomenon you describe, another example of it.

My wife died of cancer at 43 the night before Thanksagiving leaving not just me but young children. That's all I will say about that here.

But as to her funeral, the promises of Christ were not a matter of white vestments and lack or presence of this or that, but a sermon delivered by a pastor fresh out of seminary who made it quite clear that the only dead people in the church at this funeral were not in caskets but those not alive in Christ.

I will hear the concluding words of that sermon until it's time for my own funeral as clearly as the day they were spoken: A few days ago most of us celebrated a thanksgiving that lasted one day, but Nancy began one that lasts an eternity.

Pastor Peters said...

When I spoke of the shift from black to white, I had in mind what comes to mind to the folks sitting in the pews... Black is somber and serious. White is more the color of a party so that is what people expect -- a party to celebrate the life lived. Naturally, a good sermon will fill in the void but I have also found people disappointed when the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ was proclaimed instead of a trip down memory lane.

Now don't get me wrong -- I believe it is imperative to speak of the deceased and the family but in the context of the loss and the hope that binds us together in Christ...

Dr.D said...

Much depends here on whether the funeral is actually a worship service, such as a requiem Mass, or if it is simply focused entirely on the deceased and what a swell fellow he was. There is a world of difference between the two. In the first case, the parish gathers to worship Christ again, for the last time in the company of the remains of the one departed before committing them to the earth. In the latter, there is little possible but to talk about what a wonderful person this was and how we are sure all is well with them now.

Anonymous said...

My mother died in December. The day of her funeral, after the service at the graveside, my sons and I went out to eat. There they wanted to know where I wanted to be buried, what kind of funeral arrangements, etc. My children each live a thousand or more miles from me. My siblings live on the east coast and I live in the middle of the USA.

Since I don't have close family here, I had not purchased cemetery property nor made any funeral arrangements as I had not considered this place my final resting place. I had fully expected to live somewhere else before I died. So, I just told the sons to do whatever they wanted to do, as I would not be here and would not care. Still, they persisted, that knowing my wishes would guide them in knowing what to do. My mother had left complete instructions as to what songs would be sung and by whom. Everything was planned and that made it much easier for those left behind to put her funeral plans in motion.

My mother's funeral was the only one I had attended in recent years that had the body in the casket, in the church, and was not focused on videos and wonderful testimonies about the deceased. The preacher brought the gospel into his message and our hope in the resurrection.

My children are still waiting for my answer. Your post and two others I have read in the past 24 hours have helped me to realize how important it is to have the body present, the reality of death, our hope in the resurrection, and not just focusing on happy memories. Thank you for writing on this subject. I was going to go with the cultural times and have a celebration of my life, but I now realize that instead my death should be real to those who attend my funeral, the gospel should be preached, and the hope of resurrection because of Jesus should be emphasized.