Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Funerals Are Dead -- Long Live the Celebrations of Life

I see that the obituaries in my city have universally abandoned the term funeral in favor of the much more positive "Celebration of Life."  This is not only for those who have no Christian affiliation but for Christians of all stripes, as well.  I have argued with them that Lutherans do not celebrate life but we do bury the dead through the Christian funeral.  Yet it seems to no avail. 

Some Christian (and Lutheran) conservatives are worried about cremation as a pagan practice.  Good God, nearly every burial practice today is so pagan that it is difficult to find anything consistent with Christian faith and practice.  First of all we make the dead look as much less dead as possible.  I am not sure whether this is a denial of death or simply a silly, sentimental attempt to soften the reality of death.  Personally I can think of nothing more scary than the prospect of someone being placed in a coffin who was not dead and then being buried alive.  And the banal and vacuous conversation that goes on about how "good" he or she looks in the casket is itself testament to our unwillingness to admit that death is a real enemy to be overcome.  Why I have often heard that the person in the casket looks better than they did while they were alive.  If the price of looking good is dying, then I vote for looking awful.

Then we embalm that body so that the dust to which it is meant to return is put off as long as technology is able to deny its return to the earth.  Like Lenin whose body has been kept in somewhat "normal" appearance for how many years, we find some sort of sick comfort in knowing that if we did up the dead after a decade or two, they will look a lot like they did when we planted them in the ground.

And then there is the funeral home.  Instead of sitting vigil with the dead, we turn the viewing into a living room, adorned with objects familiar to the deceased as if a dead man who once loved fishing is more easily mourned by surrounding the body with the very things that he will never do again.  I once thought that the video of pictures was a good thing but even this has become an exercise in removing seriousness from the whole thing of dealing with death.  We no longer mourn the dead or lament our loss or wail and gnash our teeth.  Instead we laugh and giggle at the mention of those funny little memories of which the pictures remind us.

When it comes time for the service, the "professionals" take over and the Pastor becomes an actor with a bit part in their production.  The screens on either side of the "chancel" at the funeral home "chapel" continue to play the happy scenes of the life now gone and the Pastor is left to merely comment upon the memories and, if possible, tell a good joke or funny story to make us happy again.  Sometimes even the coffin is left open so that the Pastor is hidden in the shadow of the open box.  Oh, and don't don't forget the music that plays a sound track for this whole production (a musical accompaniment that is less about faith than it is about what the dead would have wanted or the living enjoy hearing).  And if you set the funeral when your Pastor cannot be there, don't fret.  The funeral home/celebration of life center has people on staff who will do the service the way they and you want -- without fighting all those decisions that go against the grain of Christian faith but make us feel so much better about death (or do we call it the end of life?).

At the end of it all we have the chance to burn up the remains and receive a baggy of the deceased to carry around with us and drop off in dribs and drabs at all the places so special to his or her life.  Or, if we are old fashioned, we might put the embalmed and wonderful looking body and its finely crafted comfortable resting place into a vault in the ground -- sealed so tightly that nothing gets in and nothing gets out for as long as the lifetime guarantee allows.  Then we can put up a tombstone which has an electronic device that will replay the person's voice whenever we want to laugh again at that wonderful old story that he or she always told so well.

Celebrate Life!  I don't think so.  I long for the old days when the family washed the body and pine box accompanied its journey back to the dust of the earth.  When we carried the coffin to the Church and from the Church to the cemetery, while the great hymns of the faith and the story of the death that gives us life set the whole event into perspective.... When there were tears of loss because death was no friend but the mortal enemy for which God Himself risked human flesh and blood to live, yes, but more to die for the dying and grant them life death can no longer steal away... When time stopped long enough for the family, friends, fellow church members, and neighbors gathered in solemn and sacred duty to bury the dead... When funerals were funerals and Pastors were there as representatives of God to frame our sorrows within the context of the cross and empty tomb... When what we needed to remember was what God did to answer death's cry and rescue us from its bondage... When the images that mattered were the sacred symbols that gave visual form to what we believe, teach, and confess...  Things were not perfect back then but at least we knew that death was real and really awful and that God does not just console us but restores to us the lost lives sin stole by nothing less than Divine intervention.  So I vote "no" to celebrations of life and "yes" to funerals where the story that is central to death is Christ's life.

You may worry about cremation being rather pagan in origin but it is less the problem than the kit and caboodle of modern day burial practices...  I know I have offended funeral directors (or is it celebration of life coaches) and I apologize both for painting with a broad brush and for faulting businessmen who give the public what it wants.  But I needed to say it... and maybe you do to when you show up at the funeral home (make that celebration of life center) to make arrangements for your loved one.  BTW, don't set the time of the funeral/celebration of life without first checking with the Pastor's schedule.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

One of the benefits of being in a relatively small town is that I know all the funeral directors in Enid (town of 45,000 10 miles away from me), and they all know that I know them, and they realize that if they tick off the pastor too badly they will likely loose that church's business. They know how we do things out in Lahoma, so I don't get nagged about having an open casket (and if they talk to the family when I'm not there, they nip that in the bud if some cousin suggests it).

Now, that isn't to say that things here are ideal. I too dislike the embalming, the long delay of funerals (there was a reason you didn't bury someone 5 or 6 days after they died back in the old days), the super expensive caskets, and actually, I don't like vaults (why do I care about keeping the casket safe in the ground - when I'm dead, it's job will be to get my body to the ground, nothing more, nothing less). Also, they don't normally have family visitations here -- you're just supposed to go visit the funeral home, look at the body, and sign the book. Very odd.

But at least, even with somethings I don't overly care for, the funeral home directors know and accept how we do things.

Laura said...

Thought your comments very insightful. I have long been interested in the "Memorial Societies" movement that favors a community caring for its own dead and shuns the funeral parlor scene. One very good recent book on the Christian Funeral is Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral by Thomas G. Long. This author addresses some of the same concerns you have raised here.

Anonymous said...

Part of the solution is to have
the great majority of your funeral
worship services at your parish
sanctuary. Educate the members of
your church that Christians have the
privilege to do this, while non-
Christians do not. It is unnatural
to conduct a funeral service in
a mortuary and God's people need to
understand this. As a pastor of a
LCMS suburban parish I know the
challenges but it can be done.

Norman Teigen said...

The spread of the Consumption Community ethos is as powerful and irresistible as the Japanese tsunami. It affects the church when it comes to weddings, funerals, and the Sunday morning worship service. The purpose and function of the proclamation of the Word is greatly impaired by the practices outlined in this timely message.

Readers might want to pick up 'Huck Finn' and see how Mark Twain portrays the lugubrious funeral director who just seems to be in every place of the room.

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting Frontline show on PBS some years ago that addresses some of what you discuss in this post. Some of the comments from the poet/undertaker that compose most of the episode are very interesting. Its a secular program, but it seems to come to some similar conclusions. Also the videography has some interesting juxtapositions that help illustrate the point. Information (and the entire episode) can be found online here:

Sue said...

I really appreciate your "rant" and understand what you're talking about. I love the funerals held in the church, if "love" is the right word. I really dislike attending them at funeral homes, particularly when it is not religious. And even one held there for a church member is sometimes strange. I went to one a year or so ago - we are big into singing in my congregation and all the hymns at the funeral were recordings to which we did not sign along. I hated that! I get so much comfort from the words that are spoken, prayers that are prayed, hymns that are sung, and the lessons that are read.

A few years ago, I attended a funeral at a Baptist church. Afterwards, I tried to remember if God was mentioned or if there was even a prayer - I think there might have been one at the beginning. I thought it was awful.

Mark Reed said...

@ Laura - I am reading Long's book as well and it's wonderful. Reading Pastor Peters blog post brought it immediately to mind.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Funerals (or the similes of funerals) have been a pet-peeve of mine for many years. In them we not only have the 'have it your way' of consumerism running far afield, we also have as the handmaiden to the 'celebration of life,' the so called 'grieving process.' That is, grief is something to be gotten through as quickly as we can; avoided if at all possible so we can get on with the vanity we call life. Grief is bad because it makes me feel unhappy so I'll slap a smiley face on the funeral and laugh my way through it, and if anyone thinks I'm being irreverent or shallow, I'll throw 'the deceased wouldn't want us to cry' in their face to make them and their Christian propriety go away.

In the last few years I've given up on expecting anything other than a lot of self serving folly at a funeral or memorial service. It is usually an exception rather than a rule that Christ is even mentioned in most evangelical protestant church funerals. There's a lot of generic God talk, usually no invocation, often no cross, scripture is read as if it were thrown in at the last minute, and then I hear brief talks (I wouldn't grace them with the title 'sermon.') that only show that the minister hasn't got a clue as to how to apply the word of God to this particular circumstance. That is what makes me the angriest; the leaders of happy-clappy churches who, when faced with death act like a Holstein looking at a new gate; people are hurting and no comfort is given. It seems at times that amidst all this victorious Christian living, and talk of living your best life now, no one ever hazarded a thought as to the fact that someone in their church might actually have the gall to die.

Bill Hansen said...

"I have often heard that the person in the casket looks better than they did while they were alive." That sentence of yours reminded me of a short poem that appeared in Christian Century quite a few years ago. I wish I could find it so I could quote it here. It describes the person as looking so much better than "last week when he was merely sick."

Anonymous said...

The contemporary funeral home which
has been built in the last 15 years
is a whole new ball game. They are
designed to look like an elaborate
and well-furnished living room.
People are welcome to see the
pictures and mementos of the deceased
and celebrate his or her past life.

Power Point presentations and home
videos are suppose to ease the pain
of losing a loved one. Christians
can expect to celebrate the new
life in Christ that the soul of the
departed now enjoys in heaven.
The soul of the Christian is alive
and conscious of his surroundings
in heaven. We can rejoice with
him or her.

Anonymous said...

We've had "celebrations of life" at our church for several years. At least that's what the pastor calls them. Most of the rest of us still call them funerals.

I know a pastor who has simply told all the funeral directors in town that if one of his members dies, the funeral will be at the church. No exceptions. And they all comply. If the family can't afford the extra charge for a church funeral, sometimes the funeral home will waive it since they know they can count on the extra money from most families. If they don't waive it, then the church will pay for it.

I've been to funerals at many churches, and rarely do I hear the gospel preached except in Lutheran churches. I recall the funeral of Princess Diana, which would have been a terrific time to bring the comfort of the gospel to a grieving nation, but the opportunity was completely wasted. The only real gospel was in the texts of the music performed.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

^ Anon, a year or so ago I went to the funeral of the father of a friend of my wife and mine. The pastor of this once very Biblical protestant denomination spent about 20 minutes telling a story of a day when the deceased his daughter and son in law went fishing. And that was it. The truly disgusting moment was when the decease'd fellow lodge members performed their ritual at the gravesite and came closer to the Gospel and spoke more of God than the alleged Christian pastor at the funeral.

Anonymous said...

How much better when life begins in the home (when there's no problem or emergency) among family and friends - then to the church for baptism.

Death - whether in the home or hospital - would be so much better followed with grieving in the home with family and friends - then to the church for funeral service, then to the cemetery for burial service. Wish we could altogether bypass the funeral home experience. I remember going to a Great Aunt's home for the visiting/grieving. I wonder if that option still exists. That was 55+ years ago. Unfortunately there is too much interference and cost with both entering and leaving this world.

Unknown said...

When we lost our loved ones, we all feel sad and we are longing for them.

Billy said...

Our team Considerate Cremation & Burial Services have noticed that celebration of lifes are becoming more popular thank you for sharing.