Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Funerals Are Dead -- Long Live the Celebrations of Life
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.