Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Good Funeral…Or Is It?

image It is kind of a funny thing. I have a post 4/5 completed on Origen: one of my top 100 preachers and sermons of all time; I have a two-part report on Art Azurdia’s presentation at the Spurgeon Fellowship of two weeks ago well underway, and yet today I find myself posting on something totally different…funerals.

One of the most spiritually rewarding things I have done in the past few years is subscribe to Christian Century.  It was always the “liberal” nemesis to Christianity Today, and so I avoided it for a long time.  But I find the Century more interesting and more spiritually challenging than CT has been in a long time. 

In the current issue the cover article is on “The Good Funeral” which might seem to be a fairly innocuous subject. But I found it very thought provoking and insightful.

For most of my pastoral career, I have pushed for a more personalized, informal and positive focus to funerals.  And those are not in and of themselves wrong. 

But Thomas Long (professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta) contrasts the “normal” service of today with the historic understanding of a funeral…and the contemporary “normal” service comes up short in a number of ways. 

Long posits that by the beginning of the third century, Tertullian could speak of a basic form of Christian funeral practice that had arisen which firmly reflected Christian theology.  It consisted of three parts:

  • Preparation
  • Processional
  • Burial

“In Preparation, the body is washed, anointed and clothed in garments representing baptism.

“In Processional, the body was carried to the grave, and sometimes the procession entered the church on the way for prayer and the reading of Scripture.

“The Burial phase took place at graveside & included the commendation of the deceased to God and the actual burial of the body  During each movement, the church prayed, chanted psalms and sang hymns of joy.  Often a Eucharist was held, either in the church or at the grave.”

But note this:

“The theme of the service was the completion of baptism, and the church accompanied a brother or sister to the place of union with God through the resurrection of Christ.  Taken as a whole, the early Christian funeral was based on the conviction that the deceased was a saint, a child of God and a sister or brother of Christ, worthy to be honored and embraced with tender affection.  The funeral itself was deemed to be the last phase of a lifelong journey toward God, and the faithful carried the deceased along the way to the place of final departure with singing and a mixture of grief and joyful hope.”

Contrast that with the normal “memorial service” of today.  The body is often cremated.  If there is an interment of the body (or of the “cremains”) it happens privately with the family…or sometimes simply is done by the funeral home or cemetery attendants.

If there is a service, it is a “memorial service.” The customary distinction between a funeral and a memorial service is that the body or “cremains” are present at the former and not the latter. It is usually held many days, or even weeks or months later (to allow a dispersed family time to get the best prices on airline tickets).

It is generally a simple, brief, highly personalized and customized service often involving several speakers remembering the life of the deceased.

The focus is on good remembrances of the life of the deceased and there is usually a display of photos or memorabilia of the person being memorialized.

The emphasis is on joy rather than sadness. But the joy is not based on a biblical concept of resurrection and hope in Christ.  It is a celebration of the past…of a life (presumably) well-lived.  Much is done to avoid the somber reality of death.

Long’s judgment is that “these newer rituals, for all of their virtues of freedom, simplicity and seeming festivity, are finally expressions of a corrupted understanding of the Christian view of death.  These newer practices are attractive mainly because they seem to offer relief from the cosmeticized, sentimental, impersonal and often costly funerals that developed in the 1950’s, which were themselves parodies of authentic Christian rituals.”

Long notes that the contemporary funeral is really not about the deceased at all.  It is about the mourners and psychologically encouraging them to move on.  (I have often pretty much stated as much at funerals). 

But it is no longer the metaphorical expressions of the journey of a saint to be with God (the body of the saint isn’t even present!) “Instead of the grand cosmic drama of the church marching to the edge of eternity with a fellow saint, singing songs of resurrection victory and sneering in the face of the final enemy, we now have a much smaller, more privatized psychodrama, albeit often couched in Christian language.  If we take the plot of the typical memorial service at face value, the dead are not migrating to God; the living are moving from sorrow to stability.”

What is your reaction to this?  At a minimum it makes me rethink what I say when I meet with a family and what I say at the meditation part of the service. (I DO insist on keeping that in the service, much to the consternation of some). 

I don’t know that I have done justice in a few paragraphs to Longs five-page article, but I would recommend it to you. Whether or not you agree that we should go back completely to the idea of the community of faith accompanying the deceased brother or sister to the last step of his/her journey towards God, it is at least worth mulling over.  Is what we have gained in the personalization of the service greater than the loss we have endured by the change?

If we as preachers are Christian LEADERS, do we have any say in what happens at a funeral/memorial service that takes place in the church building?  Or do we just cower to the ill-informed wishes of the grieving family, not wishing to buck them or “further upset” them by suggesting that their plans for grandma’s memorial service really is devoid of any Christian content other than platitudes that might be said at the funeral of Carl Sagan?

I don’t think that the Christian Century has this article up on their website yet (they usually wait until the next issue comes out before posting the articles from the last issue), but when I see that it is up, I will try to post the link here.  It is at least worth reading and mulling these issues over for oneself.   

Thoughts?  Reactions?  (As I have said so many times, “God forbid that we should actually THINK for a change!”) Post them here.

1 comment:

dac said...

Having just buried my mother in law, I don't think there needs to be a split between doing a more modern remembrance of a life well lived and still be based on a biblical concept of resurrection and hope in Christ.

We had a wonderful time of Christian time of remembrance. If you like, you may go to my blog and see the photo montage that was part of the service.

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