Saturday, October 10, 2009

Give me that old time funeral

On my first day as chaplain, I received a phone call asking for my help organizing a memorial service for a member of the faculty who had died the month before. His close friend asked me to help him organize something 'with grace and dignity that was religiously neutral.' Since then I have organized many services for people whose connection to the church was tenuous at best but who had ties to the university or college. These services took place on campus or at a funeral home. When I was ordained people in the parish began to ask me to do funerals and the funeral homes too began to ask me occasionally to do services for people with no church ties. I still do far fewer funerals in a year than many of my colleagues in full-time parish ministry but I suspect that I've done proportionally more funerals for people who have died young and tragically.

I was intrigued, therefore, by the latest issue of Christian Century. The focus of the October 6th issue is funeral practices and the main article, featured on their website, is Thomas Long's piece "The Good Funeral: Recovering Christian Practices." In it he observes a number of trends in the past 50 years in funeral practices:

With surprising swiftness and dramatic results, a significant segment of American Christians has over the past 50 years abandoned previously established funeral customs in favor of an entirely new pattern of memorializing the dead. This new pattern is not firmly fixed (indeed, variations, improvisations and personal customizations are marks of the new rituals) but it generally includes the following characteristics:

• a memorial service instead of a funeral (i.e., a service focused on remembering the deceased, often held many days after the death, with the body or the cremated remains of the deceased not present)

• a brief, simple, highly personalized and customized service, often involving several speakers (as opposed to the standard church funeral liturgies presided over primarily by clergy)

• a focus on the life of the deceased (often aided by a physical display of photos and other mementos)

• an emphasis on joy rather than sadness, a celebration of life rather than an observance of the somber reality of death

• a private disposition of the body, often done before the memorial service, with an increasing preference for cremation
I would add to the expressed desire that the service 'bring closure.'

He goes on to suggest that while "
[t]hese newer practices are attractive mainly because they seem to offer relief from the cosmeticized, sentimental, impersonal and often costly funerals that developed in the 1950s, which were themselves parodies of authentic Christian rituals," they represent a corruption of a Christian understanding of death. He suggests, "[c]ontemporary Christian funeral practices certainly need to be changed, but change should be more a matter of recovery and reformation than innovation and improvisation."

At the heart of what he sees happening is a significant shift in understanding of what the purpose of a funeral/memorial service is:

For example, the current shift to a memorial service with the body absent means that Christian death practices are no longer metaphorical expressions of the journey of a saint to be with God. The saint is not even present, except as a spiritualized memory, a backdrop for the real action, which happens in the psyches of the mourners. The mourners are the only actors left, and the ritual now is really about them. Funerals are "for the living," as we are prone to say. 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.

In response to the growing trend of people asking that there be no service at all when they die (just read the obituaries regularly and you'll notice it becoming much more common), I have said many times just as Long suggests that 'funerals are for those left behind.' So I was stung by his argument that these trends have a great deal to do with the loss of faith in the resurrection of the dead:

The fact is that many educated Christians in the late 19th century, the forebears of today's white suburban Protestants, lost their eschatological nerve and their vibrant faith in the afterlife, and we are their theological and liturgical heirs. It was not, of course, as if the whole of 19th-century Christian society woke up one morning and suddenly found that they no longer believed in eternal life. The loss of conviction about the otherworld came slowly and gradually.

These changes in theology coincided with the development of cemeteries set apart from where people lived so that the tradition of carrying the casket from church to grave ended and the two parts of the service were severed. And I would add to this that in most communities now, no longer do members of the family or extended community prepare the grave or fill it once the casket is lowered. Filling the grave by the mourners is an option here but it only happens in the Jewish section of the cemetery.

Long concludes his piece with a call for the church to regain its theological vision:

Surely the task before the church now is to retrace our steps and to recover the grand liturgical theater in which Christians embrace their dead with tender affection, lift up their voices in hymns of resurrection and accompany the saints to the edge of mystery. This will not involve a mere repristinating of funeral practices or a rejection of cremation, but a recovery in our time and in contemporary forms of the governing symbols of the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the journey of Christian dead toward the life everlasting.

This article is excerpted from his new book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, a book I look forward to reading.

I'm still mulling over Long's argument and I'd love to have a discussion about it with a group of clergy. I have some suspicions about how my colleagues might respond to his argument. Certainly the Roman Catholics have maintained much more of the traditional structure and theology of Christian burial. The personalizing trends he identifies are relegated to the prayer service the evening before. Most of us I suspect hear requests consistent with what he describes regularly - that the service be a celebration of the life of the one who died, that the high point be the powerpoint presentation of pictures, and that the music be from their favourite cd.

The problem with saying things like this is that it sounds like we're putting people down for requesting them. As much as I agreed with much of Long's argument I cringed to think of people I know and love reading it and thinking themselves criticized or dismissed because of the way they buried grandma. In fact, I put together my father's memorial service and it was pretty much as Long described the hypothetical service at the opening of his article.

Very few of the funerals I do are in the church or for people with strong ties to the church and so it isn't surprising that they do not reflect a traditional Christian understanding of death. So perhaps this article raises for me a whole different set of questions about how Christian clergy should/could respond to the requests of people on the edges or outside the church for burial (and one could add weddings and baptisms of their babies).

Having said that there are a couple of contemporary trends that really set my teeth on edge. The first is trend to call services 'a celebration of life' and the second is the word 'closure.' When I'm sitting with a family and they have that "gutted, we've been hit by a truck, sitting on the verge of tears" look about them and they tell me that they don't want the service to be somber because they want it to be a celebration of mom's or grandpa's life I want to ask them, why are you saying this? why are you trying to do this to yourself? I know that they won't be capable of pulling it off, that they are going to enter crying and spend most of the service trying and failing to hold themselves together. And there is nothing wrong with that. Why do we think it is inappropriate for funerals to be sorrowful? Occasionally people will say that they know their loved one is with God so it isn't right that they grieve. I always want to say, and have said in some funeral homilies, that Paul said, 'we do not grieve as those who have no hope, ' not, 'we do not grieve.' Somehow instead of holding together the grief and the hope that we have in the face of death we have lost the ability to acknowledge the grief. At least rhetorically. At the service grief usually has its say.

As to the word 'closure' I wish it could be banned from the English language. I was at a conference on grief once where the speaker said the word wasn't helpful because people didn't want to close off the dead person. She said it can get in the way if you tell someone who is grieving that they need closure because it sounds like what you are saying is that the person who has died shouldn't still really matter to them. Amen sister! Better to say that what we are trying to do is make some sense of the death, that we are trying to find a new way to relate to the person who has died, that the relationship we have with them is being transformed, and that the funeral is helping to do that.

And yes, I'm aware that that reflects the attitude Long identified that the funeral is about the living and their issues but I'm okay with that. Because as much as I think our funeral practices, like our wedding practices and everything else that we do, should be about teaching people how to look at the world in a distinctively Christian manner I also think we are there to care for people in their time of sorrow.


Malcolm+ said...

Like many rituals, the funeral functions on a number of levels. One of those levels is, in fact, as a means for the family and friends of the deceased to process their experience and their feelings and to come to terms with what has happened.

The problem with the the modern direction of funeral rites is not that they do these things, but rather that they seek to do them to the exclusion of all else.

For the Church, the principal (but not only) purpose of the funeral rite is to proclaim that Christ is Risen, that death is swallowed up in victory, that death is not the end of the story.

As more and more people have less and less experience of Christian funeral rites, we see more and more people arriving with the bland expectation of what they saw on TV, where funeral rites are almost always barren of any spiritual significance.

Even if a public funeral is "properly done," the coverage will ensure that no eternal truth emerged unbloodied. One of the complaints about the coverage of public funerals is the way that journalists can't bring themselves to shut their mouths and let the event speak for itself - witness Peter Mansbridge's interminable garbling all through the service for the late Princess of Wales. The only time he let people hear what was actually happening was during that barbaric eulogy by Earl Spencer.

When I was a youngish priest, I did a funeral of a man who was not a churchgoer. If you'd have asked, he'd have said he was an Anglican. But, like many men in some places, he was content to let the women of his family look after the religious responsibilities.

Afterwards, the cpomplaint got back to me that "it wasn't like a funeral at all - it was like an Easter service." Overall, I'd call that a success.

I've given clear direction to my family that there will be no eulogy at my funeral. The preacher is free to refer to my life if that is helpful in preaching a sermon about the Resurrection. Otherwise, any eulogizing should take place over drinks in someone's living room after the reception because that's where they belong.

Erin said...

Exactly. The trick is always the balance between these multiple functions I find. And some days I'm better at balance than others.