Wednesday, 18 November 2009

What Needs to Be Said in an Age When the Presence of the Dead at Their Own Funeral Is Optional

The following says what needs to be said in an age when the presence of the dead at their own funeral is increasingly becoming optional. It is an 'op-ed piece' written by a preacher and homiletics professor of some renown in clerical circles, Thomas G. Long, and appeared in The New York Times, October 31, 2009 edition (imagine that, the New York Times still asks preachers to write opinion pieces; I thought such a practice would have gone out of fashion at the end of the 19th century, or at least when 'religion' got relegated by the newspapers to a special column). The original is here:

There is wisdom here that pastors will do well to heed:

AT a funeral directors’ convention recently, I wandered around an exhibition floor crowded with the usual accouterments of the trade — coffins, catafalques, cemetery tents, cremation furnaces and the like. Scattered among these traditional goods were also many new baubles and gewgaws of the funeral business — coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; “virtual cemeteries” with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded.

It is hard to know what to make of this wild blossoming of unconventional mortuary merchandise. Perhaps it is the creative expression of a society grown weary of the extravagant hearse-and-limousine funerals of the past and ready to experiment with less costly and more personal ways to memorialize the dead. Some funeral directors seem to think so and are responding like dazed Blockbuster managers outmaneuvered in a Netflix age, scrambling to stay afloat in the wake of new technology and cultural improvisation.

But there is another, more accurate way to understand current funeral fashions. They illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.

Rituals of death rest on the basic need, recognized by all societies, to remove the bodies of the dead from among the living. A corpse must be taken fairly quickly from here, the place of death, to somewhere else. But no healthy society has ever treated this as a perfunctory task, a matter of mere disposal. Indeed, from the beginning, humans have used poetry, song and prayer to describe the journey of the dead from “here” to “there” in symbolic, even sacred, terms. The dead are not simply being carted to the pit, the fire or the river; they are traveling toward the next world or the Mystery or the Great Beyond or heaven or the communion of the saints.

And we are accompanying them the last mile of the way. Every generation re-imagines these images of what lies beyond this life, but what persists is the conviction that the dead are not refuse to be discarded; they are human treasures traveling somewhere and it is our holy responsibility to go with them all the way to the place of farewell.

Thus, funerals often involve processionals, sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate, a form of community theater in which we enact publicly the journey from here to there, thereby enabling both the dead and the living to process the reality and meaning of mortality. Historically, funerals have not simply been quiet times of reflection in secluded chapels but often have included noisy parades winding through the streets.

Today, however, our death rituals have become downsized, inwardly directed, static and, as a result, spiritually and culturally impoverished. We tend now to recognize our dead only for their partial passions and whims. They were Mets fans, good for laughs at the office, pleasant companions on the links. At upbeat, open-mike “celebrations of life,” former coaches, neighbors and relatives amuse us with stories and naïvely declare that the dead, who are usually nowhere to be seen and have nowhere to go, will nevertheless live always in our memories. Funerals, which once made confident public pilgrimage through town to the graveyard, now tread lightly across the tiny tableau of our psyches.

Even those mourners who, by will or habit, wish to take their dead to the place of departure often find their way blocked. Some cemeteries, fearing liability lawsuits from falls and the like, no longer allow funeral processions to go the distance to the open grave but encourage the mourners to leave the coffin in a faux sanctuary at the entrance. And many American crematories, unlike their European counterparts, are not designed to allow mourners to accompany the body all the way to the fire. Instead the dead must be dropped off, like a night deposit at the bank.

We hardly complain, though. For the first time in history, the actual presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional, even undesirable, lest the body break the illusion of a cloudless celebration, spoil the meditative mood and reveal the truths about grief, life and death that our thinned-out ceremonies cannot bear.

A corpse is a stark reminder that human beings are inescapably embodied creatures, and that a life is the sum of what has been performed and spoken by the body — a mixture of promises made and broken, deeds done and undone, joys evoked and pain inflicted. When we lift the heavy weight of the coffin and carry the dead over the tile floor of the crematory or across the muddy cemetery to the open grave, we bear public witness that this was a person with a whole and embodied life, one that, even in its ambiguity and brokenness, mattered and had substance. To carry the dead all the way to the place of farewell also acknowledges the reality that they are leaving us now, that they eventually will depart even from our frail communal memory as they travel on to whatever lies beyond.

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people,” William Gladstone, the British statesman, is said to have observed. Indeed, we will be healthier as a society when we do not need to pretend that the dead have been transformed into beautiful memory pictures, Facebook pages or costume jewelry, but can instead honor them by carrying their bodies with sad but reverent hope to the place of farewell. People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living.

Here is Long's book, Accompany Them With Singing, The Christian Funeral (click on the post title to view its contents at Amazon). Long is professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He is a Presbyterian of the progressive confessional sort, so while I wouldn't endorse everything he says, this book looks to be on the right track and to have some valuable things to say for those in pastoral ministry encountering post-modern atittudes to death both in their congregations and amongst the wider community.


matthias said...

I was at a funeral last week at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery here in Melbourne-formerly called THE NECROPOLIS. The deceased-who's coffin was there- was a loyal member of the UCA and the service was conducted by her minister- lady. she reminded us that death was what awaited all of us,that Christ has conquered death by His death and resurrection. Very simple,very short but very powerful service in which the Hope we have in Christ was held up before those who mourned a really lovely lady

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Matthias.
I think Australia is a little bit behind the trend Long identitifes in the US, but it is creeping in here - pastors are encountering more requests for funerals where the coffin is not present. And can you imagine not being able to walk in procession with the coffin from the hearse to the graveside because of fears of liability lawsuits, and having to "drop the coffin off at a centralised deposit station"? It will come, I'm afraid.

erika.hoffmann said...

Two weeks ago I attended the funeral of a friend who was not present at her own funeral. She was a Christian who cared deeply about her Anglican traditions and knowing that death was very close, arranged the details of the church service. She discussed these matters with the priest requested to officiate. Her sons and their families have no church connections and I wondered if they chose to exclude the coffin to avoid the stark reminder of her no longer living presence.

I missed her presence greatly. She should have been there, in her own church home, before the altar where she had received the precious sacrament, among the friends who came to both mourn and give thanks. We needed to see her being carried and supported by others on her final journey. We needed to (quoting you) " bear public witness that this was a person with a whole and embodied life. . ." It was a significant loss.

Thank you for writing about this. And especially thank you for the paragraph which begins with "A corpse is a stark reminder. . ." Tender, deep and true.

Mark Henderson said...

Erika, thank you so much for your comments - I couldn't agree more.
The Anglican funeral service is beautiful and comforting, and similar to our Lutheran service.

It's interesting to reflect, isn't it, on what the absence of the body at a funeral signifies about our culture's attitudes towards both the human body and death. Thmas Long says so many profound things about that subject here, which I why I wanted to share this.

My condolences to you on the loss of your friend: We look forward to the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen!

Schütz said...

Don't forget to give hyperlinks to the original sources, Mark. It is general form, like giving footnotes. I am very interested inthis, especially as the Victorian Government has given our commission a large grant to hold an Interreligous Seminar on Death and Dying next year.

Mark Henderson said...

Oversight rectified.
It's a fine article - I'm keen to read the book.