“Good Grief” or “When I Die, Have a Funeral Please…”

I hear it more often than not. 

“They wouldn’t have wanted us to be all sad and forlorn; they’d want us to throw a party!”  This is usually followed by suggestions for service music and readings that have ranged from cartoon theme songs to a Stevie Wonder hit.

I mean, I’m not against experimenting with music, form, and flow of a worship service, even a memorial service.  But what must remain intact is the function.  And what, pray-tell, is the function of the service that punctuates the end of a life?

Thomas Long in his work Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral writes in the introduction that ultimately, “Underlying all Christian funerals is a very basic action shared by all humanity.  Someone has died, and the body must be cared for and carried to the place of burial, the place of farewell.” (xv)  More specifically, in the Christian context, he notes that, “The purpose of a Christian funeral is to enact the human obligation to care for the dead in such a way that we retell the story of baptism…” (xv)

If we accept that premise, we certainly have to accept the conclusion that we’re doing a pretty poor job caring for our dead and retelling the story of baptism, by and large, in mainstream American society (having never been to a funeral outside of the United States, I can’t comment on elsewhere).

Unfortunately, I think, the majority of funerals today are meant solely for the grieving, not the one being grieved, and even less so for sharing the story of life that we all share in common.  I take this as another indication of how selfish we have become in an increasingly individualized society where we are more globally connected and yet psychologically distant.  Long also notes this in the above work when he writes, “Given the current cultural climate, we can hardly blame (those who skip a funeral altogether).  Society has shifted, as we have seen, toward understanding the funeral as primarily an occasion focused on grief management and the comfort of the bereaved.  that leaves only two clear reasons why someone would want to attend a funeral: to receive comfort or to give it.” (92-93)

And yet, there is an aspect of the funeral that is for the griever, and that must be acknowledged before we go on.  Because really, in a moment of grief, I often wish someone would just call in the clowns, so to say.  There is a large part of me that would like to party, to skip the hard part, to distract my tears so that I wouldn’t have to wipe them away.  But I must cry, and so must you. That is, by the way, a key to rightly understanding lament in the Judeo-Christian tradition: it is not that every tear is stopped at the arrival of the Lord, but that every tear is wiped away. (Revelation 21:4)  We must, and do, and will still cry…

I may want to skip lamentation, to skip the funeral part of death, but I can’t if I’m going to end up whole on the other side.  The funeral rite, when done in the ancient form, performs its function, and part of that function is to bring the griever out of the valley of the shadow of death intact.  Whole.  And that point can’t be overlooked.

Where, but in a funeral, are we to express the psychological and physical repercussions that come with losing a loved one?  If there is one thing that a more formal funeral can do, is lead us, the grievers, through that valley of sadness and mortality in a way that doesn’t just leave us hanging out to dry.  As the ELCA worship resources on the funeral rite state, “The death of a human being is a reminder of the brevity of life on earth and of the universal, inescapable nature of life’s end.  In the face of death, care for the dying and those who have died is a fundamental sign of humanness, giving expression to deeply held convictions about the meaning of life.” (Life Passages: Marriage, Healing, Funeral, p. 58)

That is why ritual is so important for humanity.  It teaches us how to deal with life by practicing those things that we do every day, formalizing it, and processing it in a way that moves our hearts and heads even if our brains aren’t totally on board.  Or, put another way, rituals are “ordered events, and they are often performed in times of upheaval and disorder so that order may be brought to chaos.” (Long, 99)

A cartoon theme song, however important it may have been to the deceased, does not process the life lost nor life in general, and certainly is not an element of stability in a time of chaos.  You may think that is a subjective statement, but I would disagree with you.  There is, I think, a certain reverence that must come with looking at life on an individual and communal level no matter how attached I might be to a particular piece of popular culture.

No, it is a band-aid at best and sentimental memento at worst.

Now imagine saying the above to a grieving family who has requested a sentimental piece of pop culture at a funeral…and you’ll realize why you sometimes hear such things during the service.  You can’t say such things in the moment of grief without compounding grief.  Sometimes the pastor chooses to mention it; sometimes she lets it go.

Truth is, in a moment of grief, I don’t always know what I want…and neither do you.  I don’t always know how to process what is coming at me, and neither do you.  And that is why a rite, in this particular instance a funeral rite, is important.

And for the Christian it becomes doubly important because, well, it doesn’t become about you.  It becomes about how your story was a testament to God’s grace, a puzzle piece in God’s ever-evolving story, an arrow to the paschal mystery that is the font of all hope.  And in being that piece, it becomes formative for the faith of the faithful; it becomes a teacher.

Think of many of the modern funerals of today.  What is the operating theology behind them?  That the self is the center, even when the death of the other has occurred.

Adding to the confusion is the new element of social media.  I”m convinced that social media is making it increasingly difficult to make the necessary psychological breaks that come with death.  Can a person “live” forever on Facebook or Google+?  Or, out of deference to the process of life and death, should there be a mechanism that removes such devices?

I would advocate that there should be such mechanisms.  Now, it could be argued that we retain pictures, home movies, and other media items after a loved one has passed on, and that social media is no different than any of those keepsakes. But there is a certain amount of interactiveness that happens in social networking that is elevated above that of purely physical mementos.  Some studies suggest that brain attachment to media devices such as iphones are very similar to brain attachment to a loved one, perhaps deluding the brain into thinking that the person is never fully, truly, gone.  That is not good.

We have yet to fully see what social media does to the human brain and our ability to process loss.  Frankly, it concerns me.

But the funeral rite allows the participant to act out the drama of life and death without the need to return to that subject regularly…because the healing process has begun already even within those few hours.  Begun, but not finished.

Notice the shape of the rite. In the Christian funeral mass, the dead is carried from font to altar, from the font of life to the place of thanksgiving.  The ancient words of hope are re-read for the ears of those who have completed the journey with the deceased.  A meal is shared in the hopes that it echoes (and participates in) the meal being shared by the deceased with the Divine, and the body is laid to rest in the ground with the promise of God where it will become part of the foundation for the world once again, feeding new life in the sure and certain hope that God has taken care of all further arrangements.

And that story, dear people, is important to tell…and cannot be overlooked, cannot be masked over with a “party.” And while nothing is ultimately able to satiate the soul when we’re in mourning, there is medicine and there is drug, and it is my firm conviction that the ancient funeral rite is medicine, starting the healing process, and the self-serving funeral monster that has been created, evolved, and practiced over (arguably) the last 60 years is a drug, masking the symptoms of grief and delaying them.

Now we should address the obvious question of what to do if the deceased, or those honoring the deceased, are non-religious or even anti-religious?  What then?

In that case, I’d still go ahead with the funeral rite as described above.  Perhaps the songs sung might sound different.  Perhaps they’d be more solos than communal song (although, I have to say that one of the beauties of the Christian funeral is that you are surrounded by people who will sing for you when you cannot sing). The readings might come from Plato or Poe rather than John or Paul; perhaps there would be no font and no altar, but I would still advocate that we carry the deceased, that we bear the burden of life and death upon our shoulders. After all, there is an operating understanding of life being shown in this whole process…

In short, I think the funeral rite still has meaning, still retains reverence, even if it is removed from a specifically Christian lens because the form of the rite is wise.  The form belays an ancient wisdom that we have yet to internalize and still need. And if the very form of the action contains deep wisdom, we certainly don’t have to resort for shallow proceedings if a funeral is divorced from a specific faith tradition.*

But there is a place to party when someone dies.  My ancestors, the Irish, used to do it at the wake lasting deep into the night, drinking, playing cards, and carousing with the deceased.  Today an opportunity presents itself at the wake or funeral lunch/dinner, where slide-shows can be shown, memorabilia displayed, and reflections from the community shared.  And I want to say, loud and clear, that this, too, is an important part of processing life.  It is not all tears.  Laughter certainly has its place as one of the great gifts of memory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is laughter during the funeral rite itself.

Laughter and memory sharing are not the point of the funeral rite, though; it can, however, be the point of the luncheon.

The state of the modern funeral makes me a reluctant Christian.  For too long the church has cultivated a theology of selfishness while spurning the very healing of the self that comes with ritual.  For too long we have gone along with this idea that somehow funerals should be purely touching and sentimental moments to smile at, instead of the mix of knock-down, drag-out lament, tears, and touching sentiment that the ancient rite provides for us to use as a processing platform.  And because of this, its no wonder that we’re seeing people opting for parties rather than pallbearers: a ritual whose deep wisdom is clouded by inattentiveness breeds disdain, the appearance of vacuous actions, and ultimately rejection.

For too long we’ve practiced the funeral lunch in the sanctuary, and the sanctuary rite in the bottles of over the counter medicines months later, all the while purely honoring our own needs rather than honoring Life.

But, as I am a Christian, I believe there is always room for redemption.  We can make this rite, whether religious or not, into an occasion of reverence, if we face up to our own mortality with enough courage to honor it as gift.

And where do we begin?  Maybe in the classroom.  Maybe in the pulpit.  Maybe in communal situations that allow for such conversations.  But we certainly begin way ahead of death…as unpredictable as that is.  So, in essence, we must begin now.

And in the spirit of such immediacy, let it be known that I want a funeral, not just a party.  Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

*For an interesting non-theistic (although, not a-theistic) reflection on how reverence, as a virtue, is important to societal structures check out Paul Woodruff’s Reverence.

2 thoughts on ““Good Grief” or “When I Die, Have a Funeral Please…”

  1. I really appreciated this post. I work at a funeral home and see a wide spectrum of responses to the tension between caring for the deceased and celebrating the life lived. In my opinion, we’ve collectively forgotten and/or lost the language for talking about death in everyday life (both inside the church and out) so confusion and anxiety often dominate the funeral.

  2. I Believe a funeral should just be a comma at the end of ones earthly journey as the eternal journeyis just beginning!…when i preach a funeral i make it lite, for the family,friends and aqquaintances that came for closure but instead found NEW LIFE in Jesus!….i am a firm believer in altar call’s….not that they exactly must come forward if they had accepted Jesus that day as savior but a lifting hand s of praise…or coming forward, well i preached a funeral to a wonderful friend who always told me they wanted a soul saving service and that i did, and because of his faithfullness 15 people accepted Christ as lord and savior….to me, that is a homecoming!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s