Two years ago, as I began my adventures as a Blogger, I promised (and intended) to write a series of three postings about death in a changing cultural context in which 1) fewer of us are actively engaged in the life of a faith community; 2) more death notices do not include any notice of a funeral, or any kind of ritualized recognition of the person’s death; and 3) when such occasions are identified, they are often identified as a “Celebration of Life.” At that time, I managed to write two out of three, which is not bad for someone who tends to think big but go small, or begins with great intentions but does not always follows through successfully.
Nevertheless, that third and final blog has often been on my mind, simmering on a back burner. Now, two years later, I am ready to put this puppy to rest and complete the trilogy of thought about such matters.
To put this blog into context, and to read the two original posts, go here:
What finally precipitated this blog was the opportunity to teach, at the local church I attend, a study titled Living Fully, Dying Well. It is published by Abingdon Press (2006) and has drawn a group of 25 mostly older adults into conversation about what it means to live fully and richly, and what needs to be done to prepare well for death. A recurring comment is that while they may be willing to talk about such matters and the necessary details, oftentimes their children or other loved ones are quite resistant.
Of course that is a hard conversation to have; I understand and appreciate reticence and the desire to avoid the topic. To think about the death of someone we love is extremely painful; we have to imagine a world in which they are absent and we no longer have the gift and blessing of sharing experiences, hopes, memories, joys, and challenges with them.
Our culture doesn’t make it easy, either. For a variety of reasons and in a multitude of ways, we enable such denial to take place. Sometimes we participate personally by being dismissive of our own death. As more people have instructed loved ones not have a funeral or any other kind of observance for them, I wonder if the one who has died doesn’t believe their life was that worthwhile, noteworthy, or significant. Does the decision not to mark a death suggest that the one who has died believes their life had no meaning or purpose, or that their life was so inconsequential that it is not worth noting and mourning? One of the great blessings of participation in a faith community is the affirmation that a life matters and has purpose and value; a person in such a community has heard that they have a place in the community and in the larger cosmic reality. But if we do not participate in that kind of sacred community and hear such a narrative, is it plausible to conclude that life and death are both inconsequential? Are we so small in a great world and universe that we perceive our life and death to be no more important and meaningful than that of a flea? What a disquieting and tragic contrast to the treasure of a faith community that, for example, trusts that God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139), or that even the death of a bird is noticed by God, so surely our life and death are even more precious and significant. So perhaps one reason we deny death is because we deny life. Our culture focuses on, and elevates the importance of the beautiful, the famous, the talented and skilled, the wealthy and exceptional, which can lead us to see our lives as diminished and unimportant if those attributes are not ours. Ordinary people with ordinary lives can be tempted to believe that being ordinary means we are unimportant and beneath notice or appreciation.
Or perhaps we deny death and minimize its importance because our life seems fatally flawed, and beyond redemption or repair. There is that hard reality that many of us are profoundly and deeply flawed (OK, all of us are, if we will be honest). There are those habits, attitudes, actions – past and present – that are our shadow side; our personal aspects that we regret or that leave a residue of shame, guilt, or sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to deny or excuse such aspects of ourselves when we are younger, but as a friend inelegantly but truthfully put it, “My life is covered in shit, and I don’t know how to get it off.” Again, if you live in a culture that is loathe to admit failure or error, to ask for forgiveness or make an apology, to hide shortcomings because they are signs of failure and weakness, some of us may conclude that there is little or nothing to celebrate. If that is the only way to mark a life and a death, it is better to err on the side of caution and not try to fake it, or have those who remember us only remember the good and go dark on the more complete picture of who we truly were in all our terrible beauty. Again, our culture is impoverished, as well as those who die in it, when we both live and die falsely, and when our lives and self-understanding are devoid of the promise and hope of the mysterious wonder of mercy and grace that comes from beyond ourselves, which a faith community can provide.
In her recent book Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott calls to mind, with a caveat, “the five Buddhist remembrances: I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me. I am the owner of my actions; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. Except, I might add as a nice Christian girl, through mercy” (Hallelujah Anyway, Riverhead Books, 2017, p. 70). Receiving mercy and grace, free and undeserved, and knowing how utterly essential they are to us, enable us to live and die in peace fully and honestly, embracing both whatever light we have been able to reflect while also, with Prospero in The Tempest, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” (Act V, Scene 1).
What is most disappointing to me is how the church itself contributes to the denial of death, even among its own. Euphemisms abound to shunt aside death’s reality; when speaking of the dead, in addition to such familiar phrases as “passed away” or “entered into rest” or “slipped away,” church folks and pastors conveniently skip over the reality of death and jump immediately into “claimed the promise of resurrection” or “entered into glory.” In my United Methodist tradition, the official title for a funeral or memorial service in The United Methodist Book of Worship is “A Service of Death and Resurrection;” but these days that name has often been supplanted by “A Celebration of Life.”
But a death has occurred. Scripture calls death the last enemy, and even when death comes as a mercy to the suffering, it still robs us of one we love and robs them of life. We may want to gloss over that truth, but it is true nevertheless, and faith is as much about speaking truth as it is anything. This is not something new in our contemporary context, but we have taken denial of death to a new level, and the church has become even more complicit.
My father died in 1987. On the morning of the funeral, my two sisters and I were at the funeral home when one turned to the other and said, “There must be something wrong with us; for the last two days people have been saying we look just like him (i.e., our father), but he’s dead and wearing a lot of make-up.” It was humorous, but it was also a recognition of a fundamental difference and reality: we were still living, and he was not; we were living and he was dead.
Nearly 45 years ago, Robert E. Neale laid at least some of the onus of death denial at the feet of the clergy when he wrote, “During a funeral the minister will be circumspect about death according to the standards of ‘good taste.’ Once when I was younger and a little more foolish than now, I spoke of death during a funeral, saying, ‘The man lying in this casket is dead.’ As you may guess, the statement caused no end of consternation. It…is striking that although the scripture read at funerals speaks clearly and boldly of death, it is not considered proper for the minister to do so in modern English. At the one time when death is most obvious to a Christian community, the Church flees into dogmas of eternal life. That little item in between life and eternity gets lost” (The Art of Dying, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 13).
As a seminary student, I remember a professor saying he could do a funeral for Adolph Hitler or any other person, because Christian funerals do not focus unduly on the goodness of a person but on the goodness, grace, and mercy of the God to whom all life ultimately belongs and who is able, even in the worst of us, to be at work for good. Our worship focus, as always and forever, should be not on us, but on the Triune God, and to acknowledge, confess, and speak truly of life, death, sin, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and even judgment, which ultimately does not belong to us, but to the all-wise One who knows us best and loves us most fully. Trusting in that God, we need neither deny nor fear death, and that is a treasured gift the faith community has to offer especially to this culture, still.
With some regularity, I receive email postings about the death of some pastor or other church leader, announcing, “So and so claimed the resurrection promise…” I don’t mean to be crass, but the image that comes to mind is of someone standing at the grocer’s deli counter ready to claim their turn at ordering cheese or meat, or a shopper at a holiday bazaar stopping by the information booth to claim their prize because their name was chosen and called over the public address system. Little or no grace is involved; everything is routine, almost contractual and obligatory and without surprise. Certainly no breathtakingly mysterious or stunningly unexpected awe is present, nor is there much overwhelmingly joyous gratitude. “So and so claimed the promise of resurrection…” Yawn.
In a similar way I read obituaries in which it is confidently claimed that the deceased is certainly now in heaven, enjoying all the blessings of the eternal celestial realm. And in all these moments I wonder, “How do they know that?” What is the source of this certainty that leaves no room for doubt and simply takes for granted that the claims are true and this is, in fact, their new reality?
I ask the questions not to be a curmudgeon but simply because these assumptions and claims seem to be contrary to my understanding of Christian scripture and tradition. At the very least they exhibit a level of pride and confidence that exceeds the limits and boundaries we can take for granted as finite, mortal creatures. Such claims take for granted assumptions I do not share as a person of faith, and I confess I believe to presume on divine prerogatives.
Truth be told, we Christian clergy share some of the blame for this spirit of entitlement in the face of death. Because of my age and station in life, with some regularity I attend funerals held in churches or led by Christian clergy who seemingly gloss over or ignore the reality of the death of the deceased. Typically, they glide quickly past naming the reality that the person is as dead as a doornail, leaving a hole in our lives or a ton of unresolved issues. Instead of praying for grace and mercy, there seems little or no need for such things because the deceased was such a stellar being. Instead of naming the truth that most of us are a mixture of good and evil, strengths and weaknesses, times of unmitigated failure and disaster as well as moments of triumph, the paradox of who we are truly is deleted and replaced with some holograph of pure light, joy and beauty.
That is not my life, and so such sentiments ring falsely hollow for me. I also know of funeral events in which I listened to glowing words about the deceased from friends who were utterly ignorant of the deep shadow side of the person in the coffin. These speakers needed forgiveness because truly did not know what they were doing; if they did they would have been much more cautious, humble and circumspect in their words.
Instead of proclaiming the remarkable gospel that acknowledges the awful truth of the death and destruction of our entire being as creatures and whose only hope of something more is by God’s grace and God’s gift of life, I often hear easy words that assure the gathered that of course this person has reaped a bonanza of life. We glibly are told we celebrate their life because they were so wonderful that we know without a doubt that they are now with loved ones, doing their favorite things, having a high old time – often in a heaven that seems to be remarkably devoid of God. Why would God be needed or even relevant to the life pleasantly assumed now to be lived by the dearly departed, when the prize is easily and readily claimed? This is an entitlement program that outshines all others.
Despite all these confidently expressed sentiments by clergy and other people of faith and good will, I am not so sanguine. Christian scripture often seems to acknowledge that we are finite creatures, bound by space and time, living souls who are but dust and return to dust. Unlike ancient Greek thought, in the Hebrew mind we are not immortal souls temporarily inhabiting physical bodies so that at death the body goes into the ground and the soul flies off to a spiritual realm. We don’t have souls, we are living souls inspirited and made alive by God’s Spirit, and when that Spirit is taken from us, we are entirely dead, utterly lifeless and, on our own, completely hopeless and powerless to change that reality. We are like shadows gradually vanishing as the memory of us fades among the living; all those who remember us eventually will join us in the realm of the dead until none alive will know us or remember the place we once filled in the land of the living.
Add to that the biblical concept that our lives are judged, weighed and assessed by the Eternal One who lives in light inaccessible, whose ways are not our ways and thoughts are not like ours. This Judge of all the earth seemingly measures our lives by the integrity and depth of our love for God and for one another. What seems to weigh significantly in the scales of divine justice is how we treat the most vulnerable and weak – the poor, the hungry and marginalized, the thirsty and naked, the sick and imprisoned, refugees and immigrants, our suffering and dying sisters and brothers who also are children of Adam and of God.
In contrast, my life is typically focused on getting and having and enjoying myself, and distancing myself as far as possible from the wretched of the earth as I secure my future on my own, doing as I please with my life without much regard for others or the Holy One who also gave them life. If my life is that misdirected on such a scale, how can I presume on God’s good graces just because I think God should do so? If all my days I have rarely or only peripherally focused on the things that make for life, how can I be assured of, or cavalierly presume I will spend eternity with One who is so Other than I?
The writers of the New Testament are seemingly more circumspect and humble in attitude. They speak of resurrection hope, not because they are entitled but because of God’s undeserved mercy, grace, generosity, love and unfettered freedom. St. Paul speaks of hoping to be raised with Christ to new life, but that humble hope is framed in the context of him also having suffered with Christ. Our life in life and death and life beyond death seem cut to the pattern of cross and resurrection, the style of suffering love wed to joyful trust worn by Christ.
For St. Paul in particular, it also seems that if there is a resurrected life it is lived as we are incorporated into Christ’s life. For him there is no life apart from the life of Christ into which he hopes one day to be mystically joined. That is why Christians can speak confidently of “the communion of saints.” That communion of the living and the dead is composed of all who abide in Christ and make a home in Christ. There may be a veil separating today’s enfleshed disciples and those who are asleep in Christ, but they all are one in Christ, and alive in Him. For us who claim that Christ is our life, there is no life apart from His life, and there is no communion of these living and dead outside of Him.
That resurrected life does not necessarily automatically and fully commence at the moment of death; in his most extended reflection on the resurrected life (1 Corinthians 15) St. Paul assumes that at death, all fall into the deep sleep of death until the end of time when at the final resurrection happens, finally death is defeated and those who belong to Christ are raised to life – but until then death remains our enemy even if vanquished by Christ alone (and no one else) when God raised Christ from the dead as the first fruit of resurrection (but not the whole harvest, for which we wait with hope).
St. Augustine suggests that in the realm of eternity time and space are no longer relevant and past, present and future collapse into one reality, but all this is mystery beyond my comprehension. What happens when we die? I do not know for certain. But I have seen something of the One who does know in the face of Christ, and so I can rest content in that mystery. I need not know, because I am fully known.
If there is resurrection, it is gift, unmerited favor and grace. We can await resurrection with humble hope, but not because we said the sinner’s prayer or we lived an exceptional life or we are entitled, but because of what we know of God. Our confidence is not in ourselves but in that God who is a God of life and love beyond our deserving; this God is full of surprises and able to do more than we think, dream or imagine. If we live in hope, it is not because we are good or great, but because God is, and has proven reliable to any and all who call humbly on God’s name and do not rely on their own strength but on the strength of the Holy One.
That seems a more fitting attitude for us who, even in our living, are in the midst of death. Come what may, in life or in death, whatever the future holds, we can rest confident that God’s love is great. We live and die in that love, and so we trust the mystery that all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well – even if we do not know the shape it will take in God’s good time and wisdom. Knowing we live in God’s love is all we have. But in life and in death and life beyond death (whatever that means), that is enough. That also allows us to leave in God’s good hands the rest of the story for those who do not follow Christ but are also God’s beloved. I am content to let God be God because I know I am not.
Instead of “claiming the resurrection promise,” perhaps a more appropriate aspiration would be for it to be claimed of us that we “died peaceful and unafraid, in the hope of resurrection.” So may it be for all who trust the God whose life and love we have seen in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.
I love Ash Wednesday. I love its irony – the Gospel lesson urges us to practice our piety (prayer, fasting and generosity) in secret, and then we are given a smudge of ash on our forehead for all to see as we go from worship into the world. Surely that must bring a smile to the Lord’s countenance.
But I love the public display of ashes on my forehead because at least on this one day every year, I am particularly mindful of the witness I offer through words and deeds, lest I give cause to anyone to cast aspersions on the name of the One I seek to serve and follow every day, or to give room for doubt or stumbling in faith because of the inconsistency between the mark of the cross on my brow and the marks of discipleship in my life.
And I love the yearly call to face my mortality and to continue turning to the Author of Life. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” These are not simply words, but concise truth. I remember the Ash Wednesday I marked a man’s forehead and the beginning of Lent with ashes, and the following Wednesday I attended his funeral.
This year’s Ash Wednesday was markedly different and unique, in that I received the gift of ashes at the end of a Roman Catholic Order for a Christian Funeral, also known as the Mass for the Dead. The service was squeezed that day between a morning chapel led by the priest and the students of the parochial school, and the next, 12 Noon service. Even as we mourners were departing, the faithful were gathering for that service.
“Media vita in morte sumus – In the midst of life we are in death,” has been professed in worship by Christians for more than a millennium; that phrase came to mind as in the midst of grief and loss of some, it was an ordinary day (albeit a sacred one) for most who came and went.
The 6th century Rule of Benedict teaches the faithful, “Keep death ever before your eyes,” as an everyday reminder of our mortality; in that spirit Steve Jobs rightly observed, “If you live each day as your last, one day you’ll be right.” Or as children chant without necessarily understanding, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” Daily consciousness of one’s mortality does tend to focus the mind and heart, and can be an excellent filter for discerning what matters and how best to use the fleeting moments loaned to us before our life is returned to its true Owner and Author.
This Ash Wednesday especially led me to be mindful of my mortality. My recent retirement both confronts me with the stark reality of how this next life chapter ends, and affords new opportunities for reflection, solitude, and discernment. So on the day following Ash Wednesday, I wrote my obituary as part of a process of funeral planning to aid and guide my loved ones when at last, my last day arrives.
When my dad died in 1987, my mother took that occasion to make her plans for her own funeral and to express her own wishes and desires. I affectionately called it her “lay away plan,” but deeply appreciated her taking the time to do so; at her death she made my life so much easier. My experience has been that most of us don’t necessarily know what songs or texts have shaped a life of faith; prior to her planning I could not have named those most formative for my mother’s discipleship. But when I reviewed them in planning her funeral, it was abundantly clear how influential those texts had been for her; while they did not always shape her as fully as they might have, clearly their imprint had been left on her life.
I knew this was something I wanted to do for my own loved ones. But it is still an odd thing to ponder your own death and to give expression to your heart’s desires for how to observe that passage. So after years of telling others the value of such planning, I finally prepared my own “lay away plan”last week.
The process was both a challenging and rewarding opportunity for sifting and sorting. How does someone who loves music, hymns and sacred songs, and who was part of a church choir before he was literate, select what shall be used to sing him over? How does someone steeped in scripture choose particular texts as parting words of witness? How do you choose from a brace of kinsmen, companions and friends those who have so particularly blessed and graced your days that you want them involved in your final day?
It was not an easy task, but as clarity arrived I found myself truly grateful for each relationship noted, and confident that the songs and scripture selected were at the core of who I am and am still becoming. Every choice and stated desire – who to contact initially; what I wanted as attire and what kind of container I wished for my mortal remains; where I wanted folks to gather and where I wished to be laid to rest; putting into writing my desire for the expressions of affirmations of faith manifested through Eucharist, Paschal candle, funeral pall, simplicity of clothing and casket; condensing a life into a death notice – all became sacramental and sacred.
Yesterday, on the first Sunday in Lent, the preacher reminded us that Wednesday’s cross of ashes is superimposed on the cross made at our baptism on our heads, hearts and lives. Every day affords the opportunity and challenge to bear witness that our lives are not our own and to show forth in our lives Christ’s love, mercy, grace, passion and life. And that watery cross mixed with ashes is a comfort and promise that all our days, from first to last, are lived in God’s care and compassion, so that in life and in death, we need not be afraid.
“In the midst of life we are in death.” The United Methodist Book of Worship’s Service of Death and Resurrection follows those words with this haunting question and bold affirmation, “From where will our help come? Our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” I used my mother’s obituary as a template for my own; it begins, “David Meredith Hindman, husband of Terrell (Teri) Linkous Hindman, died peacefully, unafraid and in the hope of resurrection on Month Day Year. The month, day and year are italicized to indicate they are to be completed with those specifics in days to come; in the same way “peacefully” and “unafraid” are italicized to indicate my permission for family to tell how I really died in case I am, in the end, anxious or fearful. The statement is aspirational, not wishful thinking. Whatever that day brings I hope and trust I will faithfully and humbly live and die into it, trusting in the One who gives life and takes it away, and has given Christ as a model for life and death, and life beyond death. What does remain constant and unequivocal in that opening sentence is the affirmation, “in the hope of resurrection.”
The first question and answer posed in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) sums it up well:
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins…and has set me free…. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Amen. Thanks be to God.
In 1900, life expectancy in the USA was 47 years; most people died at home, often in the company of friends or family. Since most were also born at home, birth and death were woven into the fabric of life.
And death was a familiar thread in the seamless garment of life. Go to any church or municipal cemetery with graves prior to the 1920s and you’ll immediately notice how many young lie buried there. Young adults, teenagers, young children, infants are mingled among those with longer lives. In the not so distant past, death was certainly mourned as “the last enemy,” but it was also familiar, acknowledged, and a more frequent visitor interposing itself into the normal routine of life. While it was as unwelcome a guest as today, it was not shied away from or denied, and few sought to put lipstick on the pig to make it more palatable or less real. Indeed, oftentimes it was those closest to the dead who cared for them, treated their bodies with dignity and respect, and did all in their power to express the same love and care to the dead that was shown while they were alive.
In another time, the funeral home was not where a body was taken, any more than a pregnant woman would have been delivered to the hospital to give birth. Death, like birth and most of life, was an affair of home, hearth, and heart.
My maternal grandmother, who died in 1955 (I was 4 years old and hers was the first funeral and burial I attended), was the wife of a Southern sharecropper. To make ends meet, he also drove the school bus; she sold butter and eggs.
And she dressed the dead. When someone in the community died, she was contacted to clean and bathe the body, and fill the body’s cavities with absorbent material. She dressed it and made it ready for viewing and the final journey to the grave. She was a neighbor being neighborly to those in need and did it honorably and humbly. And I suspect that as she dressed each body, with the help of others or in solitude, she was greatly aware that one day she also would die, and someone would tend to her. In the quiet conversation of a few at work or in silence as she worked alone, she pondered the mystery and wonder of life and of herself, and assessed how she was living the measure of her days.
In 1960, my paternal grandmother died. True, the funeral home was called to the hospital where she had died to take her body to be embalmed. But when that undertaking was accomplished, she was brought home and laid out in the living room, with her piano to the right of the casket and the sofa to the left. Visitation was held (ironically, but appropriately) in the living room; I remember some sitting on the piano stool and others on the sofa, talking with family, friends and neighbors who came to pay their respects.
When all the guests had departed for the evening my grandfather, my parents and I went upstairs to go to bed. Grandma was in the sleep of death in the living room; we slept a briefer spell overnight in the room above. But from that day forward, I was never afraid of the dead; after all, the dead person downstairs had loved me in life, so why would she haunt me with terror now?
In my previous post (For the Life of Me, Part 1), I presented a variety of ways funerals and disposing of the dead can be done more simply, economically, and without as much involvement of strangers. I suspect that some (many?) may have found those suggestions troubling, unnerving, unsettling, and producing a bit of squeamishness. I doubt any would have produced the same responses among most folks from previous generations.
For them, caring for the dead was the last fine measure of devotion, care, friendship or family obligation. Tending a loved one was work too important to be left to strangers, as much as possible.
Such work is still holy, to be cherished, and not necessarily left to strangers. True, it is unfamiliar to us, to keep company with the dead. It is unsettling, disquieting, a potential cause for anxiety or stress.
But so is being a true friend or professing love; staying married or surviving divorce or giving birth; learning to ride a bike or getting on the bus for the first day of school; letting your child go off to camp or drive alone behind the wheel of a car; leaving home for college or going on a job interview; having a fight with someone you love or asking for forgiveness; dealing with sickness or failure or heartache; growing old or coming to the end of our days. None of those life experiences is easy; few of them can be avoided. Coming to grips with them is hard, yet each one provides unexpected potential for blessing and growth.
To face and embrace life’s challenges is to live larger, deeper, more fully. It is, to use an image of C.S. Lewis, to become men (and women) with chests.
It is to live with courage. Interestingly, courage comes from the French word for “heart.” To live with courage is to live both bravely and with love.
And it is to live with humility. Humility – a word that derives from the same root as low, down to earth, reminding us that we are mortal, earthbound, earth born, in-spirited, divine mud pies who also one day will wither, die and be blown away like the dust we essentially are. We are also stardust, but either way we are dust and to dust we shall return.
A friend has wisely said that to be an adult is to know that traveling down life’s road you have to look at the road-kill; you can’t avert your eyes, but you have to look unflinchingly, and keep going.
Perhaps if we learned to live with dying and the dead, we would be less afraid to look it straight in the eye and not abandon the dead to go it alone unattended, unnoticed, left to fend for themselves when perhaps they most need the company of friends and family, and not left in the hands of strangers.
How do we learn not to fear death, the dead, or deny the reality of our mortality?
- St. Benedict, whose Rule has guided the life of Christian monastic communities for 15 centuries, wisely teaches us to remember every day that we are going to die. Or as Steve Jobs put it, live each day as if it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right – and hopefully you will be at peace as you encounter a familiar face.
2. There is blessing in talking with family or friends about life and death, what truly matters to us, what frightens or brings us joy, what we wish to bequeath them (blessings and values, and not just the velvet painting of Elvis hanging in the garage), naming our wishes and desires for how we would like to be remembered, or what kinds of rituals at our death we think would honor our lives.
3. In my last months of ministry, I began a new practice I wish I had done from the beginning. Whenever I was called to the home or hospital where someone was actively dying or had died, as often as I was able I stayed with the body until s/he was removed to the morgue or hearse. When possible I also helped to move the corpse into the body bag and accompanied it on the way. Each time the family expressed deep gratitude; I don’t think they knew how important it was to have their loved one accompanied and not left alone until I made to offer to remain. Each time I helped to move a body, it was an honor and an act of simple care and devotion. Each time I was left in the silence with the dead, I could not help but ponder my own life and imagine myself one day lying on a bed, breathless and still. To face the mystery of life and death is a holy thing that indeed tends to focus the mind, heart and soul.
4. We show up at the funeral, the memorial service, the crematorium or crypt, wherever the final acts will take place to become familiar with the reality of death, to prepare for our own dying and funeral, and to accompany the grieving and the dead on the last journey of life. It’s the least we, the living, can do.
5. Finally I must make confession. For me as a person of faith who sees most clearly the face of God in the face of Christ, I learn daily not to fear death by going deeper into relationship and friendship with the God of the living and the dead, whom I have learned only wants good for me. Just as I learned not to fear the dead because it was my beloved grandmother asleep in death in the living room while I slept upstairs, so I am on the road to learning to trust the living God who never slumbers, never sleeps, who comforts us in our distresses, heals all our diseases, and like a mother cradles us in loving arms and sings us to sleep so we can rest unafraid until the morning comes.
Next Up: Is It Our Denial of Death’s Reality?
Last week I listened to a news item on NPR about Americans adopting a Buddhist ritual to mourn miscarriages or abortions.* At the same time I am noticing more death notices in the local newspaper that lack information about any kind of funeral or memorial service; or they only indicate that one will be held at a later date (but how will people learn about it if they have an indirect or unknown yet significant connection to the deceased?); or I hear about the wish of the dying that there be no service to mark their end.
What a puzzling paradox: some people needing to find a way to express grief and loss for a life never lived outside the womb, while others seemingly are minimizing or glossing over the departure of one who lived for years, even decades, among us in this world.
For the life of me, I can’t figure it out.
For 50,000 years or more, we humans have marked through ritual acts and symbolism the reality and mystery of death, and have acknowledged the terrible tear in the social fabric and individual lives of the living who remain. It seems to be something we need at a deep existential level; why else would we bother to ache or mourn those miscarried or aborted beings and feel some deep need to note their existence, however brief? And if it is that important, why are growing numbers of our neighbors choosing not to do so in a ritualized and public way?
What’s going on here? I don’t presume to have the answer(s), but I do wonder if one or more of these are at play: financial costs; fear of death or denial of its reality; low self-regard on the part of the deceased; increasing secularization of our culture and lack of shared, meaningful ways to ritualize and mark this life event; other factors I have not mentioned or that are unknown to me?
In a series of blogs I will explore these possibilities, and finally identify how I think a Christian service of Death and Resurrection seeks to address the mystery of death, and why that matters. I would hope people from other faith traditions would look at their rituals surrounding death in the same way and do the necessary translation using the lens and language of their faith, but it would be arrogantly presumptuous (and naïve on my part) for me to do that for them. In addition, as our culture becomes increasingly secular and the traditions, practices, and languages of faith traditions become increasingly unfamiliar to more and more people, perhaps this will help them consider and create new ways to mark the death of loved ones or make sense of their own mortality.
Some would say the prohibitive cost of funerals is at play here.
Certainly this may be an issue for some families, as they look at expenses for the dead that could be well spent on the living. But unless we are members of the Tana Toraja community in the southern province of Sulawesi, Indonesia, you still have to dispose of the body rather quickly and easily. (The people of Tana Toraja often wait months, and even years, to bury their relatives. In the months between biological death and the burial rites, family members interact with the deceased in ways Americans might think unimaginable — placing their skeletal remains in the house, bringing the deceased tea and food each day, and including them in family activities. But the practice has value – to slowly endure the process of transforming the relationship of the living to the deceased).**
But to me, this doesn’t seem a particularly compelling reason. On average a wedding in our culture costs $30,000 or more. A funeral is not nearly as expensive, and how much we spend eating out, attending sporting events or concerts, participating in leisure activities and other non-essentials is in the billions of dollars every year.
Nevertheless, if cost is an expressed factor, cremation is certainly an attractive option for reducing costs.
Another option would be to donate the body to science.
If neither of those is an appealing option, burial does not have to be as expensive as you mighty imagine.
Unless a body is crossing state lines, in Virginia the body doesn’t have to be embalmed as long as the casket is closed to the public, nor you do you have to pay for it to be transported at cost from the site of death to a funeral facility (that’s right, if money is the issue you can put your loved one in the back of the car, or someone else’s vehicle. The same goes for transporting the body to its final resting place, whether it’s in an urn or a casket).
A do-it-yourself casket kit can be ordered online; the least expensive I’ve seen is $79.00 (plus shipping and handling) for a wooden pallet and shroud.
In James City County, Virginia, where I currently reside, a county park shelter can be rented for as little as a $25.00 application fee for a gathering for family and friends, and even some form of ritual marking this significant life event (at least, it’s not prohibited on the County application for facility use). There are other, non-faith based spaces that can be rented or borrowed as well, and many faith communities would probably be willing to provide such space if asked; the funeral home is not the location for gathering around the dead.
If you own sufficient land or know someone who does (I know that in Hanover County, Virginia, it can be as little as two acres), you can bury the dead on your own private property. A backhoe can be rented pretty reasonably to do the heavy digging (or recruit friends and neighbors to help with the work, and then share a meal afterwards as a sign of appreciation).
For a no frills funeral, costs could also perhaps be covered by family or friends contributing to the overall expense as well, or with the assistance of local faith communities of all stripes, or social service agencies. Who knows? Crowdsourcing might be an option as well. I know a couple who financed their honeymoon that way; why not honoring the dead as a community?
Regardless of cost, however, one way or another the removal of the body from among the living has to be done. But the costs are not nearly as high as we think they are or they typically become in our culture.
Next up: Is It Our Fear of Death?