funerals as counter-cultural practice

The early morning phone call caught me off guard. It brought news of the death of a beloved elder of the congregation. It was not the news of her death after a lingering illness that surprised me. Instead it was her son’s casual mention that the family would - at their mother’s request - be holding no funeral or memorial service. Even on the west coast of Canada, where traditional practices of marking death are in rapid retreat, this confounded me. She had been active in the congregation for nearly half a century. She was a long time member of the Worship Committee, and an honorary elder of the Board. Her own husband’s memorial service had been of great concern to her just three years previous. I found myself pressing the conversation, wondering how this could be her desire. Her son said that in the time following her husband’s death she had been depressed and had written a short note in her “Funeral file” requesting “No service be held for me”. He noted in passing that, just below she had added, “But if you do have a service please be sure to use my favorite hymns”.

Since I was just heading off to a weekly Bible study in which she had been an active participant for three decades, I wondered aloud at the group’s reaction to the news that there would be no service. The son offered up the possibility of a social gathering, with drinks and sandwiches, in her memory. Then he asked me to discuss the matter with the study group and to call him back. Later that morning I told the group of the news of her death and of her request that there be no service. “Oh, that wasn’t her” was their immediate response. They agreed that a service must be held (and it was). Then this aging group engaged in a lively conversation about the changing social patterns in marking death. They spoke of how empty it feels when there is no opportunity to gather to grieve and remember together. They reflected on the informal gatherings for drinks instead of for a funeral, gatherings that left everyone unsure of what to say or do. At the same time, they spoke of ambiguous feelings about the place of funerals. One said “I don’t want to have a service held for me - it would be too much of a burden on everyone, especially on my children”. Another commented: “I don’t know why a service would be held for me, I have no family. Who would come?”. It was unanimously agreed that none in the group would want to have their body present at the service. But, when pressed, no one in the group could articulate why this practice was so easily discarded as a possibility. It was evident to all of us that the conversation needed to continue.

Dying to the glory of God
The more I mentioned the conversation that had erupted in our study group the more I heard from the congregation that this was of interest to many. Soon the Adult Faith Formation committee had proposed that our Lenten / Easter focus for adult study be a series of evening gatherings entitled “Dying Faithfully”. A group of some twenty-five folk, ranging in age, participated in the discussions. More than that, news of the conversation spread throughout the congregation. In fact, the impact of the discussion continues to be felt and to grow now two years later.

The material for our sessions was home grown. We invited the questions of those who gathered (and discovered many more than we could possibly engage in six weeks). We shared in the discipline of reading selected scriptures each week, in preparation for our sessions (such as Romans 6:3-11; I Corinthians 15). We read the order for a Funeral or Memorial Service that is provided in the United Church of Canada’s newest service book - “Celebrate God’s Presence” (pp. 441-471). We structured simple sessions, that provided time for input and conversation as it became clear that just speaking about death together in this way was a new experience in the congregation.

It soon became clear that the conversation we had opened was much bigger than we had imagined. There were, in fact, really two main conversations. One was an important discussion about how the final days of our life may be the climactic moments in our journey as disciples of Jesus. We are so accustomed to imagining discipleship as productive activity that we forget the critical place of witnessing to gospel in the midst of sufferings and endings. Here, in acts of reconciliation and in words of encouragement as well as in unabashed lament and in courageous final days, we live the faith in the midst of death to the glory of God. As we opened our conversations it was immediately evident that the concept of the end of life as the culmination of a lifetime of discipleship had barely surfaced in the mind of the congregation. Yet, as important as this discussion surely is for us, a second one dominated our time together. What really captured the interest of the gathered group were questions of how we as a congregation will deal with death when it occurs. It was as if we recognized intuitively that in the marking of death we are confronted with powers that seek to erase the church’s memory and entice it to abandon its daring witness.

Communal property
The first sign of this amnesia overtaking the church appeared as we pondered the way we have come to consider the rites that mark our death to be our personal property. We speak about what “I wish for my service” or “what the family wishes”. This, of course, is a natural desire to respect the unique gifts and character of the deceased. But in a culture where the acids of modernity have reduced everything to individual choice this becomes a “trump card” that denies the possibility of an alternate communal witness. If the wish of the deceased is for there to be no funeral, no memorial, no act of worship in gratitude and grief then the church finds itself living a lie. For the church exists as a living witness to God’s steadfast love for each and every one. If it is no great loss when one dies, if it is possible to die and make no noticeable impact on the fabric of the church and of the community, then the claims made at baptism are false. It is critical to the church that every death of one of its number be grieved. To forget this is to forget that at baptism the church becomes the adoptive family of each disciple.

In the midst of our discussions another of our beloved elders died. She left a single daughter. The daughter had no desire for a funeral but she allowed that the congregation could do as it wished in those regards (although she made the decision that the body would not be present). This presented us with an unusual opportunity. There were no instructions from the deceased or from the family. Yet our beloved elder had been with us for fifty years. What would we do? It was agreed by the elders that we would worship God in the best way that we know. Our regular pattern would shape the service. A lector would carry in the Bible and light the candles. A worship elder would prepare and lead the prayers for the day. One of our number would offer carefully crafted remembrances of our beloved elder. We would sing hymns of praise and lament. A sermon proclaiming the gospel would be preached. We all knew what to do. We do it every Sunday. The Chapel was full with folk from the congregation as well as with people from the neighbourhood and from other congregations. Later, over coffee, a guest from a neighbouring church was heard to say: “Now that is interesting. When you have a funeral here, you worship.” Her comment was a revealing commentary on the way in which funerals have become sentimental rehearsals of a person’s life, with little reference to the transcendent power of God or the grand narrative that holds each of our stories.

Our study group was enhanced by the presence of a university student on exchange from India. He was fascinated by the difference between the Canadian church and his church at home. In particular, he noted that at home it was the congregation that was responsible for all the funeral arrangements. There it was assumed that the family had simply to grieve and be cared for. It was the elders who were expected to gather at the family home and to stay there, twenty-four hours a day, singing hymns and preparing for the funeral. All costs of preparing the body, holding the funeral and providing the burial were shared by the congregation. It was, like the early church, a memorial society in which the members shared the costs of death as a sign of their familial bonds. This testimony caught the ear of the Canadians in the group. We could not help but long for the kind of Christian community that he was describing. In listening to him we began to see how much we have become accommodated to a culture that breaks us down into household units. Why is it, we asked, that we simply assume that the costs of the funeral - the music, the reception, the plot or the cremation - are up to the family and are not to be included in the budget of the congregation?

This conversation led to another, to one that has begun a significant change in our congregational practices. A voice in the group questioned the way in which we decide whose funeral to attend. We simply take it for granted - in urban, western Canada - that our obligations to attend a funeral or memorial service extend to those who we know as friends or as colleagues or as acquaintances. But the congregation includes people that we do not know well or even at all. Yet each member of the body is crucial to its life, and each death brings pain to the whole (I Cor. 12). Death is not a private matter that affects only those who are friends and family. It is a public event that affects the whole church and calls the whole congregation together to grieve and to witness to the good news of God in the face of death. Each death is now an occasion to practice what we preach as a people. With each funeral or memorial we call upon the whole congregation to gather - as it is able - with family and friends as a sign of the gathered saints in the kingdom of God.

Bodily care
It was in the midst of a conversation about an impending funeral that I was confronted with the observation: “I know that there must be a theological reason for it, perhaps you can help me with it. I go to quite a few funerals and what I have noticed is that Catholics have the body present and Protestants don’t. Right?” This was John’s way of asking if there was any possibility of having his mother’s body in a casket at the funeral to be held in our congregation. For a moment I wondered what theological argument in the Reformation I had missed. But it quickly became apparent that the difference he noticed had to do with the willingness of Protestant pastors to accede to the wishes of the family when it comes to the presence or absence of a body at the funeral. These days, in British Columbia at least, common sense and custom leads nearly everyone to avoid the presence of a dead body at the service that marks death.

Our study group engaged this question repeatedly. It quickly became clear that this is a crucial issue in the formation of the identity of the church within a post-Christian culture. The group included a Swedish pastor, on sabbatical in Vancouver for a year with her husband. Following one session she stopped me in the hallway and quietly asked if she had made a mistake in understanding our conversation. She inquired if it is true that there are some funeral services in Canada at which there is no body present. I told her the truth - that I rarely conduct a service with a dead body present. Hearing this, she looked visibly shaken, her breath obviously taken away. The next week she described for the group her experience of the crucial importance of having the evidence of death present at every funeral. It was as if we were hearing again for the first time what it is to look death in the eye in order to proclaim the power of God at the grave (see also “Good Grief: An Undertaker’s Reflections” by Thomas Lynch in “Christian Century”, July 26, 2003, pp. 20-23).

But we soon realized that there is more to caskets than this. Caring for the dying and for the dead is a practice that disciplines the church to wash the feet of the poorest of the poor. In this way, Mother Theresa’s witness among the dying of Calcutta convicts Canadians who cannot even face the death of their own friends and family, but soon shun their bodies as if they were garbage. The unity of body and soul is crucial for Christians. It is what links our funeral practices with our concern for social justice. If we cannot carry the burden of each other’s bodies in death then surely we will find it even more difficult to carry the burden of others, beyond our circle in life. Here we must struggle to overcome our inability to be burdens. We imagine that “the gods help those who help themselves”, forgetting that this is the faith of Aesop’s Fables, not of the Bible. A biblical people know, instead, that the God of Abraham and Sarah helps those who cannot help themselves. In order to believe this our congregations need practice in carrying each other’s burdens. Our elders need to unlearn their fear of becoming a burden, so that the whole congregation has the opportunity to respond to the call to serve and to carry our cross (Mk 8:34).

Lament, Longing & Laughter
In opening this pastoral conversation we discovered the powerful way in which our practices at the time of death both reveal and shape our life together as a community. We noticed that by ignoring and silencing conversations about death we had unwittingly simply absorbed the assumptions of the larger culture that we inhabit. If the sub-culture of the church is to be a creative witness to an alternate way of living and believing then the mind of the community must be transformed (Rom. 12:2). Yet that transformation in ways of thinking is directly related to changed patterns and practices of living (see “Dying Well” by Amy Plantinga Pauw in “Practicing Our Faith”, ed. Dorothy Bass, Jossey-Bass, 1997, pp. 163-177).

As a pastor engaged in the re-formation of the mind of a culturally accommodated people (including the mind of the pastor) I have come to realize that these alternate patterns are learned slowly and patiently through diligent practice. I assume now that the congregation is like a student learning to play an instrument or to dance or to figure skate. Learning to live as a Christian people requires practicing certain patterns of life and faith over and over again. It involves shaping not only the way we live but also the way we think. We are like a figure skater practicing the same figure until we embody this pattern without even thinking about it. This is the nature of “figural” logic. It is the basic pattern we use to “figure things out”. Our study group discovered that we have simply adopted the ways in which our culture figures death out. We easily acquiesce to the families’ wishes. We treat death as an individual matter. We remove the body at first opportunity. We do not have the capacity to hold deep grief and rich joy together. Our practices reveal that we have forgotten the cruciform logic of the gospel.

At the time of death the Christian community rehearses the death that birthed its life. Gathered at the grave we live through the three day figure of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The gospel is not simply the joy of Easter. It is not simply announcing that death is over, as if it is not real. Rather, the gospel is a narrative of a death that we live within (see “A Death in the Family” by Stanley Saunders in “The Word on the Street” by Stanley Saunders and Charles Campbell, Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 41-47). We are living in the gospel if we are face to face with a terrible ending that devastates all of our hopes and dreams. The gospel begins always on this awful Friday. A gospel people necessarily makes room for the loud lament of people who are at the foot of the cross. And then the gospel endures a long Saturday of longing in which there is nothing but the absence of the evidence of God. We have often forgotten to practice this part of the cruciform figure, imagining that absence is outside of the gospel, that it equates with disbelief. But a people well practiced in the gospel host longing and absence in their midst because they know that it is not the completion of the gospel. For finally the gospel lands on Easter Sunday. The blues of Friday and Saturday are sung in preparation for Sunday’s impossible news of God’s power to overcome and to make new beyond all expectation. A people who know this figure in their bones are able to lament, to long and to laugh as if at the same time. This becomes the work of the life of the church. All of its worship and education, its service and communal life is a rehearsal of the threefold cruciform logic of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Then, when death breaks in upon the life of the community, the church instinctively knows what to do and what to say as a people shaped by the story of God made known in Christ.

Cultivating a prophetic people

Not long ago a young couple in the congregation experienced the still birth of their first child at the midpoint in their pregnancy. They were far from home and parents, deep in grief. They called from the hospital, asking me to come. There I found them, cradling their tiny infant, wondering how to mark this death of one who had never taken a breath. Our conversation led to discussions about the congregation’s changing practices. We agreed to hold a memorial service on Sunday following morning worship and to invite the congregation. The service was extraordinarily powerful. The figure of Friday, Saturday and Sunday was the shape of our service. At the suggestion of the baby’s mother, she lit a candle in memory of the child and then left candles for others who had ever experienced a similar loss. The line was long that led to the candles as women and men of all ages remembered losses of other infants - losses often unacknowledged in the church. Friends and neighbours in attendance wondered at the shape of such a service and such a congregation. I could not help but notice that we are beginning to understand that we are a peculiar people who have different ways of doing things and that these peculiarities and differences are crucial to our identity.

We too easily imagine that prophetic speech and action is synonymous with “social action”. As Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, social action is properly understood in biblical terms as a covenantal matter rather than a prophetic one (“Reverberations of Faith”, Walter Brueggemann, Westminster John Knox, 2002, p. 161). Prophetic speech and life is marked by its counter-voice to prevailing social patterns. A prophetic people re-perceives their life in the world in terms contrary to the dominant assumptions of the surrounding culture. To my surprise, what seemed an interesting, even important, pastoral and liturgical conversation about our practices at the time of death has emerged into a promising opening into prophetic ministry. Learning how to be a Christian community in the face of death is crucial to re-discovering our identity as a gospel people in the face of the powers and principalities that seem so overwhelming in life. This is not an innocent or trivial matter. Reconfiguring the mind of the church is a subversive move to prepare the baptised community for other Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays and Easter Sundays. I do not know what awful endings are yet to come upon us, but I suspect that we and our children and grandchildren will yet stand at the foot of the cross, sure that all is lost. Then I pray that we will have learned the cruciform figure that begins at the end and carries us through a long season of absence because of the deep hope that keeps us anticipating Easter, and Christ’s promised return.

                                                                                 - Edwin Searcy
 first published in Touchstone (2004)

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