Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed — cultures see death as less alien. I’ve come up with two major reasons:
Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death. Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes. For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.
The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions. So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.
Two. We lack ritual. There’s three reasons why there’s a lack of ritual:
1.) We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community.
2). We tend to dislike tradition.
3.) We are becoming post-religious.
The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.
Muscle memory is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.
Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.
I just came back from indoor rock climbing.
I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes. Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.
Climbing is both strength and technique muscle memory. And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.
Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice. I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.
You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.
This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.
While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.
You didn’t create it. It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.
This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:
Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.
The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.
If we have community in place,
if we embrace tradition in times of death
and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,
we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.
Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome). It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster. Nor does make death more tolerable. And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”
Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.
Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.
We don’t have a set ritual for mourning the loss of the miscarriages and stillbirths. It’s a burden often carried solely by the mother, who is left to grieve a being with no major social connections except to her. She carried it in it’s life, death and is left to carry the grief.
There needs to be communal ritual attached to miscarriages, stillbirths and even abortions (the topic of communal ritual and abortions is something I’ll address in a later post). But, in the West, there isn’t ritual.
There’s been attempts. Some cemeteries have an “Angels” section. But this memorialization is the exception and not the rule.
It’s time to change that. I’ll repeat myself (and I’ll even use the annoying and incredibly loud cap locks): THERE NEEDS TO BE COMMUNAL RITUAL FOR MISCARRIAGES, STILLBIRTHS AND EVEN ABORTIONS.
After that brief cap locks, soapbox rant, we now return to our regularly schedule blog post.
On the island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, newborn infants who die are buried in the trunks of giant trees. The belief is that the child’s soul will rise up into the heavens through the tree.
This process is communal, as there’s a designated remembrance spot for the community. It involves ritual that benefits those most affected by the miscarriage/stillbirth/infant death: the mother. And, it sanctifies a space for grieving the loss of the least in society.
Here’s some pictures:
|Photo Credit: PhillipeTarbouriech|
|Photo credit: Mark Broens|
|Photo Credit: Derek Brown|
Are we rapidly moving toward a “Post-Funeral”culture?
I don’t think so.
After 50 years of steady decline in public attitudes towards funerals the pendulum is swinging back our way. Like Croci in the spring, the signs are poking through the frost if you will just look and this week’s post is one excellent example.
30 years ago a handful of brave pastors ignored the then-prevailing cultural surface signals and the revival we have come to know as the “mega-church” movement began. The common belief at the time was that people just weren’t religious any more. The actual reality was that many people had a deep need to grow in their faith, they just weren’t getting that need met by the traditional church. Those churches that reinvented their form to meet the need for a deeper relationship with god experienced both dramatic growth and equally dramatic cultural impact. If you are close to that movement you know that the founders changed the form while making the substance even stronger. They demanded things of their constituents who willingly responded that no mainline denomination pastor would dare ask.
I believe we have that same opportunity now as the anti funeral movement begins to lose its voice.
My friend Grant Mckenzie of Sarnia, Ontario shared an amazing article with me last week that illustrates my point well.
In response to the decision of a beloved elder to forgo a funeral, Pastor Edwin Searcy of University Hill United Church of Canada decided to conduct a study group on death in his church in Vancouver, BC. The results will surprise you. With his permission it is reproduced in PDF format in its entirety at the bottom of this page.
As a Christian Believer I found this a profoundly insightful article and a personal challenge to examine my own response to funerals in my church. It both strengthens my faith and challenges me to support my fellow believers in their time of need. Even if when I don’t know them or their family personally. Here are some excerpts from Rev. Searcy’s experience with his study group I think you will find interesting:
“They spoke of how empty it feels when there is no opportunity to gather to grieve…”
“Speaking about death in this way was a new experience in the congregation.”
“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.”
“If it is no great loss when someone dies, if it is possible to die and make no noticeable impact on the fabric of the church and 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.”
“A voice in the group questioned the way in which we decide whose funeral to attend…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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“We noticed that by ignoring and silencing conversations about death we had unwittingly simply absorbed the assumptions of the culture we inhabit.”
“Our study group discovered we have simply adopted the ways in which our culture figures death out.”
There is a nascent global movement afoot to “bring death out of the closet”. As the last taboo subject “Boomers” the world over are determined to make death a healthy topic of conversation. Rev. Searcy’s study group is an excellent example of this movement.
So, here is what I would do:
- I would print out copies of Rev. Searcy’s article and give copies to each staff member and leave copies in my lobby for the public.
- I would make an appointment with every Christian clergy in town and share this article with them and offer to facilitate a discussion group with their church. (You can see a copy of the outline for the first session by clicking here)
- I would stop looking down on those funeral practitioners that view their job as a form of ministry because it appears that it really is.
I believe the public wants to talk. They will find an outlet. If not you then who?
Click the red lettering below to download the PDF file of Dr. Searcy’s comments.
In addition to the weekly Creedy Commentary, I frequently contribute to industry trade journals and speak at trade conventions. Among my affiliations outside the DeathCare industry are The Center For Creative Leadership, The Performance Institute and Human Synergistics. I believe in giving back and so was recently honored to serve as Chairman of the Funeral Service Foundation.
Yesterday a modified version of my “Why 99.9% of Pastors Agree with Rob Bell … at Funerals” was featured on www.ChurchLeaders.com. That post stirred up a lot of discussion on my website and it’s doing the same over at Church Leaders, where, I was told, it vaulted itself into the Top Ten most read articles at Church Leaders.
It was truly an honor to be featured at Church Leaders and I was so glad for the discussion it sparked!
There’s been a theme in the reactions from pastors to this post (and, I should add, I have the utmost respect for pastors and the work they do). And the theme response is this: “I don’t preach anybody to heaven, nor do I preach them to hell … I JUST PREACH THE GOSPEL!”
Such a response sorta misses the point of the article.
The point of the article is to underscore that pastors will often preach a wider hope during death that contrasts both their attitude towards the lost and their theology. Ultimately, my intention was that they’d see this contradiction and be moved to question both their theology and attitudes in light of the wider hope they have at the funerals of unbelievers.
Yet, not only do some pastors miss the point of the article, I think “Just preaching the Gospel” misses the point of the funeral.
This is one of the more controversial topics that’s thrown around by families we serve. They ask, “Should we or shouldn’t we get a preacher who preaches the Gospel?”
Some families, even Christian families, are adamant that funerals are NOT a time for the preacher to use the death of their loved one as a platform for evangelism.
While other families are equally as adamant that funerals are a time to “take inventory” of the lives of the living.
Here’s my take on the whole thing: some Christian Pastors (and many of us Christians, including me) are losing touch essentially because we have a dualistic and individualist understanding of the Gospel!
How do I know we’re losing touch?
Because families, that would normally use a Christian minister are turning to other sources.
The Celebrant Movement is taking off, and quite honestly, they do an exceptional job in honoring the memory of the deceased.
Celebrants make the service incredibly community oriented, often bringing memory objects that help spur family and friends into sharing their thoughts and feelings for the loved one.
And that’s essentially what Celebrants do so well … they find a way to involve both the memories and voices of others in the service, creating a collage of memories by the voices of family and friends, all of which produces a great sense of life in the midst of death, as people are laughing, crying, hugging … all during the funeral service.
Some pastors are great at encouraging family and friends to speak (in fact, many in my community are really good at it), but others will take the funeral as a platform in disregard of the memory of the deceased.
The reason for Pastors losing touch is because their Gospel is out of touch with the present, as it’s so focused on the future.
As I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, we’re more worried about getting the individual soul to heaven than about bringing the kingdom to the world. We’re more worried about getting “decisions for Jesus” than we are about making Jesus disciples who will transform the world now.
In the context of a funeral, part of “transforming the world now” is addressing death as real, our grief as real, acknowledging the sorrow of God over death, and yet planting that seed of hope in the Kingdom come and resurrection.
It’s bringing our memories of this world together with our hope of the world that’s been inaugurated by Christ and is here, but is still not yet.
It’s not about emphasizing sin over grace, or grace over sin, BUT EMPHASIZING CHRIST IN THE WORLD … TRANSFORMING IT INTO SOMETHING NEW!
Should pastors preach the Gospel at funerals?
The Gospel isn’t about bringing somebody to heaven. It’s about bringing heaven to us. Wasn’t that the Good News … that the Messiah had come to dwell with humanity?
And if heaven can be brought to a funeral, through good memories, love, tears, laughter, correction, and the hope of Christ, than by all means preach it.
Today, Ken Knickerbocker and I are trading posts. Ken generously provides the residents of Parkesburg, Pennsylvania (which is where my wife and I reside) with “Parkesburg’s News and Happenings” at his website, Parkesburg Today, fulfilling a much needed service to our community.
On May 1st of this year Ken suffered the loss of his father. I’ve always thought one of the best things we can do as we experience loss is try and write our thoughts down. Not only has Ken done this, but he was gracious enough to share his thoughts here, allowing us to take part in his experience by sharing his lose of a parent, as well as the funeral rites he gave to his father, and the help provided him by a funeral director.
Sharing a personal grief experience with another is a sacred act, so read as though you are on sacred ground.
All alone laying on a table in the middle of a big empty room with only a hospital-like gown covering his body is how I found my father last week when my brother and I went to the Minshall Shropshire-Bleyler funeral home in Brookhaven a few miles southwest of Media, Pennsylvania to dress his body in preparation for the viewing and funeral service two days later.
My father had passed away three days earlier following a four year battle with cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He had taken a bad fall in January and ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull.
After his fall it was all downhill health wise for the poor man. Over the next four months until his death on May 1st he spent at most two, maybe three, weeks at home.
His passing, while sad, provided my father certain relief from his physical ailments and an increasingly frail, feeble existence.
Two days after he passed, I went to the funeral home with my stepmother and siblings to finalize arrangements for my father’s funeral and burial. Mike Okon, the funeral director, met us at the door, welcomed us, expressed sorrow for our loss and ushered us into the funeral home’s spacious conference room.
Mike sat patiently for an hour as my stepmother and I hammered out the wording of my father’s obituary and then reviewed the details of the itemized invoice line by line with her to ensure she understood and agreed with each of the several charges. At the end of the session Mike walked our family to the door remembering each of our names as he said goodbye.
Two days later my brother and I returned to the funeral home to dress my father. Dressing a body is not something one does every day but in our religious tradition men dress deceased males and women do the same for their departed sisters. Usually someone from the deceased person congregation is designated to dress the corpse but in my father’s case, my step mother assigned the task to my older brother Chuck and I.
While Chuck and I have been members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) since my parents joined the church in the late 1950’s, neither of us had much experience dressing a body. Chuck had never done it and I had only done it once, a few years back at the Wilde Funeral Home in Parkesburg under the watchful and ever helpful guidance of Bud Wilde.
Mike ushered us into the room where my Father’s body lay and turned to leave. Quickly, before he reached the door, I summoned Mike back and asked him to stay and assist us. He informed us he had never dressed a Mormon for burial and wasn’t sure how he could help.
Over the next hour Mike demonstrated all the attributes of the true professional. As my brother and I slipped slacks and a shirt, both white, over my father’s lifeless limbs, Mike showed us how to shift my father’s weight to position the clothes on his body. Once the shirt was buttoned, Mike tied the tie, also white, and slipped it over my Father’s head and under his shirt collar, tightening it perfectly around his neck.
Chuck placed socks and shoes, also white, on my father’s feet. Using tricks of his trade Mike filled out my father’s clothing to mask the weight dad had lost in the months leading up to his death. Finally, as Chuck and I placed the robes sacred to our faith over my father’s shoulders and around his waist, Mike made sure every crease and fold laid flat.
Thanks to Mike’s master’s touch in the hour it took to dress him, my father’s body was transformed from a lifeless corpse to a man ready to meet his maker.
A tranquil experience my brother and I won’t soon forget made possible by a consummate professional funeral director.