Funerals: Recovering hope in a culture terrified of death (2 of 2)

clip of leaves

Snark MeterrealMID.003

I promise you interesting reading on a topic you were not looking for in the middle of Advent. Although not the usual topics for youth ministry and/or church planters, as advertised in part one (The obsession we cannot avoid), here is the text to our Q & A on funerals.  It will give you a glimpse into the purpose and power of the traditional burial office. It was produced by Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of Rhode Island, Bryan Owen, Rector of St. Luke’s Baton Rouge (blogs as Creedal Christian), and myself. It is available as text for websites or as a customizable flier.

Why have a funeral in a church?

One of the characteristics of an Episcopal or Anglican Church is that you will often see graves inside the church or on the church grounds. When we speak of the Church, we mean both the church militant (those who are alive right now) and the church triumphant (those who have died and ended their earthly race). When you worship in a liturgical Church you are literally and tangibly in the presence of the whole Church. A funeral in the church building is a sign that, even though death seems to divide us from those we love, the Body of Christ is never divided. As members of Christ’s body, we are still connected with those we love but see no longer. Therefore, a funeral in the church building foreshadows that day when we will be reunited with the entirety of the Body of Christ in the presence of God.

Why a burial office (prayer book funeral service) instead of a memorial?

Rather than focus on what we believe to have been important about our loved one’s life, the burial liturgy reminds all present that we are brought into a reconciled relationship with God after our death because of what God has done, not because of what we did in life. Using the burial office rather than trying to create a particular and personal memorial service is a consequence of that belief. In the burial office the gathered body of Christ expresses gratitude for God’s redeeming work in our loved one’s life, hands them over to God’s gracious care, and looks forward in hope to God’s future resurrection of us as well.

Why do clergy accompany the family on the initial consultation with the funeral home? 

It is often a good idea to have the church funeral planner accompany you to the mortuary in order to coordinate arrangements at the beginning of the planning process. The clergy/church representative is your advocate and a calm and supportive presence at a time when difficult decisions must be made.

Why is it important for the body or cremains of the deceased to be present?

Christians believe in the bodily resurrection, not just of Jesus, but of each of Jesus’ followers. We do not know what our new bodies will look like, but we do know that God is going to transform the essence of our whole selves, our minds, our souls, and our bodies. The presence of the body or cremains of our loved one is a sign to all of our trust in God’s plan to redeem and transform us in the end.

When there is a body, why is the casket closed and covered with a pall? 

Holy Scripture tells us that “to be away from the body is to be home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). We close the casket because our loved one is no longer present-only their remains.

Once inside the church the casket is completely covered with the “pall.” As Easter people we are dressed in white in our final church service. The pall points to the reality that, whatever our station in life, we all come before God by virtue of being clothed in robes made white by Christ’s loving action on our behalf.

Why are there no eulogies?

Although there is a degree of latitude granted in some parishes, there is a longstanding tradition of not having eulogies in the burial office. This is because the burial office, rather than fixating on the past, orients our faces toward the future promised by God that is a consequence of our relationship with Jesus. It is a good thing to remember the lives of our loved ones and to give thanks for all they have meant to those who remain behind. That work of remembering, though, happens best when we can do it in conversation. Perhaps you will want to have someone speak about your loved one’s life during visitation hours before the burial office, or at the reception following.  You also have the option of having a Vigil the evening prior to the funeral as a time to offer prayers and to share memories of the deceased. (BCP, 465-466). *Feel free to speak with your priest if you wish to discuss this further.

Why is that ‘big candle’ used in the service?

The Paschal Candle is first lit each year in the Easter Vigil to symbolize Christ dispelling the darkness. As the candle is brought into the darkened church, we sing that the light of Christ has conquered the darkness of the grave. The Paschal candle is lit every time the Church celebrates a baptism. In baptism we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit” and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP, 308) The candle is lit at every funeral to remind us of this unbreakable bond and the truth that nothing in all of creation, including death itself, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Why Is the church adorned in white?

The church is adorned in white because the burial office is an Easter liturgy and focuses on the unexpected joy of the resurrection, which the Church has proclaimed for two thousand years. In the liturgy, there is a beautiful phrase, “Yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” It is in the hardest, darkest times of our lives, that we insist on proclaiming our hope that “in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Why does The Prayer book select certain Scripture readings to be used in the service??

The Book of Common Prayer is the result of centuries of thought and theological reflection. As the result of this intentional conversation across generations, the prayer book has provided selections from the Holy Scriptures to sustain us at the time of death. There is a certain latitude given to the officiant and the family planning the liturgy to chose favorite hymns or alternative readings, but the appointed readings have been chosen because they speak directly to the resurrection hope that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Why do we have Communion?

God has given us the chance to be united with those we love but see no longer through the redeeming action of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. When we share in the sacrament of bread and the wine, partaking in the body and blood of our Lord, we are united with all the hosts of heaven, and all the members of Christ’s Church of all time. We share this final Communion meal, the family meal of God’s own household, in anticipation of that great day. We will not be able to share Thanksgiving or Christmas, birthday or anniversary meals any longer with the people we have lost, but we will, for eternity, share this Eucharistic meal with them. *There are occasions in which communion may not be desirable. Discuss this with the church when planning the particulars of the service.

In Summary

Few are the times in this present age when people are aware of God’s acting to graft us in to his larger and eternal purposes. Baptisms, weddings and funerals are among those occasions. It is in those events when time and eternity touch that we and our loved ones need the truth, beauty, and comfort of the words of Holy Scripture and the great tradition. The burial office exists because the final goodbye to your loved one is simply too significant a matter to make it up as we go.

The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy that finds all its meaning in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It gives us permission to express deep sorrow over the death of loved ones.  It also reassures us that all who die in Christ share in the victory of his triumph over death.  Using this liturgy in the church for the burial of a Christian reaffirms and strengthens our faith that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, he will also raise us.

We are glad that you are considering our church for this important event in the life of your family.

Please contact the St. Jude’s church office at (602) 492-1772 to set up an appointment to plan the particulars of the ceremony.

We are planning for this to be the first of a series entitled “Your Church. For Life.” It will include Baptism, Confirmation, & Marriage, four events people look to mark in the church.logo

All of which is to say: When I die, do the world a favor. Give me a funeral.

Advertisements

Death: The obsession we cannot avoid and dare not admit (1of 2)

Funeral1

Snark MeterrealMID.003

In our rush from the church, have we begun using entertainment as religion to answer the questions fundamental to human thriving?

Our culture has almost entirely insulated us from the reality of death. Most of us are awkward with the topic in conversation and go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of nearing death with a plethora of products, services and surgeries designed to cheat aging at any coast. Our post-modern avoidant/fascination with death struck me last night at our local cineplex. The new release lists are heavy with vampires, zombies and time travel…except for the ones about super heroes with death-defying powers. When did death-avoidance become the central theme of our entertainment?

Although we may abandon organized religion, it appears that we do so at our own existential peril. In our rush from the church, it seems we have begun using entertainment as religion to answer the questions fundamental to human thriving.  Last night’s trip to the theater was instructive. The opening line to the movie The Book Thief is “Everybody is going to die someday.” The closing line of the last preview before the movie started was from The Winter Tail: “Maybe it is possible to love someone so much that they cannot die.”  Interestingly, the Christian message is precisely that there is a love so strong it will overcome death. But instead of considering that message, most of us will avoid thinking about death until we stare it in the face – literally looking down at the remains of someone we loved lying in a casket.

Our obsession with death becomes even more curious when viewed in light of our near total buffering from it. In previous generations death came earlier, more often, and closer to home-most likely even in the home. Today we have longer life expectancies, become infirm in care facilities, and enter hospitals when illness becomes terminal. Today when we take our last breath it is usually in an institution rather than in the places of our lives. (This has been covered in the press recently (NPR) and was picked up on the Episcopal Cafe.) Add to these layers of insulation, the entertainment industry. Big entertainment includes in it’s notoriously unreliable curriculum the lesson that people don’t actually die at all. They are “offed” (often quite creatively) only to appear next week on another network, perhaps even in the same time slot.

The media is merely a barometer of our desires – It packages and sells us what market research tells them we want. Having discovered our discomfort with our own mortality, it sells our anxieties back to us in the form of a seemingly endless array of zombies and vampires, with their promise of a life-of-sorts. Perhaps, though, the clearest barometer of our post-modern denial of death is found in the new Tumblr site, “selfies at funerals“. If we cannot cheat death, at least we can laugh at other’s deaths. Turn up the music, dude!

tumblr_mvewmnvDqh1smbgw2o2_r1_500

Perhaps the epitome of our post-modern denial of death is found in the new Tumblr site, Selfies at Funerals...Turn up the music, dude!

All of this, of course, affects the church. Many Christians now have an “It’s a Wonderful Life” theology of the afterlife more akin to ancient Greek (or perhaps LDS) beliefs than orthodox Christianity – this is the popular view we “pass on” to become angels trying to win our wings by aiding the frustrated left on earth.

Contributing to this fuzzy theology is the demise of the traditional funeral. You may never have been to an actual funeral, but you have surely been to a memorial service. A memorial is, of course, about looking backwards – of “memories.” The general liturgy of a memorial is to sing a few of the deceased’s favorite songs and, to continue our It’s a Wonderful Life metaphor, share our remembrances of Uncle Billy.  Occasionally a few too many remembrances, and for too long…glossing over flaws and overstating things a bit on behalf of someone whose life might have actually left a lot to be desired. To be realistic, returning again to It’s a Wonderful Life, although Uncle Billy’s absent-mindedness was cute, it caused the family a great deal of trouble. The pastor then closes the memorial with a short message that makes some reference to Jesus’ as accounting for the deceased’s goodness and gently asking those present to consider a relationship with God in order to join Billy in his eternal home.

As heartwarming and well-intended as it is, the memorial is all about looking backwards. A funeral is all about looking forward. It is about promises and hope bought vicariously. It is about real and eternal life, new bodies, and paradise found, purchased at another’s initiation and another’s expense.

The memorial, when viewed in light of the old-school funeral, reveals a very low view of the transition between life and death, and a fuzzy view of the afterlife…both of which, when added together, diminish our understanding of the purpose of the time we have here on earth. The memorial has very little teaching on the afterlife, very little explanation of what comes next and very little of the historic Christian narrative, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (BCP 363)

In our times of greatest loss our most profound need, besides the presence of those we love, is for the comfortable words of the faith. We need reminders of what lies ahead rather than what lay behind. We need to know that we do not stand alone at the precipice – we are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 11:1). And because death could not hold Jesus Christ, neither can it hold those who are found in him (1 Cor. 15:20-23). That is why in the traditional Christian funeral we shout in hope, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (BCP, 499)

Here is where I may get into trouble with you: It may feel as if I am treading on the toes of those of us who planned the final services for our parents or wife or brother or Uncle Billy. I should say that, as a pastor, I have done more than a few memorial services myself. We sent my mother on her eternal way with a memorial service. After more theological reflection I can only say that I wish I knew then what I know now. I was the victim of a lack of theology of death and the afterlife. And, as a result, those under my leadership were limited by my lack of understanding. I now see the memorial as a far cry from a prayer book funeral.

Interestingly, while this end of life conversation was going on, three clergy in the Episcopal Church: Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of Rhode Island, Bryan Owen, Rector of St. Luke’s Baton Rouge (who blogs as Creedal Christian), and myself have been working on a question and answer on funeral practices as a customizable parish resource to give people a brief glimpse into the purpose and power of a proper funeral service. It will be available as text for websites or as a customizable flier. I will put up the text that we have worked out as a post in the next several days.

We offer this, not as a condemnation of what anyone has done, but as a resource to help us have a broader perspective on life, death, and the afterlife. The hope is that this would be a helpful planning resource for a time when you need it. The traditional funeral has the perspective of twenty centuries of Christian reflection that both blesses and relieves us of the absurdity of seeking for answers to our deepest longings in zombies and vampires. It offers a more hopeful hope. Not just for Uncle Billy, but for us as well.