One of the wonderful functions the traditional Church plays is to mark life’s passages. In a society in which many people have nobody to share their celebrations and griefs, the Christian community blesses birth with baptism, the transition into adulthood with confirmation, the start of a new family with marriage, and death with the funeral.
Our modern world often places great strains on these traditional rites, stresses that are evident in our funeral practices. Families who often live thousands of miles away from each other, find themselves together only for marriages and funerals, and then for a day or two. Much that used to be taken for granted at the death of a loved one is gone.
In the past, funeral practices were only special moments in the daily life people shared. Families visited every Sunday, supported one another in illness, announced a death by placing black flowers on their front doors, and gathered for wakes and visitations. After the funeral service, they resumed their life together, available when needed.
Today the first task after a death is usually to call a long list of family and friends spread all over the nation. After enduring the stress of unexpected travel, the mourners squeeze everything into a day or two. Being absent during the dying, they must say their “good bye” after the death has occurred.
That means the funeral service, a communal gathering, must play the function of personal interactions. This often is limited to a hug, a kiss, and a few words before the service; a string of personal reflections during the worship, and the sharing of a dinner afterwards. Previously people comforted one another and shared their memories for many days before and after the service.
Usually soon after the service, loved ones return to their far away homes, leaving long before those most affected by the death have had a chance to go through the natural stages of grief. In fact, because emotion-suppressing drugs are often administered, these people sometimes awake to the full impact after much of their support has departed.
We should be talking about meaningful funeral practices in this situation. I think these will include a move toward memorial services, so the grieved are not hurried and can focus on what is really important. This will probably mean more cremations.
Because we will still have to compress everything into a couple days, a lot of care should go into planning each element. Perhaps the first consideration should acknowledge the search for personal support, evident when people say they wish the pastor really knew the dead one. We might minister to that need by providing more small gatherings where people can embrace, share their grief, share their memories, and express their love freely. And it’s important we recognize the hurt of those beyond the spouse and children, a hurt that might involve feeling guilt, because their circumstances prevented being there until after the death.
Recognizing how much is now placed on the funeral service, we should plan it well. The trend to celebrate funerals in the Church rather than the funeral home is a move in the right direction. Hopefully, the focus is on the sermon rather than a series of amateur eulogies that belong in personal conversation. Funeral sermons are usually among the best, because life and death issues are right out there. Human helplessness is apparent; the need for God’s grace as well. Celebrating Communion should also be considered more often. Many mourners were taught the meal is a foretaste of the feast to come. It certainly plays that role in a funeral service.
Finally, we do well to recognize the importance of the graveside service and the post funeral dinner. Because few are present at the death any more, the service at the grave brings home the finality of death. And the dinner bears the weigh of all those other traditional social gatherings we can no longer share.