Thursday, November 5, 2009

The American Funeral Today

I haven't done a funeral yet where the "cremains" of a loved one have been shaped into jewelry or a cross or a piece of coral suitable for a fish tank, but I'm sure that day is coming. A peek inside any "showroom" of a funeral home of any size and you will find options for caskets, gravestones, vaults, candles, videos, urns, flowers and doing more things with the cremated remains ("cremains") of a deceased loved one than you can possibly imagine. The mortuary business can be a mission or care for grieving people or a shakedown of the emotionally vulnerable or both depending on the ethics of the mortician.

This is all the more strange in our current culture where we seem to have little to no idea of what to do when a loved one dies--do we have a funeral or a memorial service? a graveside service or at the church or at the funeral home or at a favorite bar or fishing hole? should the tone be somber or a celebration? is it primarily to honor the deceased or is it for the living? etc. etc.

Since I'm in the business of officiating at funerals on a regular basis, I read with interest an op-ed by Thomas Long in Sunday's NY Times. Long teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology in Decatur, GA and is one of the top-tier preaching "experts" in mainline circles. Having heard him preach, I can verify his great skills and the depth of his message. For some time, Long has been working on a book on funerals and it is finally out--this op-ed comes out of that work. For anyone wondering about the purpose of a funeral in our culture--especially professionals involved in one end of things or the other--I highly recommend his thoughts.

Here are a few good quotes from the op-ed:

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people,”
--William Gladstone

Indeed, we will be healthier as a society when we do not need to pretend that the dead have been transformed into beautiful memory pictures, Facebook pages or costume jewelry, but can instead honor them by carrying their bodies with sad but reverent hope to the place of farewell. People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living.
--Thomas G. Long

“A good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”
-- Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker in Milford, Mich

Grace and Peace,


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