Originally posted Dec. 29, 2011, at Reluctant Xtian. Republished with permission of the author.
Editor’s note: This post has been edited from the original.
I hear it more often than not. “They wouldn’t have wanted us to be all sad and forlorn; they’d want us to throw a party!” This is usually followed by suggestions for service music and readings that have ranged from cartoon theme songs to a Stevie Wonder hit.
I’m not against experimenting with music, form and flow of a worship service, even a memorial service. But what must remain intact is the function. And what, pray-tell, is the function of the service that punctuates the end of a life?
Thomas Long in his book,“Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral,” writes in the introduction that, “The purpose of a Christian funeral is to enact the human obligation to care for the dead in such a way that we retell the story of baptism ”
If we accept that premise, we certainly have to accept the conclusion that we’re doing a pretty poor job caring for our dead and retelling the story of baptism.
Unfortunately, I think the majority of funerals today are meant solely for the grieving, not the one being grieved and even less so the story of life that we all share in common.
Long also notes this when he writes, “Given the current cultural climate, we can hardly blame (those who skip a funeral altogether). Society has shifted, as we have seen, toward understanding the funeral as primarily an occasion focused on grief management and the comfort of the bereaved. That leaves only two clear reasons why someone would want to attend a funeral: to receive comfort or to give it.”
Call in the clowns
There is an aspect of the funeral that is for the griever, and that must be acknowledged. Because really, in a moment of grief, I often wish someone would just call in the clowns, so to say.
There is a large part of me that would like to party, to skip the hard part, to distract my tears so that I wouldn’t have to wipe them away. That is a key to rightly understanding lament in the Judeo-Christian tradition: It is not that every tear is stopped at the arrival of the Lord but that every tear is wiped away (Revelation 21:4). We must, and do, and will still cry.
I may want to skip lamentation, to skip the funeral part of death, but I can’t if I’m going to end up whole on the other side.
The funeral rite, when done in the ancient form, performs its function, and part of that function is to bring the griever out of the valley of the shadow of death intact. Whole. And that point can’t be overlooked.
Where, but in a funeral, are we to express the psychological and physical repercussions that come with losing a loved one? If there is one thing that a more formal funeral can do, it is lead us, the grievers, through that valley of sadness and mortality in a way that doesn’t just leave us hanging out to dry.
Ritual is important
As the ELCA worship resources on the funeral rite state, “The death of a human being is a reminder of the brevity of life on earth and of the universal, inescapable nature of life’s end. In the face of death, care for the dying and those who have died is a fundamental sign of humanness, giving expression to deeply held convictions about the meaning of life” (“Life Passages: Marriage, Healing, Funeral” p. 58).
That is why ritual is so important for humanity. It teaches us how to deal with life by practicing those things that we do every day, formalizing it and processing it in a way that moves our hearts and heads even if our brains aren’t totally on board.
A cartoon theme song, however important it may have been to the deceased, does not process the life lost nor life in general, and it certainly is not an element of stability in a time of chaos.
There is, I think, a certain reverence that must come with looking at life on an individual and communal level, no matter how attached I might be to a particular piece of popular culture.
No, it is a Band-Aid at best and a sentimental memento at worst.
Now imagine saying that to a grieving family, and you’ll realize why you sometimes hear such things during the funeral service.
Truth is, in a moment of grief, I don’t always know what I want and neither do you. I don’t always know how to process what is coming at me, and neither do you. And that is why a rite, in this particular instance a funeral rite, is important.
And for the Christian it becomes doubly important because, well, it doesn’t become about you. It becomes about how your story was a testament to God’s grace.
The funeral rite allows the participant to act out the drama of life and death without the need to return to that subject regularly because the healing process has begun already even within those few hours. Begun, but not finished.
Notice the shape of the rite. In the Christian funeral service, the deceased is carried from font to altar. The ancient words of hope are re-read for the ears of those who have completed the journey with the deceased. A meal is shared in the hopes that it echoes (and participates in) the meal being shared by the deceased with the Divine, and the body is laid to rest in the ground where it will become the foundation for the world once again, feeding new life.
And that story is important to tell and cannot be overlooked, cannot be masked over with a “party.” And while nothing is ultimately able to satiate the soul when we’re in mourning, there is medicine and there is drug, and it is my firm conviction that the ancient funeral rite is medicine.
There is a time and place
There is a place to party when someone dies. My ancestors, the Irish, used to do it at the wake lasting deep into the night, drinking, playing cards and carousing with the deceased.
Today an opportunity presents itself at the visitation or the funeral lunch/dinner, where slide-shows can be shown, memorabilia displayed and reflections from the community shared. This, too, is an important part of processing life. It is not all tears. Laughter certainly has its place as one of the great gifts of memory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is laughter during the funeral rite itself.
We can make this rite, whether religious or not, into an occasion of reverence, if we face up to our own mortality with enough courage to honor it as gift.
Let it be known that I want a funeral, not just a party. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
Find a link to Tim Brown’s blog Reluctant Xtian at Lutheran Blogs.