A couple of years ago a friend of mine was dismayed when she found out that I was reading a book called The Good Funeral. I think she was not so much disturbed that I was reading the book as that a book with that title existed. She expressed her distaste for any talk about death and dying, and could not imagine that there could be anything good about a funeral.
I mention this exchange because her feelings about death and all that goes with it are by no means atypical. Most people in our culture—in middle-class WASP culture, anyway—get uncomfortable when the conversation turns to the subject of mortality. As a society we have a morbid fear of aging, decay, and death, and one of the ways we express that fear is by turning over the care of our dead to professionals—hospice staff, funeral directors, clergy, crematorium personnel, what have you. Another way we express it is by turning funerals into “celebrations of life.” We find it hard to face the reality and finality of our loved one’s death, so we use euphemisms such as “passed away” and do our best to distance ourselves from anything so gross as a dead body, seeking to sanitize the experience as much as possible.
That is precisely why the authors of The Good Funeral, Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch, wrote the book. Long is a theologian and Lynch is a funeral director, and they both express dissatisfaction with the way we handle death in our culture. Since the mid-twentieth century, they say, we Americans have increasingly distanced ourselves from death to the point that we can now go from the moment of the loved one’s death (or at least from the moment the funeral director zips up the bag and takes our loved one away) to the post-memorial service luncheon without ever having to face the truths that earlier generations faced as a matter of course. Truths about mortality, separation, and decay.
Earlier generations, going back to the first humans to acknowledge death and ritualize the necessary disposal of dead bodies, hundreds of thousands of years ago, knew much more about death than we do. Until relatively recently, family members did most of the work themselves. They washed the bodies of their dead loved ones, placed them in coffins, sometimes of their own making, carried them to the gravesite, and buried them (or brought them to the place of cremation and burned them). We do almost none of these things; we hand off these responsibilities to professionals and maintain a safe distance and clean hands.
Long and Lynch claim, with justification, I think, that in stepping back from these responsibilities we have lost something vital. One of the reasons we experience such existential angst in the face of death, and have such a difficult time finding closure to our grief, is that we have removed ourselves from the normal processes of caring for our dead. This tendency matches the disembodied spirituality that so many people in our culture, Christians included, have embraced. But Christianity at its best, like the Hebrew religion from which it sprang, is an embodied faith. Physical actions have spiritual connotations, and vice versa. So the very act of tending the dead body of our loved one, the very process of taking that body to the grave or the pyre and consigning it to the earth or the flames is an important part of grieving our loss and moving on. As Thomas Lynch puts it, “By getting the dead where they [need] to go, the living [get] where they [need] to be” (Long and Lynch, Good Funeral, 54).
When we say goodbye to those we love, while part of what we do is to celebrate their lives, our funeral services should do much more than that. Death is a liminal space—one of those crucial moments when we find ourselves between what we have been and what we will become—not just for the dead but also for the living. We face the uncertainty, the pain, the sense of loss, the fear, the ambivalence, and the joy that goes with our loss, and we face it together as a community. We entrust our dear sisters and brothers to the God of love, and we do so, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it so beautifully, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ” (BCP, 485).
Book of Common Prayer, The (BCP). 2007 (1979). New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation.
Long, Thomas G. and Thomas Lynch. 2013. The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.