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Q & A
Q&A: How funerals can better reflect Christian faith Robin Russell, Mar 5, 2010
Christian funeral practices have drifted off course from their theological heritage, says Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. When done right, they are “a profound witness of the good news in Christ about life and death.”
Dr. Long wrote Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral (Westminster John Knox, 2009) as a guide for pastors who preside over funerals. He spoke recently with Robin Russell.
The typical Christian funeral today is a celebration of life service, which you describe as “theologically impoverished.” How so? First of all, there’s an underlying denial of death aspect to these. In the facing of the tragic dimension of death and loss, there’s often an attempt to kind of paper over those with something of a false tone of celebration.
The most significant way, though, is that the funeral is supposed to take the human necessity of dealing with the body of the dead and put it in the context of a narrative. The actual taking of the body from place of death to the place of disposition became in Christian history a metaphor: a story of the baptismal journey of the saint who is now deceased. A lot of these open-mic, celebration-of-life services don’t have any underlying narrative. Nobody’s going anywhere and there’s no gospel story being told.
There is a need to recognize that it is this saint who has died. Part of what we’re experiencing is a reaction against an impersonal way of doing funerals. But I think there’s plenty of room inside the ritual of Christian death to sing with joy about the life of the deceased.
You say it’s important to have the body at the funeral. Why? Every important Christian ritual—whether it be the Lord’s Supper or Baptism—is built on the chassis of human necessity. In the same way that the Lord’s Supper is built on the need to be in fellowship at the meal, the funeral is built on the necessity to take the body with honor and dignity from the place of death to the place of disposition: walking with the deceased over the last mile of the way to give them to the God who gave them to us. The deceased is a major character in this piece of theatre, in this drama. The body is as important to the funeral as the bread and wine are to the Lord’s Supper or the bride and groom are to a marriage.
Historically, Christians were known for the way they cared for the dead. How have we become so awkward about it? That’s a wonderful question. In the late 19th century a kind of perfect storm developed. First of all, Christians began to lose a strong sense of eschatology: Heaven no longer was an image that had great, gripping power for us. We became so affluent as a society in North America that we didn’t yearn for another world; we liked the one we had. We lost the sense that we were moving toward God’s future.
The second part, as Drew Gilpin Faust indicated in her beautiful book on the Civil War, This Republic of Suffering (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), is that we were not prepared for nearly a million dead on the fields of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Our capacity to tell a meaningful story about people’s death in the face of this holocaust of the Civil War simply staggered us, and so we looked for a more optimistic way to describe what was happening when somebody died.
A third piece is we live in a pretty individualistic culture—a kind of a narcissistic culture. One of the things that we’ve seen now is the funeral is less about the deceased and the community and more about me—my experiences and my grief.
Your book will likely step on some toes. It already has! There are a lot of pastors who pride themselves on being wonderful presiders at funerals, and I would not want to take that away from them. Many ministers have developed services that are intimately personal, that honor the story and memory and biography of the deceased, but minus the body because it’s a distraction to that. And they find that to be a meaningful witness to the Resurrection. Then this book comes along and says, “Wait just a minute, maybe it’s not as powerful a witness as you think.”
Some funeral directors might feel that their toes are stepped on. I intend to honor what they do, but I would like to take away the title of “funeral director” when it comes to a Christian funeral. We need for them to be undertakers, who undertake to help us do and direct our own rituals.
So what spiritual truths should a Christian funeral reflect? First of all, that the person who has died—when we look at them through the eyes of the Christian faith—they’re not just a dead person, they’re saints. The second thing is the community who gathers around to sing and pray and carry the deceased to the place of farewell is not just a group of well-meaning friends, it’s the body of Christ, the community of saints.
The journey from the place of death to the place of departure is not just a road or a lane or a path, it’s a metaphor for the Christian life. We are people of the way, we are people of the path, people of the journey. And this is the last mile of that baptismal journey. The place of the disposition is not simply a grave or a cremation furnace. It’s a place of farewell where we, with thanksgiving and tears, hand the one God has given us back into the trust of God.
All of those put together make the Christian funeral a proclamation of the gospel: that we are loved by God and that we are traveling toward God and toward the communion of saints.
We often struggle in our theological imaginations about “where to park the dead,” as you put it. How should we think about what’s happened to the dead? There are two images in the New Testament about what happens. First, the Resurrection Day, when the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised up incorruptible. If you only had that image, what we would imagine is that when people die, they lie in some intermediate state awaiting the great Resurrection Day.
The other image, however, is that death contains no victory over us at all. As soon as we die, we are with God. We get this in the Book of Revelation where John looks up and already the saints who have died are praising God around the throne. In terms of linear time, we can’t work this out. We’ve got these two competing images: You either wait until the general resurrection or you go immediately to be with God.
But the imposition of linear time on what is an eternal idea is what creates the contradiction. I don’t try to make a theologian out of Einstein, but he did show us that events that happen in sequence can also be events that happen simultaneously. If Einstein can imagine that in terms of physics, theologians can imagine it also in terms of the intrusion of eternity into linear time—that we are both immediately raised and raised together.
You disagree with the five stages of grief outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. How does her theory contrast with Christian grief? She moves toward acceptance as the final stage—a kind of embrace of death, so that maturity is to finally open your arms and to take death in. I think Christians want to say yes and no to that. We’re not afraid of what I call “little d” death—biological death. But “capital d” Death is our enemy and God’s enemy. We rage out against it and shake our fist at it and give thanks to God for victory over it in Jesus Christ. Life is a gift from God and so we don’t relinquish it easily.
My mother died just two weeks ago in hospice—a beautiful and peaceful death. But I was really impressed with how much her body wanted life. She fought all the way to the end, and it’s a human thing to do to savor every breath and to cling on to life. I think Kubler-Ross diminishes the human being by muting that aspect of it.
What do the dying need, and how can we best serve them? That was one of the things that I learned. What we needed to do most with my mother was to talk to her, to tell the truth; we sang to her, we prayed with her, we read Scriptures—the kinds of things we did all our life with her.
The most startling thing that we do is to sing with the dead or the dying. Our choir often visits people who are in hospice or in the hospital. Instead of doing choir practice, they go over and spend Wednesday night just singing hymns, and it’s powerful—for them and for everybody else who experiences it.