After sixteen years of licensure, the funeral director part of my identity is woven deeply into the fabric of my being. Even prior to these career years, I have been around the dead. My birth placed me in a line of five generations of embalmers and funeral directors. Although much of those preceding generations make up who I am, my ordination as a pastor has marked me as different from those who came before me. At least I thought it marked me as different.
I would imagine, if it were possible to interview a few of those preceding generations, that they would see a less defined difference than I do. In fact, as I have observed over the years, there are several similarities between the pastor and the funeral director. Many funeral directors define their careers as callings, and I think that they would consider much of what they do as ministry in some form.
Distinction, however, arises in the difference between the funeral director serving many families and many faiths, on the one hand, and a theological definition of Christian care of the dead, on the other. The former serves well the people of a community who rely on their own understanding of wants and needs. The latter ought to be instructing the community on their faith, the actions appropriate to that faith, and what those actions mean. I’ve talked with many funeral directors who note that a growing number of families lack this direction and understanding. Funeral directors are trained to serve, not to instruct. The typical response to whatever is asked of them—of course we can do that for you—has opened the flood gates to providing any requested service at all, regardless of how it aligns with a belief system, and with no concern for how the public views such ceremonies.
For the funeral director, serving the wants and needs of client families is paramount. For clergy, however, leadership, direction, theological teaching, preaching, and pastoral care should be paramount. Yet, many clergy opt for serving wants, rather than leading and instructing in what is best for the faith of those who mourn, and the presentation of that faith through the actions and rites of caring for the dead.
I call to mind the words St. Paul wrote in the sixth chapter of the letter to the Romans. There I find an affirmation of hope that is deeply rooted in a resurrection like Christ’s, since we have been united with Him in a death like His. Therefore, there must be deep concern in how we care for the dead. Our actions must comprise a visible living out of Christian hope. The responsibility of clergy begins with asking simply, “how can we remain authentic to every aspect of our faith in the presence of death?” This question, posed to families when planning the details of a funeral, reminds them of the significance of death in the life of the church. Their loved one’s life, death, and resurrection are significant. If these elements are meaningfully authentic in presentation, the community of believers—and even those whose faith is not yet firm—should recognize that importance. If we start in any other place, the changing trends of society will dictate to the church what is done at death.
So where does the discussion begin? Start with Holy Scripture. Scripture gives no account of the nuances of the resurrection: the night yielded to the day, and yet we know not the hour when Jesus rose. The Bible has no timeline or physiological description of how Jesus Christ took up life again in his entombed body, the same body that bore the marks of crucifixion and death. But faith assures us of the truth contained within that mystery.
Yet, death was real. It was God the Father’s way of joining us in the most sorrowful consequence of sin through the real flesh joined in both God and Man, Jesus Christ. Aside from this mystery, the record becomes more clear. Paraphrasing the details, we can account for the taking down of Christ’s body from the cross, his preparation for burial, the involvement of men like Joseph of Arimathea and others per the Jewish timing and customs. Myrrh, oils and linen were used in accordance with the practice of the day, as recorded in John 19:39, and they weighed 100 pounds.
Jesus was unbelievably focused on making all things new, fulfilling that which could not be fulfilled, and expanding the kingdom of heaven to all those who would believe. In his life and his death, he honored what was, loved what is, and modeled what is to come. Jesus died, was prepared, was buried, and took up life again. In this very model, reflected in the rites of death and preparation, he revealed the hope of the resurrection. By honoring the body that was broken, and loving those whose relationship was built upon the recognition of that flesh, He walked from death to life in a newness that revealed what was yet to come for all creation.
Why is it that clergy hesitate to proclaim this truth of our Lord, ignoring his hallowing of the tomb? As we stop proclaiming the hallowed tomb, society quickly discards the place of rest. And what has taken its place in the absence of solid theological proclamation? A survey of just a few of the trade journals for funeral professionals shows that there is commonly discussion of “returning to the earth” or “becoming a tree” or “being scattered upon the winds”—all acts which proclaim not a resurrection, but rather a secular view of the life cycle. Clergy who start anywhere other than the gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial as they plan a funeral miss a grand opportunity to proclaim life in the face of death.
Recognizing that the rites of death speak volumes about people and their beliefs, the British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone said, “Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead. I will measure with mathematical exactness the sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.” When a society cares for the dead in ways that resemble disposal, sympathy is surely on the decline. If the swiftly-changing trends of the world have eroded the funeral and its rites, I ask the question “who failed?”
How we care for the bereaved, as seen in how we care for the dead, speaks volumes of our commitment to one another. Helping to express our grief by remembering one who has died—publicly within the church, and with the body present—may revive the community’s participation in mourning. Interacting with the body acknowledges that death is real, upsetting, disrupting, and full of chaos; yet, by proclamation of the church, it is defeated!
The funeral director is a crucial component in this process, and communication is paramount as the church and the funeral director plan the details of what can be done to present in action the church’s faith. Well-trained funeral directors see their careers as callings to serve the community, and that community has many facets. They serve well, but they are in desperate need of the teaching and directing that religious leaders provide.
But clergy lack some knowledge as well. Many agree with people’s plans to quickly cremate and scatter remains because it is cheaper. Others push parishioners away from embalming and viewing, saying that it is unnecessary or too difficult to see. Embalming and viewing serve the needs of the family, the community, and the liturgy. In the nine years that I’ve been facilitating grief support groups, an overwhelming majority of those who skip the viewing have later reported that they regret not seeing the body of their loved one. It haunts them. Some people say of their deceased loved ones: “I want to remember them as they were rather than lying in a casket.” But the most immediate “as they were” memories may include declining in a hospital with many tubes, or lying in a hospice house unresponsive due to medications.
Understanding the embalming portion of a funeral director’s work helps to unravel the mystery of preserving “as they were” in people’s memories. Embalming is a three-fold procedure that includes disinfection, restoration, and preservation. The first element, disinfection, is rooted in a concern for public health. The second element, restoration, aims to produce a present picture. This facet of embalming can be as simple as closing the eyes and mouth, or it can be as extensive as repairing damage from a tragic accident. It also involves dressing and wrapping, so that a loved one is readily visible as having been cared for in a manner that speaks of the value attached to the body. The third element of embalming is preservation, a temporary extension of time that allows people to gather, view, and lay the body to rest without worrying about decomposition and decay. Embalming is not permanent, nor is it meant to be. It is not eternal preservation for the sake of being able to get up and walk, as is the stereotypical image of ancient mummies.
In my conversations with clergy, they often admit that they find it easier to hold fast to traditional norms when planning weddings, baptisms, and confirmations than they do when planning funerals. In the context of these sacred acts, many pastors guard their actions and words carefully, knowing how instructive they can be to the community at large, both believers and non-believers. Yet, when it comes to funeral planning, many clergy stop instructing families and instead find ways to accommodate requests to remove the body from the liturgy. In my experience, there is great value in the Christian funeral when the body is brought to the church. At that moment, the most meager container, or the most opulent casket, calls to mind the baptismal promise: it contains a body covered by the pall, as it once was dressed with the baptismal garment. Is it not easier, for the young and unchurched alike, to comprehend death when they gaze upon a casket—which reminds us of the fullness of the body present—rather than a small box that contains nothing resembling a body?
I maintain that those who wish to reclaim the sanctity of the body must consider its sanctity from conception to tomb. The body that rests in the womb awaiting birth will be just as precious when it rests in the tomb awaiting the resurrection. There should be no point at which the body is no longer regarded as holy. All life-passages are intimately connected to the body in its form and being, and death should be no different.
To reclaim these nuances, we must be careful with our actions and language. Terms like celebration of life are contrary to liturgies that speak of the resurrection of the body, as they undermine confidence in the church’s burial of the dead, committal, and commendation. These terms seem to give the greatest honor to a life lived, rather than to faith in Christ and the promise of resurrection. We have countless opportunities to celebrate a person’s life while they are still living. The funeral is the place where we celebrate the hope of resurrected life, found alone in Christ Jesus. The nature of the liturgy (in both actions and words) must speak of resurrection and hope, not simply of past times—as pleasant, joyful, easy, or fun as they may have been. The only life we celebrate at death is the one promised in resurrection with Jesus. H. Richard Niebuhr asked, “Does this signal salvation in any way other than Christ?” I ask the same question, and so should all clergy when planning the words and actions associated with the liturgy at death. Do our rituals give more attention to the earthly or bodily cares of life than to the one who gives life even beyond this death?
Given the finality of the funeral liturgy, it is crucial to examine what matters and what does not. There may be tensions: the future of hope vs. the past of remembrance; the faith of the bereaved vs. the likes or dislikes of the deceased; words and actions vs. material objects. In all these tensions, the choice should reflect that faith of the deceased and those who grieve.
Presence is the key to understanding the things we do with the dead. When we carry together the physical burden of death, we find the burden to be light and the pathway easy, because God first walked this pathway for us in the flesh of Jesus Christ. That hope, acted out and spoken, teaches generations what we believe. We enact that hope each week in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We hold fast to the real presence of the body and blood, which leads us to a fullness of faith in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, who was given and shed for us and is still fully present in spirit and flesh. The funeral is witnessed by many beyond the weekly gathered people, and it is a poignant opportunity to teach the foundations of our faith.
When confusion is present in the church, and when words and actions do not align, the world sees a denial of real presence. Using urns where people should be, or celebrations of life where burials of the dead should be, breaks down that solid foundation. When the same people who would argue against the language of “Memorial Meal” use the language of “Memorial Service,” the world sees confusion in the place where a solid hope of the bodily resurrection should be kept most sure.
Funeral directors are ready and able to serve as requested. In contrast, clergy must instruct, so that each request reflects faith and proclaims the resurrection that we share with Christ Jesus.