|August 30, 2010
I have attended a lot of funerals lately—at my stage of life that should not be particularly surprising. We are all term limited in life, and my contemporaries and I are near the limit. I certainly don’t enjoy attending funerals, but do recognize it as something we all feel a need to do—to honor family, colleagues, friends, and close acquaintances, whose summons finally came to join the caravan moving to that mysterious realm. Their lives should not go unrecognized! Although I have conducted my share of funerals, I never quite realized that funerals have distinctive styles. “Funerals 101” was not a class taught in the Baptist seminary I attended. Perhaps it is different today, but a generation ago preacher boys in my tradition learned funerals by watching seasoned pastors—all praxis and no theory! And, of course, what I learned was sectarian—how funerals were conducted in a conservative Baptist tradition.
From my perspective, except for special funerals (like state funerals, for example), funerals in America today fall into two distinct types: life celebration and reassurances about life after death. The two extremes may occasionally be blended somewhat, but never quite successfully, since there is a basic competition between the two types. One type doesn’t honor what is seen as “religious speculation,” and the other type doesn’t “waste time” focusing on one ephemeral life, and miss an opportunity to spread its own brand of faith.
Most recently I attended an Episcopalian funeral, which was, in short, a celebration of the church’s faith and beliefs, particularly about resurrection and immortality. It struck me as a rather impersonal ritual, which followed strictly prescribed words from a book of worship. My deceased friend became virtually nothing more than a name inserted into a blank space in the liturgy. The service (complete with Mass) rolled on with wingéd words, breaking at one point for a piano and vocal solo by family members. The service even lacked a description of my friend’s life—like the missing public career of Jesus in the Apostles Creed, for example. My friend simply provided an occasion for affirming the church’s faith. It was, in a sense, a celebration of the death of my friend—for now he was, as the euphemism goes, “in a better place.” In “protestant-type” denominations life after death is affirmed just as confidently—if more emotionally and enthusiastically. Nevertheless, the result is the same: what is important in the funeral service is the faith of the group officiating at the funeral. I have even been in Baptist funerals, where the minister preached an evangelistic message and at the end offered the mourners an “opportunity to accept Jesus as their savior”! With funerals conducted under the auspices of a church or religious organization the form and content of the service must be negotiated with the officiating representative (usually a priest, minister, or rabbi) of the church or organization, since the service must fit in with their brand of faith. In other words the minister as well as the family must be “comfortable” with what takes place.
At the other end of the scale is the funeral celebrating the life of the deceased. At its most extreme, little that could be construed as religious is included. It is all about the deceased—a descriptive course of life is presented, perhaps with excerpts from the deceased’s own writings; also there are the (secular) songs she enjoyed, readings from poets and reflective writers meaningful to the deceased, perhaps a jazz band (featuring a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching in” New Orleans style), other popular and classical musical selections, and several speakers describing the life of the deceased—anything that communicates the character of the deceased to those who have gathered to celebrate her life. One life celebration I attended featured the deceased’s son doing a “stand up routine” on the father’s well-known humorous idiosyncrasies—but also his kindness of spirit, human decency, and honorable life; it had us all in stitches and tears at the same moment. I have never heard such a compelling tribute before or since. This type of funeral is all about celebrating life as manifested in one particular individual. God is not left out deliberately (though sometimes he is); there just isn’t enough time to include what is regarded as nonessential religious speculation.
It appears to me that each of these two forms addresses in its own way the two enduring questions with which humankind continues to struggle—ever since we first came out of the trees. The religious funeral addresses the question: is there life after death? The words of the religious official, like Homer’s “wingéd words,” are evanescent, yet they powerfully assert freedom from death and are intended to speed the soul on its way directly into the presence of God. On the other hand, a life celebration addresses a different question: what is the meaning of life? Participants in the gathering (they are not really mourners) celebrate life in a microcosm by affirming the significance of one single solitary human life; in the macrocosm, however, they celebrate Life itself, affirming the significance of all life—which, so far as we know today, exists only on our single planet. The meaning of human life, considered in the context of the far outer reaches of space, can only be found in the living out of each single human life. In other words, each of us finds our own meaning, if at all, in the living of our lives. There exists no macrocosmic meaning for our lives!
Considering the prospects of my own demise, I must admit that I am becoming increasingly reluctant to have my life characterized by the words of others, however “wingéd” they may be. Our life and death should be celebrated and/or commemorated, warts and all, in the salty language of our living. Funerals are too important to be left to the professionals.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:30am
Funerals are a fascinating event to me. When asked about whether to attend a funeral, I’ve always observed and shared that I’ve never regretted a funeral I attended, but I’ve regretted several that I did not attend.
Hello Dr. Hedrick,
Last year I attended the (Lutheran? not sure) funeral of a woman I didn't know; but her daughter is my neighbor. It was truly a celebration of her life and even though I didn't know her, I can say that she was something special. There were jokes and stories about her and we all ended up by clapping and singing "Roll Out the Barrel." What a lovely lady! I left bouyed and edified.