More than a celebration of life

The Washington Post has an article this morning with the headline, “The funeral we we know it is becoming a relic - just in time for a death boom.” I’m not paying to read Washington Post articles right now and I can’t figure out how to get around their paywall, so I have not read the article, but I can imagine its contents. I imagine that the article contains stories of several non-traditional memorial services. I hear about them fairly regularly and I’ve attended a few. The services are held in nontraditional venues, perhaps a favorite bar or garage workshop or a backyard or park. The guests don’t dress up in suits and ties, but rather appear in casual clothing - dressed for a party. In fact the majority of these non-traditional celebrations of life assume the mood of a party. There is usually an open microphone and often someone who serves as an MC. There are stories about what a wonderful person the one who died was, about friends and accomplishments and often about hobbies and recreational activities.

As more of the people who are responsible for planning funeral and memorial services count themselves among those with no religious affiliation, funeral homes are offering a variety of funeral packages that don’t involved churches as all. In larger cities, you can now hire “Celebration of Life” planners. People who earn their living by being paid to plan events that celebrate the life of someone who has died.

Unlike funeral directors and celebration of life planners, ministers and rabbis and others who officiate at traditional religious funerals do not earn their livings conducting funerals. Although honoraria are sometimes paid, income from such is not the primary source of income for those officiants. The tradition, in some Christian churches, is for income from honoraria to fund special household projects and furnishings. In other congregations, honoraria are deposited in a special fund that provides support to those who have special needs. Often called the Pastor’s Purse, or special missions fund, these monies are made available to provide assistance to others who have extraordinary means. Such funds have been used to pay funeral expenses for those who are unable to pay.

But there are other differences, more important than the exchange of money at the time of a death. I can go on and on about some of the trappings of contemporary funerals and my feelings about spending $10,000 and more on a hole in the ground, including limousine rides for those who wouldn’t otherwise hire such expensive transportation. What I would like to offer, however, is a bit about what gets left out of some celebration of life events.

I guess it can help those who are grieving to hear many voices say what a wonderful person it is who has died, how that person contributed to important causes and how that person stood out from the crowd. But when I have been in the depths of grief, I already knew that my loved one was unique and wonderful and talented and had made an impact on the lives of others. I need to know a little bit more than what a good person she or he was. I need someone to remind me that the way I feel at the depths of my grief is not the way I will feel for the rest of my life. I need someone to remind me when I have no words for my prayers that I am not the only one praying. I need someone to remind me that my memories will not fade and that the community will not forget the one I have loved.

I need community. I need a larger perspective. I need to know that this is not the end.

Festive funerals are not the invention of the 21st century. Our generation did not invent the use of the word celebration in connection with the death of a loved one. throughout the history of the Christian church there has been attention to celebration of a life well lived. Saints have been elevated and their names and dates of death have bee preserved for future generations to study and learn of their contributions. Churches have often done a better job of retaining the memories of those who have died than secular institutions.

Not long ago I attended the funeral of now whose life was truly remarkable. The event was held in a room that was too small for the crowd of friends who wanted to pay their respects and greet the family. The crush of people was too great to allow for individual conversations or even a receiving line of family members. The celebration of life was genuine and the speakers were intelligent and practiced. Interestingly, there was a lot of repetition as speakers all seemed to be most impressed with the old age of the person who had died. The events, commitments and projects of the last ten or fifteen years were most mentioned. The person who died had enjoyed a long and fruitful marriage, almost nothing of the years of marriage was mentioned. The person had lived in many different places, the retirement community was most often mentioned. I knew before the funeral that this was a remarkable person who had lived fully and graciously. There was no new information offered at the celebration of life.

As we journey through Holy Week, I hope we do more than just to say “Jesus was a good man who died in a cruel fashion.” Religion has much more to offer those who give than a celebration of a life well lived. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to celebrate lives well-lived, only that there is more to the story.

Holy Week is an opportunity for the church to assist people in thinking about how they face death, grief and loss. Of course such lessons are only available to those who participate, which isn’t even the majority of our congregations, and a very small portion of our communities. But even those who do not participate will find themselves inside of our buildings for the funeral of someone they have known and respected. I pray that we will have more to offer than a backyard potluck or a golf course balloon release.

Stay tuned. What we have to offer comes only at the end of the week - only after experiencing the depths of loss and grief.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!