Is Christian Burial Going Underground?
My child, let your tears flow for the dead; as one who is suffering terribly, give voice to your sorrow. Lay out their bodies in accordance with their wishes, and don't neglect their burial.Ecclesiastics 38:16
The North American landscape concerning funeral and burial customs has been transformed over the past twenty years with the increasing popularity of cremation and a general decline in religious practice. Many funeral events today follow on the heels of the quick disposition of the dead body, often removing the context and diminishing the benefit of the funeral. As a result, a generation is approaching the death of their baby boomer parents with increasing uncertainty regarding the significance of the burial of the dead and the events surrounding it. Even Christian churches are reluctant to promote the practices that once pointed to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and have exchanged their funeral liturgy for a greater emphasis on eulogies and sharing of memories in Celebration of Life services. Many times whimsical thoughts cloak the presence of death, and happy memories trump the realities of the impact of loss in a broken world. Even more alarming, the presence of death is often banned from the festivities. The dead are no longer welcome at their own funerals. Life is celebrated, death is denied.
This dramatic change in funeral practice has introduced an element of chaos into the funeral planning process. Traditional services were designed to help face loss and find purpose for today and hope for the future. Contemporary practices try to leapfrog past the pain and significance of loss. The modern day funeral director is often trying to piece together meaning for the bereaved through fragmented funeral plans. The customs of the past followed a logical process, travelling the somber route from the place of death to the graveyard. Stops were made along the way to allow time to face the death, to receive support from family and friends, to receive comfort with words of faith, and then participate in the harsh reality of returning the body to the earth. The climax of the funeral event was at the graveside, where the words of the Christian faith were most poignantly declared. The funeral process prepared for letting go of a loved one with an eye for eternity. Victory was proclaimed while facing death!
In combination with today's purposeful distancing from death's reality is a drawing away from sharing in grief. The old maxim, "Grief shared is grief diminished" is losing meaning as grief is suppressed. Today, privacy is most important for the bereaved, and recovering is championed above mourning. Private family funeral services and burials are on the rise. Again, the past customs had an opposite intent as they slowly included community in the grieving process. The journey started with a private family gathering around the death bed when possible. This opportunity was then extended to a sharing with family and friends during set visiting hours for paying respects. Finally, the public (including faith and social communities) were invited to a funeral service which culminated in a communal procession to the graveside. This practice slowly increased the social safety net around the mourners as they travelled the road of grief. It also allowed them a gentle transition from the initial isolation from others often sought in grief to integration with others that is most needed while grieving. It was understood and appreciated as a community that a period of mourning would follow a loss. Confronting death together allowed for the general acceptance that life had changed.
In addition to the trend of moving away from facing death, is the collective obsession with time management and scheduling. Previous generations respected the ebb and flow of life and knew when to set things down, and when to pick them up again. Death in a community was a clear indication for a time to pause, to pay respects, to allow time for the funeral, to see things through to their natural conclusion. Today there is more concern with fitting things in, rather than stopping. Pragmatism rules planning and even funeral events must fit tight timelines so that there is little disturbance of anyone's schedule. Accommodating this often means that the process of events may overrule the purpose. A burial preceding the funeral ceremony might save some time, and some travelling inconvenience. It might allow more people to participate in the reception and minimize some of the coordination required to plan the event. However, it lacks the logical sequence of preparation for the family to be led to the best moment for them to meet death's last stand. Taking the time to gather and face the reality of the death, and then hearing the gospel proclaimed and singing the songs of victory, prepares us to stand at the grave and make our confession of faith. Lowering our loved one's body into the ground is best done when one is filled with hope, refreshed by God's promises. Doing that in the fellowship of the saints, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, adds to the faith strengthening experience. Testifying to our friends, who do not know Jesus Christ and stand beside us in the cemetery, makes the burial an evangelical moment!
Purposefully, many Protestant churches have made it clear that funeral planning is not an ecclesiastical event, but rather a family affair. In this way they have taken a firm stand against the teaching that the burial of the dead is a sacrament administered by the church and under her direction. It would be a mistake, however, to stray too far from the warm embrace of the church and flirt with the secular customs of today. In life and in death we belong to Jesus Christ! The members of Christ's body have a strong tradition of declaring this publicly when they sow the body into the ground in expectation of a greater day. Funeral customs developing today confront and challenge this rich testimony. The current trend is moving away from addressing death's reality. As a result, in the modern funeral there is no need to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The purpose and intent of the ceremony is to turn our eyes away from what is actually happening!
British statesmen, William Gladstone once observed, "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people." In the face of current funeral customs around the continent, the more discerning question is, "What can God's people do to help witness to his tender mercies in the manner they care for their dead?" Do not neglect the burial! By making the funeral event a public testimony to Jesus Christ's victory over death we can draw out its deepest meaning and its richest healing power. By following this through right to the graveside we boldly exclaim, with the Apostle Paul:
'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Cor 15:55-57
This victory message is worth repeating for ourselves and also sharing with others every time we go to the cemetery, until the day our Lord returns and calls the dead back to life. Only on that day will it be safe to turn our backs on death. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!