THE GOOD FUNERAL: DEATH, GRIEF, AND THE COMMUNITY OF CARE
THOMAS G. LONG AND THOMAS LYNCH
WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX PRESS, 2013
In the discipline of pastoral care and counseling, I believe there are three courses that students training for pastoral ministry should take. Of those three, one would be Death and Dying and the text, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care, coauthored by Thomas Long a pastoral theologian/ Presbyterian minister, and Thomas Lynch, a funeral director and lapsed Catholic, would be useful for theological and pastoral reflection on the significance of the funeral.
The book, comprising 10 chapters divided into five sections addressed to hospice volunteers, pastors, good neighbors, and funeral directors, focuses on the erosion in religious and cultural values of honoring the dead with the traditional funeral rite of the “good funeral” which sees the dead to their final resting places and places their lives within the Christian understanding of the sanctity of all of life. This ritualistic practice during the past 50 years has been supplanted by memorial services and cremations that eclipse the importance of the dead body in favor of a more “therapeutic” approach to grief.
In the section “Caring for the Dead,” Lynch notes that one essential requirement for human well-being is the way in which human beings honor their dead. He contends, “the contemplation of the existential mysteries, those around being and ceasing to be, is what separates humans from the rest of creation … our humanity is … directly tied to how we respond to mortality … how we deal with our dead in their physical reality and how we deal with death as an existential reality define and describe us in primary ways “(58).
Lynch cites four ingredients in funeral services: 1. the presence of the dead and their subsequent disposition, 2. those individuals to whom the dead matter, 3. some attempt to set the death within a context of meaning for both the dead and the living, and 4. the disposition of the body.
Following Lynch, Long offers theological reasons for maintaining reverence and respect for the dead body, which also carries specific psychological, spiritual and religious import for the living. He states, “to wash and dress the bodies of those who have died and to accompany them to the place of farewell is a confession of faith that something lies beyond this life and that these whom we cherished were not only treasures to us but precious in the sight of God” (89).
In the section “Our Own Worst Enemy,” Lynch blames the decrease in proper funeral accoutrement to funeral professionals allowing their services to be driven by profit. Commodification of the funeral has eroded trust in funeral directors and the funeral industry. As a result, people now forego the traditional burial rite. Long concurs with Lynch that funeral professionals have violated the public trust, but Long also indicts the clergy: “Clergy who have found it easier to preach to the living without a corpse on hand to challenge the faithful in their grief or who banished the dead from their own funerals in the name of ease and convenience … have had a hand in the funeral’s devaluation” (146).
Lynch provides a history of the ritual of cremation in the section “The Funeral,” sharing his concern about how it has been appropriated as a means of evading central human responses to death and dying. For the authors, a funeral’s essential purpose is to assist the living in bearing witness to the resurrection. Circumventing this process deprives people of faith an opportunity to give words to the “Mystery.” As such, a good funeral aids in the disposition of the body and allows human beings to place the life and death of the individual within a religious context of meaning. In this context of meaning, the story of the life of the individual is told within the larger narrative of the Christian understanding of life and death.
Long addresses the Christian perspective on grief in the section “The Grieving,” refuting Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ classic death and dying schema and offering a Christian perspective that conceives death with a capital “D” as the enemy to life, while small “d” death can sometimes be an escape from the pain and suffering inflicted upon the body by illness. He explains that grief is about meaning-making, in which those who survive seek answers on how to revise their self narrative (224-225).
Lynch ends with an overview of the debate concerning death, beginning with a critique of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, an attack on the funeral industry and our culture’s conventions for death and dying.
While the authors discuss the importance of the spiritual and religious meaning conveyed through the ritual of the funeral, Long’s assertion of “capital D Death” and “small d death” could be elaborated (223). The opportunity to provide the reader with a brief but developed Christian theological treatise on death and dying was not explored (perhaps because Long felt that he had already addressed this in his earlier book, Accompany Them with Singing).
Also, is the funeral only about meaning-making within a religious context? In other words, must the “therapeutic”/psychological and meaning-making, the existential, be mutually exclusive? Attachment theory, which is a major descriptor of the suffering individual’s experience, must be dealt with if we are to help to restore grieving people to some semblance of wholeness. When conducted with a proper understanding of theology and psychology, the funeral service can help accomplish this.
I recommend The Good Funeral to seminarians, funeral directors, and clergy because it raises provocative questions and challenges our notion of the importance of the funeral rite. The conclusion of the matter is that the funeral is for both the living and the dead. The dead need to be properly cared for in their disposition and the living need to humanely attend to the disposition of their loved ones for their well-being.
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk