Facing Death

You can begin by reading these two essays – first this one, and then this one.  It will take you a few moments, but then again, we’re talking about your death here.  Invest a little.  I’ve linked to articles by Chad Bird before, and I find that he often has thoughtful things to say and a poetic way of saying them.

The issue of how Christians approach death bears a lot of consideration as the traditional ways of doing things pass away.  While such changes are not always bad, given the lack of foundational teaching in general in many congregations, people are left to sort things out for themselves with pop culture as the formative force.

Now that you’ve read the two articles, here are a few thoughts.

First, I don’t think that cremation poses all of the problems that Bird attributes to it.  Whether a body is placed in the ground in a coffin or the ashes are interred, we recognize that while the physical body is important Biblically, it is also limited.  It is very possible to lavish the love and care on the body that Bird rightly calls for, and this can and should be done prior to either burial or cremation.  The body goes into the ground and eventually decays – the ashes to ashes, dust to dust reality of death.  I think it’s interesting that Bird takes issue with cremation as unnatural and contrary to Christian theology but doesn’t take issue with the practice of embalming or otherwise attempting to preserve the body in an unnatural state.  The same argument can be used against either practice – there is the danger that it might contradict Biblical Christianity, but neither practice necessarily contradicts it.

Cremation accelerates, in a different fashion, the decay that a body normally undergoes after burial.  Whether I intellectually know that a body has decayed over decades or centuries, or whether that body is cremated first seems to make little practical difference.  This of course is a danger, because Americans are notorious pragmatists.  This is not always a good or safe way of looking at the world.  We do look forward to a new, perfected body.  The things we do and say about this body when we have died do matter, and the memorial is a wonderful time to drive this point home.

I’ve joked for many years that when I die I want to be laminated and made into a lamp.  I initially joked about this because it was such an absurd idea.  Now, it isn’t nearly so absurd – we can actually do this.  Which means I need to come up with another joking response so my wife doesn’t get any strange ideas about my dead body.  The dead body needs to be treated with respect and dignity.  Propping it up at a party is in poor taste at the very least, and can lead to confusion theologically.

Christians need to be reminded regularly that they need to have a memorial service.  This is the teaching opportunity that Bird refers to.  The opportunity to proclaim the reality of death.  The opportunity to come face to face with our mortality and recognize it for the traumatic and awful thing that it is, rather than sugar-coat it into some sort of circle-of-life naturalistic crap.  Everything within us screams that death is unnatural, and the memorial service is the place and time to raise this issue head on, and then discuss the hope we are provided in Jesus Christ.  There is an answer to that primal rejection of death as unnatural, and it is not to ignore that response, but rather affirm that death is unnatural.  It is not what we were intended for, and there is hope for continued life where death can no longer touch us.

The essay on celebrations of life ties into this.  Memorial services are Christian.  As such, the main emphasis should be Christ, not us.  This forms the context in which we deal with our grief, our guilt, the myriad of other feelings that rise up and threaten to overwhelm us with the death of a loved one or the anticipation of our own.  As such memorials are for the community, not for the departed.  I have people that ask me to do a celebration of life rather than a memorial.  I don’t care what we call the service, as memorial can be just as self-focused as celebration of life.  But I make it clear that the intent of the service is to proclaim Christ as the hope of the departed and the hope available to all those affected by their death.  I limit the amount of time that is focused on the departed because it invariably becomes an over-simplified, white-washed review of the person’s life.  I intentionally avoid making broad assertions about the deceased.  The people assembled probably have a much better idea than I of the particular faults and weaknesses of the departed, and trying to make them into a saint is dangerous work at best, and contrary to the faith at worst.

The other aspect of this entire discussion is the limitations and constraints placed on families when they bury loved ones.  Is there a place for the Church to be involved in those aspects of things?  I think so, although it can be complicated.  Out here in the west, very few churches have cemeteries attached to them.  One of the most moving aspects of Christianity in the Midwest is the little rural church with the graveyard right outside or across the street.  Such arrangements might allow the Church to be of greater help to families in practical ways – minimizing the cost of something that has grown to be a very lucrative business niche.  It’s one thing to shake our Christian fingers at practices that make us nervous.  It is quite another to actually assist families financially if necessary to make choices that we feel better reflect the hope in which the departed lived and died.

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