Wednesday, November 04, 2009
death and dying: contemporary trends and Christian life
A fascinated opinion piece by theology professor, Tom Long in the New York Times. It’s on cultural trends in funerals. I have just finished a course on reading contemporary culture. We look at cultural icons – at Nike shoes and play stations – and the implications for being human today. How then to live, and to live life to the full (John 10:10)?
Reading Long pushes me to think about another dimension of contemporary cultural change, that of recent trends in the funeral industry.
For the first time in history, the actual presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional, even undesirable, lest the body break the illusion of a cloudless celebration, spoil the meditative mood and reveal the truths about grief, life and death that our thinned-out ceremonies cannot bear.
The context of course, is Halloween, that day in which a society faces death by dressing up and trick or treating. Long surveys contemporary funeral practices. Such as increasingly gaudy coffins. And the trend to no longer accompany the body to the crematorium or graveside, but instead to let the body be driven, while the cup of tea is poured back at the church.
“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,” William Gladstone, the British statesman, is said to have observed. Indeed, we will be healthier as a society when we do not need to pretend that the dead have been transformed into beautiful memory pictures, Facebook pages or costume jewelry, but can instead honor them by carrying their bodies with sad but reverent hope to the place of farewell. People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living.
It brought to mind a similar conversation with a New Zealand funeral director a few years ago, alarmed at industry trends in which families are being encouraged not to accompany bodies to the place of burial. And the contrast between Pakeha funerals and Maori funerals, in which the body stays at the house and on the marae for a number of days. And how it allows a different type of grieving, a greater acceptance of death, a wider range of emotions, a greater relational connection.
And the contrast with that common euphemism “passed away.” So easy to use weasel words that mask the reality that life matters and things hurt when what matters becomes broken.
The church has many options for doing mission today. They include helping people face death with honesty, reality and Christian grace.