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.

Long concludes

“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.

Posted by steve at 02:50 PM


  1. I think the practise of having the body of the person in the house must be a really significant way of helping people to adjust. On Shortland Street (don’t judge!) they portrayed this when an Indian girl died recently. It just seemed such a hard but healthy time when you adjust with the person there, but not there.

    Some of the stuff I learned doing Sociology looked at how the two World Wars really radically altered the way that the West viewed death. We have moved away from the Victorian idea of “a good death” with practices such as taking photographs of the dead. Historically, the Western concept of death was much healthier but the terrible shock of the Wars with the massive losses and often not having a body really altered that.

    Fascinating stuff!

    Comment by Sharyn — November 4, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  2. Steve thank you for this. When I moved to France nearly 20 years ago the older people still kept the dead at home – the minister was expected to go for the “levée du corps” – the lifting of the body just before teh funeral.
    Many Protestant funerals take place not at church but just at the cemetry as a way of laying claim to being able to bury our dead. There were times when Protestants were excluded from Catholic cemetries even after those cemetries became municipal.
    Cremation is much rarer than in Germany or the UK.

    i sat for many hours next the body of a good friend who was kept at home once dead – that was a deeply healing time as I explained to his sons how we could bury his Jewish prayer shawl with him and so respect part of the tradition he had been born into – although he was also a Christian pastor. I was so sad in the three days I was waiting for him to die, yet so reconciled by “waking” with his body – it helped me take his funeral and find strength.
    I had never thought abotu any of this until reading your post …

    Comment by jane — November 5, 2009 @ 9:56 am

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