In her recent book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory,” Caitlin Doughty recounts her experience working in a crematory and how it launched her lifework as a mortician and advocate for reform in death practices. After just a short time at the crematory, her perspective radically changed, “I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world.” ¶ “I began to realize that our relationship with death was fundamentally flawed,” she writes. “Holding ‘celebration of life’ ceremonies with no dead body present or even realistic talk of death, just Dad’s favorite old rock ’n’roll songs playing while everyone drank punch, seemed akin to putting not just any Band-Aid over a gunshot wound, but a Hello Kitty one. As a culture it was time to go after the bullet.” ¶ While Doughty does not profess Christian beliefs, she has identified a significant gap between modern Christian practices and historical ones, and the resulting losses to our society. If headstone shopping or funeral planning has not been on your to-do list, there’s little reason to think about cremation vs. burial, funeral vs. memorial service, embalming vs. natural burial. Certainly, it’s easier to recite, “To dust we shall return” than to make decisions about how your body will return to the dust. But considering the way we deal with death may reveal essential lessons about life.
Restoring Death to Life
The dead are playing hooky from their own funerals. Thomas Long, co-author of “The Good Funeral,” says that North Americans are rapidly becoming the first society in the history of the world for whom the dead are no longer required — or desired — at their own funerals. In 2011, more than 42 percent of Americans chose cremation. In 1960 that number was only 4 percent. Even for those who choose burial, open-casket funerals are increasingly rare.
In our culture, it’s easy to avoid dead bodies. Internet cremation services will dispose of Uncle Joe without inconvenience. Out of sight and out of mind — that’s the way most of us prefer death. We pursue immortality by spending billions on anti-aging products, bingeing on exercise and diets, and surgically altering even the most innocuous body parts. Now, even the way we deal with dead bodies enables our denial of the inevitable. In order to avoid death, we have killed the funeral.
“Our society has forgotten what to do with the dead and persuaded itself that this amnesia is a sign of health and freedom,” writes Long. “But the truth is that people who cannot care for the dead and accompany them to a place of farewell are a people with diminished ability to care for the living and to join with others in communities of trust and meaning.”
Doughty agrees, “There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.” Our funeral practices have become — enabled in part by modern technology and constrained by modern mobility — less about the dead and disposition of the body, and more about the living. Yet many of us do not know that our perspectives on funerals and burial have been shaped less by the Bible and more by a book written in 1963. Jessica Mitford lobbed grenades at the funeral industry in “The American Way of Death,” citing its price-gouging of bereaved families and euphemism-flinging sale of sentimental niceties. As the industry bandaged its wounds, it offered cheaper funeral costs by revoking the invitation of the corpse and selling a different product: the memorial service.
Today, most American protestants jettison traditional rituals in favor of personalized memorial services hosted by funeral homes equipped with video technology for showing tributes or livestreaming distant relatives.
“In writing ‘The American Way of Death,’ Jessica Mitford wasn’t trying to improve our relationship with death,” writes Doughty. “She was trying to improve our relationship with the price point. That is where she went wrong. It was death that the public was being cheated out of by the funeral industry, not money. The realistic interaction with death and the chance to face our own mortality. For all of Mitford’s good intentions, direct cremation has only made the situation worse.”
Cremation is not intrinsically evil, nor does it preclude bodily resurrection. Certainly, God is able to recreate a body exactly as He desires whether it is buried in a casket, burned in a fire, or trapped in a sunken ship. Sometimes, for practical and necessary reasons, cremation is the only option, and since 1963 most churches have taken a neutral stance on the practice.
However, Long writes that a defining characteristic of the human species is that “we deal with death (the idea of the thing) by dealing with our dead (the physical fact of the thing).” This formula worked for most of human history — by getting the dead to where they needed to be, the living got to where they needed to be, he says. He considers the rise in cremation not as the cause of the problem, but as a coinciding trend that results from “an estrangement between the living and the dead that is unique in human history.”
Revisiting Ancient Traditions
Perhaps the best way to examine how we’ve become estranged from the dead is to look at how far we’ve come from the traditions of early Christians. There is a reason Christ was buried as He was — His followers were abiding by Jewish tradition.
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.
At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there (John 19: 38-42).
Following the Ebola crisis, the idea of anointing a body with spices and wrapping it in linen evokes images of plastic containment suits. But the tradition, absent radically contagious viruses, was perfectly safe for the living. Treating the body with this kind of reverence distinguished early Christians from the surrounding Roman culture, which believed the body to be a corrupted vessel, essential only as a container for the soul.
Departing from Roman views, Christians believed that God created the body — in fact, created humans in His own image. Even more radically, they believed God lowered Himself to take on a human body, reinforcing the sacred significance of the physical. So when it came time to bury their dead, early Christians followed Jewish tradition, and the model of how the very body of God had been buried. Long writes, “The aspect of this regard for the body that most perplexed the Romans was that these early Christians took upon themselves the role of undertaker, volunteering to bury the dead, not just their own dead but also the bodies of impoverished Romans, who would otherwise have been unceremoniously dumped into a common pit.”
Christians have followed these traditions ever since. Up until the mid-19th century, American communities cared for their own dead. Doughty explains, “A person would die in their own bed, surrounded by their family and friends. The corpse would be washed and shrouded by the man or woman’s closest relatives and laid out for several days in the home for a wake — a ritual named for the Old English word for ‘keeping watch,’ not, as it is often believed, the fear that the corpse might suddenly wake up.” After several days, family members placed the body in a coffin they had built and carried it to a nearby grave. So up until the Civil War, Americans followed traditions remarkably similar to those of early Christian communities.
Today, most American Protestants jettison traditional rituals in favor of personalized memorial services hosted by funeral homes equipped with video technology for showing tributes or livestreaming distant relatives. Many offer websites to post pictures and record greetings and tributes from friends and family who couldn’t attend the service. Technology blurs what used to be a stark line between life and death. If Uncle Joe still has a Facebook page, is he really dead?
Reflecting the Gospel
For the early followers of Jesus, that line was well-defined. But even in death, the physical body was sacred and worthy of careful, respectful, compassionate treatment. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we still believe this today. What elicits more outrage in our world than images of patients dying outside overtaxed Ebola clinics or victims of senseless genocide flung carelessly into mass graves? Our indignation reinforces the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” As death invades our consciousness, whether in images or the physical body of a loved one, our hearts recognize that there must be more — this life cannot be all that God intended for us.
In his book “Lost in the Middle,” Paul Tripp writes, “It’s unnatural and we know it: People are not supposed to die. Like a knife rammed into the heart of creation, sin brought death into the world and all the aging, sickness, and decay that goes with it. … Aging, sickness, deterioration and death preach the Gospel because they point to the utter futility of living a life that ends that way.”
That is why Paul Woodard thinks it’s beneficial for the body of the deceased to be present at the funeral service. As a chaplain for more than 16 years at Friendship Village in Chesterfield, Missouri, Woodard presided over hundreds of funerals. “I think there is something special about the body being there. It is a useful way for people to face their own mortality,” he says. “In sermons, I would begin with talking about our mortality and the fact that God has put eternity in our hearts. There is something within us that yearns for eternity.” Presented with a dead body, mourners more easily come to a place of acknowledging their mortality and their longing for more, providing a natural segue for Woodard to offer friends and families the Good News: God opens eternity to us through Christ.
Beyond providing a way to proclaim the Gospel message, Long argues that the ritual of a good funeral itself offers an illustration of the Gospel. Early Christians, he explains, saw the funeral as the last mile of the baptismal journey — they were accompanying the deceased with singing to a place of farewell. He says that metaphor undergirded Christian practices for centuries but lost traction with many American Christians during the past 50 years. “The new metaphor is that the deceased is not traveling anywhere, but the mourner is the one traveling.” A therapeutic narrative engulfed the theological one.
While attending to the grief of the mourners is important, Long says the funeral has grander aims. He writes, “To accompany the dead from ‘here’ to ‘there’ is to enact a ritual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.” The rituals of the funeral — even physical movement of the dead body — are meant to remind us that God pens a new ending to the human tragedy: He brings life out of death. A funeral offers a promise, says Long: “At the end of the day, everything will be different and all of us will be changed.”
The memorial service — a practice suited to modern worship spaces — has sent the traditional language of ritual, symbolic action to join the funeral in hospice. Despite the focus on comfort for the grieving, Long says mourners are missing what will bring deepest comfort: placing death in the context of a sweeping story with broad implications. Long says we need rituals that “enable us to take our deep sorrows and fragments and broken places and entrust them to God, knowing that one day these will become songs of praise even though we sing them now with broken voices.”
When Woodard faced the death of his own father — even after walking with so many others through death — he found comfort in the time he was able to spend with his father’s body. With the body present at the funeral service, Woodard remembers, “It was a wonderful experience for me to touch him. He had finally come to the Lord after a troubled life. To stand there and know that he was at peace with God and that I was at peace with him was an important moment.” Connecting the sorrows of his dad’s life with their ultimate healing gave Woodard the closure he needed for his own healing.
Exchanging Death for Life
Doughty, who claims to be irreligious and believes that death is indeed the end, nevertheless sees a need for our culture to embrace human mortality. She writes, “A corpse doesn’t need you to remember it. In fact, it doesn’t need anything anymore — it’s more than happy to lie there and rot away. It is you who needs the corpse. Looking at the body you understand the person is gone, no longer an active player in the game of life. Looking at the body, you see yourself, and you know that you, too, will die. The visual is a call to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.”
How much more should we as Christians, who believe that life and death are endowed with immense meaning, be willing to reject our culture’s evasive strategies and face death honestly? “Turning toward our pain is counterintuitive,” writes Peter Scazzero in “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.” “But in fact, the heart of Christianity is that the way to life is death, the pathway to resurrection is through crucifixion.”
Psalm 90 teaches exactly what Doughty suggests: Perspective on our own mortality is the beginning of wisdom for this life.
You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death —
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered….
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is
Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
By facing the knowledge of our inevitable death, we gain humility before God and perspective on the limitations of this life. We are forced to embrace the reality of the brokenness of the world. Because we know this world is not the way it was intended to be, nor is it the end of our journey, we have hope to offer to the suffering and a reason to fight against the injustice, disease, and decay that plagues our world. Most of all, when faced with death, we cling all the more desperately to Jesus for life. In this broken world, we need His daily rescuing. With hope in His completed work on the cross, we eagerly anticipate the day of our final rescue — from sin, from aging, from pain, from death.
By applying more than a Hello Kitty Band-Aid to the gunshot wound of death, we may be surprised at what God has in store for us. Woodard says that in 40 years of ministry, the last 16 as chaplain to the elderly were some of his best. “You might think it’s so depressing, walking with people in this stage of life. But it’s amazing the living they do while they are still alive!” When faced with death, people were more open spiritually than any other time, which made it rewarding for Woodard. He says with a chuckle: “I prefer funerals to weddings.”
Susan Fikse is a wife, mom, and freelance writer who lives in San Diego. Follow her writing on Twitter @SusanFikse.