THE GOOD FUNERAL: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. By Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. Xxv + 252 pages.
As a pastor I am called upon from time to time to provide funeral services. I’ve done my share of services, with most of the persons I’ve provided services for being older. Like many pastors I have found this ministry to be very rewarding spiritually and vocationally. It is at times like this that we can, if we’re prepared for it, do our best ministry. That there might be a “good funeral” might seem odd to many. Surely a funeral presents a situation most would want to avoid. And yet, because we are destined to die, at some point families will deal with death, and clergy, as well as funeral directors, will be called upon to care for the dead and their families. The book’s title signals to prospective readers that the authors believe that not all funerals are good. That is, not all funerals fulfill their purpose, which is, in the words of the two authors, getting the dead where they need to go,” and “get the living where they need to be” (p. 237). If a funeral succeeds in this calling, then it is a good funeral. If it doesn’t then it has failed.
The two authors have been writing on the subject of funerals for some time. One, Thomas Lynch, writes from the perspective of a funeral director (and the son of a funeral director). The other, Thomas Long, writes from the perspective of a pastor/scholar. Many of us who are clergy have encountered their writings, and we may have found ourselves struggling with their message. They are both concerned about the present state of American funerals, feeling strongly that current practice among both funeral directors and clergy may not be contributing to the provision of a good funeral. Why? They have come to this conclusion because current trends are increasingly disembodied. That is, the body is not present. We have services of celebration, remembering a person’s life, but not really dealing with our reality – that the person is dead.
Long and Lynch offer this book to their colleagues in the hope that the funeral might be redeemed. They write in the hope that funeral directors and clergy might “think about death, grief, and funerals, and how they can strengthen their mutual work” (p. 50). While this is an invitation to a conversation, both authors have thought long and hard about this topic and they have very strong views about the current state of funerals and how we might move forward. As a pastor who is called upon to work with families to care for the dead I have worked with funeral directors for many years. For the most part we have worked well together. Most are willing to adjust to my requests, and hopefully I’ve been willing to listen to them.
I have struggled with the positions espoused in this book, which I’ve read in parts elsewhere, because a majority of the services I’ve officiated at, especially in Southern California, have been memorial services where the body isn’t present. In California this was largely due to the prevalence of cremation. Although the authors are not against cremation, they are concerned about the manner in which we dispense with bodies. That is, we insist that the funeral directors take the body away and dispose of it as they see fit. We either don’t want to be bothered by the disposal of the body, or we find the presence of the body at our services to be counterproductive. That is, having a body present at a service takes away from the celebratory mood.
I've been resistant to the message they have offered in large part because while a majority of services I’ve conducted have lacked a body, I feel confident that the services I’ve conducted have been sufficiently reverent, balancing grief with celebration. In fact, these services differ little from each other whether or not the body is present. We’ve sung hymns, heard the scriptures read and expounded, shared stories, some that have humor to them, we’ve cried and we’ve laughed. And when appropriate we have closed with the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. Looking back across the years I feel that I have been able to help provide for a good funeral, and I have been commended for them by family, attendees, and funeral directors.
While I'm still not convinced the body must be present for a good funeral to occur, Lynch and Long have pressed their case in ways that demand our attention. Like them I am concerned about the disembodied nature of much contemporary religion and culture. There is a desire for a spirituality that is unencumbered by traditional trappings, and that may not be a healthy thing. When it comes to caring for the dead, out of sight, out of mind, might not be the best way to address the needs of the living. And it may prove to be disrespectful of the dead.
The book, which carries forewords by Thomas Lynch’s brother and fellow funeral director (they are the sons of a funeral director), along with Barbara Brown Taylor. The book itself is comprised of ten chapters divided among five sections. The book begins with a section entitled “Why We Do This.” Each of the authors responds by telling their own story of how they came to the business of funerals. From there they move to “Caring for the Dead,” “Funeral Directors and Clergy,” “The Funeral,” and “The Grieving.” In the course of the book they address critics of the funeral industry and level their own criticisms. Whether we agree in totality with their premises, they make their case with a passionate commitment to the needs of both the dead and the living. The chapter written by Thomas Lynch entitled “our Own Worst Enemies” takes an honest look at many of the criticisms of the funeral industry, acknowledging them and offering a way forward. I found the discussion of the trend toward offering “pre-need” services (that is, making and pre-paying for burial arrangements), which has led to significant abuses. Lynch is concerned that funeral directors, once known as “undertakers” are tempted to become mere salespeople, making promises not easily kept. This chapter is worth deep discussion by clergy and funeral directors together so that we can help families make good decisions.
For my part, though I have great respect for Tom Long, I found the chapters by Thomas Lynch to be more helpful. Perhaps it is because, like many clergy, I have harbored a good deal of skepticism about whether this profession has the best interests of the people I serve at heart. What I heard here is an invitation to engage in partnership, recognizing that both clergy and funeral directors, at their best, desire to help the dead get to where they need to go, and the living get to where they need to be.
This is an extremely important book – even when I’m not sure I completely agree with the authors. I may not change all of my practices as a result of reading this book, but I do believe that I will be even more thoughtful about my calling to provide a good funeral going forward. Although this is a book about funerals, I believe that this book might also engender an important conversation about what it means to have an embodied faith. At a time when more and more people are embracing a “spiritual but not religious” view of spirituality, what happens at the end of life? Do we ignore the body, believing that it is the spirit alone that matters? As we contemplate these kinds of questions, it is helpful to remember that early Christians came to be known for the way they cared for the dead – not only their own, but that of others. They treated bodies with great care and solemnity. They recognized that the way we treat the dead may have some relationship to the way we treat the living. Therefore, I have concluded that this is an essential book for Christian leaders to read and to meditate upon, that we might provide a truly good funeral for the dead and for the living.