Monday, October 14, 2013

Worshiping among the Dead

Sanctuary -- Christ Church Cathedral (Oxford).  Notice the memorials along the walls and in the floor.


In reading The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care, by Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long, I began to think about how we think of the dead and their place in our lives.  With the growing popularity of cremation, something I've strongly considered for myself, we're as likely to spread the remains of our loved ones across a river or a lake as we are to bury them in a cemetery.  In ages past the place of burial might have been one's yard, and more likely the church yard.  It's even possible that you would be buried within the walls of the church, especially if you were a person of importance.  Lynch and Long are concerned about how we treat the dead amongst us.  They write from the perspective of the funeral director and the pastor to their colleagues -- of whom I am numbered.  In the course of the book, which I reviewed here, they speak directly to our contemporary aversion to having the corpse present in funerals and memorial services, in part because to have the casket present, might dampen the mood.  How can you celebrate a life when there is that constant reminder that a death has occurred.  In my review I wrestle with whether the body needs to be present, so I won't belabor the point here.

Henry Stebbing -- Salisbury
But as I read the book, I began to think about my recent trip to England, and my visits to the cathedrals and parish churches.  Especially in the cathedrals, but also in parish churches, one finds memorials to the dead, reminders of lives long past, but whose memories are still honored.  These are saints of God, "who from their labors rest."  

Early Christians were known for the care they gave of the dead.  They became the undertakers of their communities.  They even worshiped in catacombs, among the dead.  They worshiped a God revealed in the crucified and resurrected one.  Their faith put in one who conquered death, as the last enemy.  At the time of the Reformation masses for the dead were dispensed with wherever Protestants came to power.  In many ways this was a necessary response to a corrupt system, but something could have been lost.  When you go through cathedrals and churches you will come upon monuments and graves that have been desecrated in an effort to stamp out what was perceived to be superstition.  Could we be doing the same thing spiritually today.  Could we be excluding the dead from our midst, because they might disrupt our worship.  No need for solemnity when celebration is in order.  

Whether on the walls, on the floors, or in side chapels, we're reminded that as followers of Jesus, we are part of the whole company of heaven.  In our modern sensibilities, with our focus on the here and now, have we forgotten -- indeed do want to forget -- the dead among us?  Does their presence make us uncomfortable?

Tom Long writes that in our new religion that is comprised of an airy spirituality, that "feels trapped by solid things" and is "allergic to institutions and buildings, creeds and structures, "it doesn't like bodies."  He goes on to say:

The real stuff, after all, is spiritual, so the body, with its weighty encumbrances, its wrinkles, and its tendency to break down is a hindrance to the living, and to the dead, the body is 'just a shell.' So if the task of a memorial service is to become disembodied -- to be inspired, to feel lifted above the sheer facts of death, to become spiritually centered, to have my memory activated and my grief soothed with laughter and upbeat sentiments -- then, for God's sake, don't roll a heavy dead body onto the set.  (The Good Funeral, p. 104-105). 

In writing this, I seek to raise a question -- can we worship God while among the dead?  If so, what does that mean for us?  What does it say about the nature of the Christian faith?  Is it disembodied so that it can be spiritual?  Or can our spirituality be truly embodied?  


St. Frideswide Shrine -- Christ Church Oxford 



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