Simple Gifts: The Death of the ‘Standard Funeral’
Funeral customs are changing dramatically, leaving families with more decisions to make at just the moment they may be least prepared to make them. Making decisions ahead of time honors “ancient wisdom.”
Yogi Berra once quipped, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” If there is a time that I see church parishioners facing Yogi’s confused logic, it is when dealing with decision making for a funeral and burial of a loved one. American culture is going through a tumultuous season of cultural change. The last time that people want to deal with more change is during the loss and grief of a loved one’s death. But the reality is that the American funeral experience has changed and is continuing to change dramatically.
When I performed my first funeral in 1993, there was a certain set of expectations for what would happen when someone died. It almost always went like this. Three days after the person died there would be a funeral, or rarer then, a memorial service (a worship service without the body of the deceased). The evening before the funeral there would be a visitation at the funeral home to view the body and share condolences with the family. Usually at 11 a.m. or at 2 p.m. the funeral would take place at the church. Then the family, followed by friends, would drive in procession with headlights on to the cemetery for a brief committal service. After the committal the family returned to the church for a meal and time to visit. On occasion I have been invited to drop by the family home afterwards when all had been finished and there was nothing left to do but sip bourbon and visit.
Yes, this is a very Presbyterian, and a very Southern Presbyterian funeral experience. We value brevity when it comes to funeral worship services, and we value lingering when it comes to visiting afterwards. Of course, there are many variations on a theme played out in different religious traditions, and all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. I admire the African-American Baptist tradition, which has been able to resist many of the negative consumeristic trends involved with funerals, but I do not possess the proclamatory wind to preside for several hours over a funeral service.
Things have certainly changed from when a traditional schedule was the expected norm. There are many reasons for the changes that now often require families to design their own funeral rituals. One of the most significant is that in 1970 only 5% of the American population was cremated after death. Last year 55% chose cremation. The cost of burial with embalming of the body, metal casket and metal vault can run about $11,000, and of course this has been a motivating factor for choosing cremation.
Not too long ago I performed a funeral for the beloved family doctor of his remote rural village. He had made all the arrangements well in advance of his death. Ben was buried in a simple pine box that he had made himself and was interred on a hill at the back of his farm. He had a friend who had prepared his body after death and kept the body refrigerated until his family could see it. The doctor was a keen environmental steward of his farm as well as his community, and he did not wish to add the mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and humectants to the soil of his farm. This makes me wonder what really is traditional after all, because the doctor’s method would have been common place before industrialization and the Civil War. (Check out this website for different state requirements for a funeral at home.)
Ben was on to something. Think about what you would like your funeral to be. Talk to others about it. Don’t get scared off by our American cultural reluctance to have a conversation about death. Do you want to be cremated or embalmed? There are other options now to cremation than burning the body; it can also be done with water. Do you want a religious service to mark the occasion? What will be most helpful for your surviving family? I think that religious services can be deeply moving and genuinely helpful for people. But I should think that. I am a pastor. I know that this is not true for everyone. The point is to think about this beforehand and share with your family what is important to you and make plans for it.
Let me put in a word for funeral home directors. It has been my good fortune to be friends with a couple of them and a golf partner with one of them. I have often heard terribly negative caricatures of funeral home directors, most of the time from people whose only experience has been attending a few funerals. My experience has shown them to be people who pursue their work as a calling. I have watched them at times provide funeral services for poor families with disregard to the business end of their work. If you are interested in learning what a funeral director’s life is like, then read Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. He is an American Book Award winner writer and a funeral home director in his small town of Milford, Michigan.
Lynch gives us, who live in what is often a death-denying culture, this sober reminder.
This is the central fact of my business – that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or any harm; that any damage or decency we do accrues to the living, to whom your death happens, if it really happens to anyone. The living have to live with it. You don’t. Theirs is the grief or gladness your death brings. Theirs is the loss or gain of it. Theirs is the pain and pleasure of memory.
The practical wisdom of these words reminds us that when the time finally comes for you or for me as it will for us all, water cremation, fire cremation, embalming, metal vaults, pine boxes, column bariums, floral wreaths, funeral homilies, favorite hymns, presented flags and headstones will not matter to us. But some of these things will matter and give meaning to those who survive us.
I realize I’m not making any of this process easier. That’s my point. It’s not easy. And the ever-growing options only make for more complicated decisions. But reflecting upon death and dying and thinking about what our end will be like for others make us better human beings. And that is nothing new at all. That is ancient wisdom.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.