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Grief Perspectives
Research that Matters
Professional Bookshelf

The Dead and their


William G. Hoy

My friends and colleagues, Tom Long (a theologian) and Thomas Lynch (a funeral director) have just published a book that is certain to cause a stir in the fields of death and bereavement care. Though reviewed more fully below, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) is their collaborative effort to discuss what makes a funeral “work” for the mourners, both within the family and in the larger community. Those who know my work and research interests recognize that such a thesis resonates very deeply with me.
Honestly, I write from the vantage point of thirty years in this work; I officiated at my first funeral as a pastoral intern in 1982. While three decades of experience does not automatically make one an authoritative expert, I have likely spent more time thinking about funerals than most GriefPerspectives readers. Of course, that does not make me right; all that thinking (and writing) just means I have thought about funerals from many different perspectives.
Over the course of my career, I have observed the gradual transition of the language chosen by bereaved families and the not-yet-dead themselves to describe their choice of memorial rites: “No funeral please; we just want to celebrate his life” and “When I die, I don’t want a funeral, I just want a party.” Honestly, few families or communities are in a “partying mood” after the death of a loved one. And unfortunately, it seems our most fierce endorsement of this option seems to be when death comes tragically through the unexpected death of a young person. Though some will surely disagree, I deeply suspect these choices have more to do with not wanting to “deal with the body” than they do wanting to paint on a “happy face.”
Without doubt, dead bodies do make memorial gatherings less convenient. Transporting “dead weight” around town in processions is not as easy as simply setting up a photo collage or playing a video at the memorial service. Moreover, when there is a body not yet buried or cremated, we cannot generally wait two months until the weather gets nicer or until it is “convenient” to gather the family together from the four winds. News flash: death rarely comes “conveniently,” which is why we most likely need to stop at that moment and acknowledge the death. The bereaved need support in two months, to be sure, but they most certainly need the support of personally meaningful ceremonies in the early days after the death.
During my 16 years as a hospice professional, I heard from colleagues about avoiding the high cost of funerals. The text of this complaint generally focused on the seemingly growing number of people who could not afford “funerals with all the trimmings,” and therefore, endorsed “simpler” direct cremation arrangements with a memorial service orchestrated by the family. Interestingly, however, as any funeral director will attest, the poor are not the people generally buying these “simplified” arrangements; most often the purchasers seem to be those families who could afford anything they choose. My research into this phenomenon is ongoing, but one observation bears noting: the groups with the highest poverty rates in America (African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans) almost never opt for simple cremations followed by family-directed memorial services. Instead, the data I am collecting suggests likelihood toward the purchase of flowers, limousines and higher-than-average priced caskets.
One other observation bears mention. Some North Americans have begun referring to the dead body as “just a shell.” I trace the lineage of this notion to contemporary interpretations of a New Testament reference by one of Christianity’s first missionaries, St. Paul. He wrote, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens…. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:1, 4, Revised Standard Version). Some Christians (and adherents to other faiths, as well) have extrapolated from this notion as well as ancient Greek dualism, that the body is really “just a shell,” almost as if it is a useless lump of matter once the animating spirit departs. On first glance, this all looks very “spiritual.”
My question is exactly when, in the hearts of those who loved this now-deceased individual, does the loved one become “just a shell?”  If we really believed the physical remains do not matter, would we be disturbed at the awareness that the Dover Air Force Mortuary mishandled remains of fallen soldiers (Whitlock & Jaffe, 2011). Why do we not just dispose of our dead in the city landfill or place Granny in the dumpster at the side of the road for the trash collectors to haul off? While the city dump is the destination for unattended dead dogs found on the side of the road, it most certainly is not the destination for a homeless woman found dead in a city park. Why? What are the factors that cause us to take more care of our dead brothers and sisters than we do of unclaimed animals?
I suggest we do so for many reasons, but one of them must surely be that to the people who love us, the moment of our death does not magically transform us from living being to worthless corpse. I happen to believe there are spiritual reasons for this, and one of them might be that in virtually every religion's creation stories, the physical body is created first followed by the Deity's breathing in the "breath of life." Certainly that is the dominant creation narrative in the minds of North Americans, deeply influenced as we have been by the Judaeo Christian Creation story of Genesis 2:7.
So here is my takeaway. For years, the "politically correct" stance has been to refer to the body as "just a shell." I have heard it in churches and in secular circles, and I have especially heard it from the most educated among us.
The only problem is that at the end of the day, I do not think that either socially or individually, we really believe it.
Perhaps all of these issues contribute to the “refusal to die” of traditional ceremonies that surround death. Try as we might, it seems the body, the human remains, the physical part of us that is left behind when we “transition,” “fly home to Glory,” or cross to “the Great Beyond” is more important than we might have been led to think.

William G. (Bill) Hoy is an educator, counselor and author who has specialized in end-of-life and bereavement care for more than 25 years. Dr. Hoy’s passion is equipping the next generation of physicians and other healthcare professionals through his research, writing and teaching responsibilities on the Medical Humanities at Baylor University. His newest book is Do Funerals Matter? The Purposes and Practices of Death Rituals in Global Perspective (Routledge, 2013).

Harrington, C. & Sprowl, B. (2011-2012). Family Members’ Experience with Viewing in the Wake of Sudden Death. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 64 (1), 65-82.
Hamilton, Ontario social workers Christina Harrington and Bethany Sprowl conducted in-depth interviews with 16 individuals bereaved by the sudden death of a loved one to discover the salutary effects of viewing of the body. All but one of their participants expressed an “instinctual need or drive to view” (p. 75) and the sometimes poor condition of the body was not significant in the mourners’ choices. Participants seemed most appreciative of multiple opportunities to view the remains, including at the scene (when possible), in the hospital, and in the funeral home.
One interesting element in this study was the sense on the part of many informants that they needed to “take care” of their loved one during the early hours of transition from death to life. One mother described her regret at not holding her son at the accident scene, in spite of information that he died instantly. “Maybe he was still there inside…waiting for me, waiting for his mother to just come by and hold him” (p. 76).
This finding parallels the principle of liminality described by early 20th century anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. Liminal refers to the notion of a threshold, being “neither here nor there” but rather, in an in-between state. According to van Gennep, during the early days after a death, mourners have difficulty describing the actual location of the dead. In other words, people are not sure whether to describe them as dead or alive, and in fact, during this period, they are psychologically “both and neither.” An example most caregiving professionals have witnessed is that widowed people generally cannot see themselves as either married or single in the early hours or days after a spouse’s death, and almost never describe themselves in this early period as “widowed.”
Harrington & Sprowl concluded that evidence from their interviews reaffirmed the importance of viewing the body for families after sudden death, regardless of the condition of the remains. Acknowledging that some religious and cultural groups (traditional Judaism and Islam among them) do not view the body, these two social workers make a valid case for why the opportunity must be given and the potential benefit such viewing can have for family members of the deceased.
Research based on in-depth interviews belongs to the larger genre of “qualitative research.” As such its results are sometimes seen as less “scientific” because the pool of informants is small. The reason qualitative methods are often used in social science research, however, is because of the nuances of experience that appear in the “story” of the respondent; many of these details would never become apparent in the questions asked on any survey, even when conducted under the most exacting of scientific conditions with hundreds (or thousands) or research participants.
Members of the Association for Death Education & Counseling members can read this article for free as a member benefit in the “Members Only” section of the ADEC website at

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Long, T.G. & Lynch, T. (2013). The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

From the pens (or computers!) of two of the most prolific writers on funeral traditions comes this excellent addition to the literature. Tom Long is Bandy Professor of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Tom Lynch is a funeral director and essayist from a small town in Michigan where along with his father (now deceased) and brothers, he has operated a family-owned funeral home for more than 40 years. Since clergy and funeral directors have not always been best friends, and have actually sometimes been rather virulent critics of each other, on one hand it seems strange to find such a duo.
For all of their dissimilarities, however, Long and Lynch have much in common—besides their first names and the first letter of their family names. The perspective is that “good funerals” get the living where they need to be (good grief patterns) by getting the dead where they need to go. Both master storytellers, they alternate as authors of the book’s ten chapters. On first glance, such an arrangement might invite too much interruption to the flow of ideas as each author picks up the story in a “tit-for-tat” sort of way. But in fact, together they weave a cohesive story about what specific needs can be best met through “the good funeral.”
Their criticism abounds. The funeral service profession, pastors, health care professionals and consumer groups all find themselves occasionally in the aim of these two, and they are generally most critical of their own professions, especially in places like Lynch’s Chapter 5, evocatively titled “Our Own Worst Enemies.”
They also deal with the practices of cremation but not in the way one might expect: they are not critical of the act of cremation, but rather, of the ways North Americans often practice cremation. Unlike the cultures around the world who have practiced cremation for millennia, Long and Lynch write, North Americans have endorsed cremation as a way to not deal with our dead. For most groups who have historically endorsed cremation as a mode of dealing with the body, the experience is fraught with ceremony as the family and community literally walk the body to the pyre. North Americans, in an apparent wish to sanitize death, and actually, in what these authors characterize as an attempt to avoid death altogether, we simply have the dead whisked away. If we have a ceremony at all in the face of cremation, they contend, it is usually a “disembodied” ritual that short-circuits our human need to “go the distance with our dead.”
Few will agree with everything Long and Lynch have written. What none of us in the care of the dying and bereaved can afford to do, however, is ignore what they have written. This book is a “keeper.”

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