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 â€œworkâ€ 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: â€œNo funeral please; we just want to celebrate his lifeâ€ and â€œWhen I die, I donâ€™t want a funeral, I just want a party.â€ Honestly, few families or communities are in a â€œpartying moodâ€ 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 â€œdeal with the bodyâ€ than they do wanting to paint on a â€œhappy face.â€
Without doubt, dead bodies do make memorial gatherings less convenient. Transporting â€œdead weightâ€ 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 â€œconvenientâ€ to gather the family together from the four winds. News flash: death rarely comes â€œconveniently,â€ 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 â€œfunerals with all the trimmings,â€ and therefore, endorsed â€œsimplerâ€ 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 â€œsimplifiedâ€ 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 â€œjust a shell.â€ I trace the lineage of this notion to contemporary interpretations of a New Testament reference by one of Christianityâ€™s first missionaries, St. Paul. He wrote, â€œFor 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 heavensâ€¦. 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.â€ (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 â€œjust a shell,â€ almost as if it is a useless lump of matter once the animating spirit departs. On first glance, this all looks very â€œspiritual.â€
My question is exactly when, in the hearts of those who loved this now-deceased individual, does the loved one become â€œjust a shell?â€ 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 â€œrefusal to dieâ€ 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 â€œtransition,â€ â€œfly home to Glory,â€ or cross to â€œthe Great Beyondâ€ 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. Hoyâ€™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