As we enter into Holy Week, I’d like to share a piece I wrote two years ago for the Faith and Leadership program at Duke Divinity: “Journeying with Jesus’ Body.” It’s a bit long for The Twelve, but perhaps even portions of it can be edifying for you as you reflect on the unfolding events of this week.
April 19, 2011
I looked around the room. I was in the company of a few hundred other clergy, chaplains, hospice workers, funeral directors and mortuary school students — all gathered to hear Tom Long and Thomas Lynch speak on “The Good Death, Good Grief, Good Funerals.”
Long, a theologian, and Lynch, a writer and undertaker, invited us to reflect with them on the shifts taking place in how Americans handle their dead. Not death — the dead. Because, as they explained, the human species deals with the idea of death by dealing with the thing itself: the dead person. What we do with one who has died speaks volumes about how we understand death in our culture.
Throughout history, humans have recognized that the body of one who dies can no longer remain among the living. It must be moved in some way and to some resting place. This basic reality is a constant across all societies, and how it unfolds in any particular place or time is never perfunctory.
The basic metaphor, Lynch and Long suggested, is that a community accompanies a sacred person on a journey from the land of the living to the great mystery. We process the death by processing with the body from one place to another; in moving it, we are moved. (Picture, for instance, the processional of a presidential casket in Washington, D.C.)
This metaphor is in jeopardy, they contend, for a number of reasons: the breakdown of community, at least as it was understood in past centuries; the transience of our lives and scattered nature of our roots; the gradual erosion of our culture’s adherence to larger narratives, religious or otherwise sacred.
Honoring the dead seems to have less and less to do with their place within a community or narrative of shared beliefs and values and more to do with their individual hobbies and interests. “We used to bury Lutherans and Catholics,” Lynch noted. “Now we bury bowlers and golfers.” Call it secularism or whatever you want, but the growing absence of living by a sacred narrative, in a group and a story that transcends one’s own, can leave people at a loss to interpret the death of their loved ones.
It makes me think of the phone call I had recently from the mother whose infant died several months ago. I was the chaplain who performed the baptism. Her husband was Christian, and she herself had absolutely no religious background, but she was starting to think she wanted to have herself and her other children baptized, because she wanted to make sure they would all be together someday. “Do you know someone who could do that for me?” she asked.
I was struck by whatever was stirring deeply within her, but also compelled to have a bigger conversation about community, sacrament and so on, because her longings are about the here and now, not just about the hereafter.
There is no quick fix for healing anyone’s grief, but it was heart-wrenching to listen to someone who was aching for some language, some larger framework, some bigger story through which her grief might have meaning. Some of her child’s ashes are contained in a pendant on a necklace she wears, but her sorrow was uncontained when she asked me, “Will I see my child again?”
As our culture begins to divest itself of sacred narratives, Long said, we start doubting that the dead are really going anywhere, and we put our energy into venerating the next-best sacred story — the biography of the deceased.
On top of this, our cultural aversion to aging and death leads us to favor practices that focus less on the death that has occurred and more on the task of helping the bereaved move on. More interested in therapeutic healing than in redemption or salvation, we work hard to celebrate the deceased’s life but leave little space to sit communally with the darkness of grief and loss.
The ages-old metaphor of moving the dead from one place and realm to another seems to be taking a back seat to the emerging metaphor in which we busy ourselves with moving as swiftly as possible from sorrow to stability. Perhaps, Lynch says, this is why bodies and remains are increasingly unwelcome at their own funerals; they impede the mourners’ trajectory toward stability.
The “sacred community theater,” as Long called it, in which we enact cultural scripts to move the dead in stages from the land of the living to their final resting place, is losing traction as we forgo the social customs that provide a script for the bereaved and that teach us why we do what we do when someone has died. The schedules and demands of the living do not yield to the dead as they used to. But it’s time, Lynch says, that we think about our obligations to the dead beyond just memorializing them.
What is at stake in addressing all this? What does it matter to society that we figure this out? It matters because a society that cares honorably and tenderly for the bodies of the dead is a society that can care honorably and tenderly for the bodies of the living.
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