Two weeks ago, I visited the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, where Rembrandt van Rijn lived, painted, and sold paintings from 1639 to 1658. An audio guided tour takes you through each room of the house, which have been meticulously recreated and curated based on the inventory Rembrandt kept when his possessions were auctioned off in the face of his bankruptcy. The walls are, of course, covered in art. Works by Rembrandt, works by his friends, works by his colleagues and pupils.
But it wasn’t the art, or the furniture, or even the easels in his studio that captured my imagination that morning. Rather, my interest was peaked by a small silver medallion in a glass box in the parlor.
This is a funerary medallion. One side bears the arms of the Guild of Saint Luke and the year 1634. On the other side, the name Rembrandt Harmans and the letter S. The Guild of Saint Luke was composed of artists and makers – those who sculpted, painted, built coffins, engraved, etc. All such makers had to belong to the guild and pay their dues in order to work their craft in the city of Amsterdam.
And, as of 1579, all members of the guild were expected to attend the burial of a fellow guild member or his wife. Every member of Saint Luke’s was issued a medallion bearing the coat of arms and the year of their admission into the guild, along with their name and profession. So we have Rembrandt Harmens (as he was known at the time), who joined the guild in 1634 as a Schilder, or painter.
Upon the death of a guild member, the servant of the guild would distribute the medallions to their owners, who would then turn them back in again at the funeral. If you failed to attend the funeral and hand in your medallion, you had to pay a fine, which increased with every occurrence of absenteeism. The money raised from the fines went to help those members of the guild in financial need.
This practice was not without its squabbles. By 1621 the guild had grown so large that keeping track of everyone wasn’t tenable, so they only required the presence of members of one’s own profession or craft. But just what constituted one’s “craft” was a debatable matter. In 1735 it appeared that the fine painters, or art painters (kuntschilders) didn’t feel they had to attend the burials of house painters (kladschilders). To solve this petty matter, the distinction was removed, and everyone simply became a schilder.1
Even with the evidence that not everyone appreciated, or observed, this guild requirement, it strikes me as a remarkable practice. It was expected that you would attend the funeral of someone in your community, whether you knew them well or not. The community came out to pay their respects to one of their own, and, in the words of Tom Long in The Good Funeral, to mark that “one person’s death represents a breech for the whole community and an occasion not only to bow in respect toward the deceased but also to remind ourselves of the transience of life and the meaning of life and death.”2
Today, our sense of community is not felt so strongly. If we substituted “church” for “guild,” the idea that the whole congregation would come out for the funeral of a fellow church member would strike many of us as implausible. Certainly, we would attend if we knew someone well. But not just because they were part of the community. Long (in Accompany Them with Singing) argues that our society has come to see funerals as primarily occasions for grief management and comfort of the bereaved. So we may be more inclined to attend the visitation, where such comfort can be offered in a more intimate setting, than the funeral, where we’re relegated to our pews.3
And yet, says Long, it is at the funeral where the church functions as church. The funeral is an occasion for comfort, yes. But much more so, it is “a dramatic performance of the gospel, enacting the meaning of life and death for the person who has died, for the Christian community and the communion of the saints, and, indeed, for the whole of humanity.” At the Christian funeral, we enact a narrative that proclaims it is the living God in Christ Jesus who has the last word, not death. And so “the merchant, the dentist, and the fellow parishioner are needed at the funeral not primarily to give or receive comfort (though that happens), but because they have important roles to play in the drama. They are needed ‘on stage’ to act out the gospel story on the occasion of a death.”4
I wonder what might happen in the church if we reclaimed this as the primary purpose of a Christian funeral, and if we each saw ourselves as having “important roles to play in the drama.” I know – the world has changed and unless all funerals take place on Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons, it’s difficult for those who work or are in school to attend. But *what if* we began having funerals on Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons so that the whole Body of Christ could attend, could participate, could enact this drama of life after death, could bear witness to the truth that the Communion of Saints transcends time and space?
My hunch is that this would counter, in a profound way, the individualism, isolation, and loneliness running rampant through our communities. I’m positive it would help us collectively become better at talking about death, suffering, and the meaning of life. And I suspect it would help us navigate sticky moments in our congregations with more grace, humility, and hospitality. After all, part of the drama of a Christian funeral is the declaration that, says Elizabeth Johnson, “death’s destructive power cannot sever the bonds holding persons in communion, for these bonds are grace, love, and community of God’s own being. In dying, one falls into the living God and is quickened by loving-kindness which is forever faithful.”5
And as in dying, so in living.
- I. H. van Eeghen, tr. Jasper Hillegers, “The Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke in the 17th Century,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, vol. 4.2 (Summer 2012), https://jhna.org/articles/amsterdam-guild-of-saint-luke-17th-century/
- Thomas G. Long & Thomas Lynch, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2013), 205.
- Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 92.
- Ibid., 94.
- Elizabeth A. Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of the Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003), 70.