December 13, 2013

Downplaying Death, the Demise of the Funeral

Funerals should be sad and offer catharsis for the overwhelming emotions of the family and friends,  Funerals should remind us all of the shortness of our lives.  After the body is buried, there always can be an after party when people can eat and drink, remember, reminisce  and tell stories about the deceased.  In fact, I think it's a good idea, but it should never supplant the grave solemnity of a funeral.

In The Federalist, Chad Bird questions the "celebration of life" , the 'happier'  alternative that is quickly supplanting those old and sad funerals.

The Tragic Death Of The Funeral Baby Boomer narcissism crowds out Christian meaning from a familiar ritual

So what makes a Celebration of Life different? Rather than a focus upon the loss of a loved one, this service rewinds the present into the past, to draw the mourners back into the life lived by the deceased. It’s like a miniature, enacted biography of the person, with a focus upon those qualities, interests, and achievements that his family and friends found most endearing about him. Whereas a traditional funeral is structured around a liturgy, in this ceremony stories about the person—serious or lighthearted—take center stage. It is his funeral, after all, so shouldn’t it be about him?
To guarantee that the Celebration of Life dovetails with the desires of the departed, pre-death planning is strongly encouraged. Indeed, it’s almost a must. What better way to have the celebration you want than to plan it yourself? In fact, this is a large part of its appeal. This possibility resonates especially well with that aging, voluminous generation for whom self-determination is the spice of life:  the baby boomers.  According to Mark Duffey, the CEO of Everest, a funeral planning and concierge service, the boomer generation is revolutionizing the funeral industry:

“If you're 75 or older, the mentality is: ‘I want to have the same funeral that we had for Aunt Mildred; I don't want to be a bother, I don't want to be showy,’” he said. “You get below 70 and, all of a sudden, it's changing. Now people are saying, I'm a boomer and I want to be talked about.”
…. Although they may initially appear innocuous, or even attractive, these celebrations represent a dual danger: they perpetuate and even formalize our culture’s egocentrism, and they rob life of its true value by refusing to address its end and the meaning thereof. Let’s take a look at each of these dangers.
What makes community life viable, in groups as small as a family or large as a country, is the will of individuals to makes sacrifices for others, to consider more than their own needs and wants, and to act accordingly. The more robust this other-focused approach to life is, the healthier the community will be. For that reason, there is no greater threat to the cohesion and perpetuation of a society than narcissism. The narcissist operates not according to an objective set of values or beliefs, nor are the needs of others an impetus for his actions, but his whole world is centered in the navel at which he gazes. The be-all and end-all reason for his existence is the man in the mirror. Therefore, the question he poses, whenever any decision must be made, is quite simply this: “What’s in it for me?”

Let it be said that, yes, it is well and good to be involved in planning your own funeral: choosing hymns and readings; pallbearers and the minister; and dealing with the nitty-gritty of casket selection, plot purchase, and the like. Such planning can relieve the family of making decisions under the stress of grief. What is at issue is not planning but priority. Will the priority of the end-of-life service be the exaltation of the individual or will it confront the reality of death honestly and constructively. And that brings up a second, more serious, concern with a Celebration of Life.

The other danger revolving around a Celebration of Life is harder to detect, for it is camouflaged by euphemistic language and wears a smiling mask that whispers half-truths that we, especially in the throes of grief, want to believe …. The danger is simply this: that we downplay death and, in so doing, fail to fully appreciate life. Stripped of its euphemistic language, the get-together billed as a “celebration” or even a “party” is, in truth, a gathering of mourners around a corpse.
To the extent that we bury our head in the sand when confronted with the reality of death, to that same extent we miss out on an opportunity to learn more about, and to appreciate more deeply, the life that is ours.

Whereas a funeral, at least in traditional Christianity, takes death seriously, and balances the truth of grief and loss with the hope of life and resurrection, the Celebration of Life looks neither to the present of grief nor the future of hope, but solely to the past. Its focus is neither faith nor hope but only love of what was lost. And in this case, the greatest of these is not love. Call it a celebration all you want; life is not so much celebrated as death is ignored. Therein lies a great tragedy, for a Celebration of Life is a missed opportunity to understand death aright.
The bereaved need, and deserve, something better. They deserve a service that speaks frankly and honestly about death, while anchoring the survivors in a hope that extends beyond this world. If any life is to be celebrated, let it be the life of the One who alone can lighten the load of grief borne by the survivors, and who shines a ray of his life into the gloom of death.
Posted by Jill Fallon at December 13, 2013 12:42 PM | Permalink