January 4, 2017

"We humans can live with a broken heart; and we can live with a shaken faith; but we cannot live with a corpse on the floor.”

Thomas Lynch, an American poet and undertaker reviews "The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains" in The Weight of Bodies.

“Why?” a priest asked me years ago, “Why is it they always call you first?” I was calling to set the time of a funeral for the coming Saturday, which would further beset a churchman’s schedule already stuffed with duties and detail.  ....“Well, Father,” I told him, “it’s because we answer the phone.” And it was and remains so: the 3 a.m. phone call most likely to be answered is not to the church, the therapist, the bank or insurance company, the accountant or doctor—each of them buffered by business hours and answering machines. The “first call,” as we undertakers call it, is reliably answered at the funeral home, where someone who knows what to do is up and waiting, or sleeping with an ear cocked to the call for help when someone dies.

And why is that?” the good priest continued.

“Because, Father”—and you can try this at home—“we humans can live with a broken heart; and we can live with a shaken faith; but we cannot live with a corpse on the floor.” 

In the early going we do not need liturgy or sympathy or therapy or pharmacy so much as we need someone to help with the heavy lift: to get the dead off the floor and out the door, whether from the E.R., the O.R., the ICU or hospice ward, kitchen or bedroom, bathroom or backyard. 

The work of the dead falls first to the living—the shoulder and shovel work required to get the dead where they need to go because only by the honorable completion of these tasks do the living get where they need to be. 
More and more, our funeral customs treat the corpse like a nuisance to be disposed of with dispatch rather than sacred remains to be borne on its journey “home.” In a book, co-authored with the theologian Thomas G. Long (The Good Funeral, 2013) this reviewer argues that the fashionably ubiquitous “celebration of life,” which has increasingly replaced the requiem and obsequy, is notable for its dismissal of the corpse, in trade for uplifting music, hobby-themed memorial knick-knackery (the golfer, the gardener, the biker, or bowler), Hallmarky theology, and no real work because the corpse is notably nowhere to be found. It is the mortuary equivalent of a baptism without the baby or nuptials without a bride or groom. The modern funeral cannot bear the incarnate, according to Long, because we have “lost our eschatological nerve.”
The Work of the Dead is nothing if not a history of how the churchyard gave way to the public cemetery, which in turn is giving way to the crematory, which has, not incidentally, no clerical gatekeeper. If the church wants to reassert its place in the care and disposition of the dead, it must boldly declare that a faith whose claims are based on an empty tomb ought to reacquaint itself with the weight, the gravity, of bodies. 
Posted by Jill Fallon at January 4, 2017 11:32 AM | Permalink