There are funeral rites
Seen in different lights
As we vary by time and by culture
Though the details may change
It should never seem strange
That death is a feast for a vulture
The original bird
As you doubtless have heard
Is a beautiful, dignified creature
But today, you will find
A more sinister kind—
One who preys on the living… a preacher
I’ve written about death, dying, and funerals here on a number of occasions. Some of my verses have actually been used by others at various different memorials, and have been noted by the folks at Good Funeral Guide (their site, and especially their blog, comes highly recommended by yours truly). If you poke around there a bit, you’ll see that funerals have changed–they are personalized, they heed the needs and wishes of family and friends, rather than the church doctrine (unless, of course, that is what is desired, in which case…). And in my own experience, the most moving and meaningful funerals have been those that are the most personal, and (though I think this is simply incidental to the people I know) thus the least religious. I suspect that personal and religious could work well, but, well, more on that below.
Via the Naples News, at least one religious writer has noticed the same trend:
For centuries, religious believers have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that, in some cultures, could get pretty lively.
The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people didn’t confuse their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted author Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known online as a poet and hymn composer.
But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: People started planning fun funerals.
Well, I would not say fun, though I suspect Bird would have described the last three funerals I have attended as “fun”, simply because they were not religious–a very specific kind of “religious”. He gives a list of no-nos for funerals, and you’ll note that at least two of them are still religious in nature (or at least, to my eye–they don’t pass muster to Bird’s True Christianity). The following are to be banned at his own funeral:
“He was a good man.” That’s out of line, he said, because “even if I were the moral equivalent of Mother Teresa,” funerals are not supposed to celebrate someone’s “moral resume.” In Christian theology, the goal is to remember God’s love for sinners — including the one in the coffin.
“God now has another angel.” It’s important to understand that “people don’t become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever,” he wrote. This is a sobering statement about the importance of decisions made during this life.
“We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life.” This is a false note, argued Bird, because the “gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause.”
“What’s in that coffin is just the shell of Chad.” Actually, he said, “My body is God’s creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God’s gift to me.”
I would also ban the second and fourth, if it were up to me, but for vastly different reasons than Bird would, of course. The first, I have little danger of anyone saying at my funeral–though again, I loathe his reason for excluding it. The third I almost fully agree with, though I would argue that it is Christianity that “disregard[s] the reality of death”, with John 3:16 as my evidence. And any funeral that focuses on sin and redemption, that makes God rather than the deceased as the focus, is an insult. At the last memorial I attended, half the relatives there were complaining about a funeral the previous week, at which the preacher went on at length trying to leverage their grief into saved souls, insisting that all are sinners and that without God’s grace, they would all suffer in hell for eternity, yadda yadda yadda.
Which is precisely what Bird wants to see at funerals:
“The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith,” he noted. “If you pass up the chance to do that, then you really haven’t honored anyone, including the person who has died or the people who are mourning. …
So, honor your dead loved ones by ignoring them and telling mourners there is a chance they are writhing in eternal agony if they didn’t say the magic words.
Fuck that. I prefer vultures to Bird. At least their attention is on the deceased.