Monday, August 26, 2013

Two Troubling Funeral Trends

I haven't done research to determine whether or not these truly rise to the definition of a "trend."  But over the course of the last few years, I've noticed a couple of things happening with funerals that trouble me.

The first is a tendency to have funerals in funeral homes rather than the church.  That seems to happen a lot in the area I currently live in.  A number of factors could be at play here, including things like cost and whether or not the deceased has a church home.  I get that.

But what really troubles me is when families decide to have the service at a funeral home even when their deceased loved one was an active, beloved member of a parish church for 30, 40, or 50 years.  That's happened several times now, and it just breaks my heart.  It's a decision that divorces the deceased from the place where so many important things happened in her life, including her own wedding and/or that of her children, baptisms of children and grandchildren, confirmations, funerals of other church members, and the weekly round of worship, fellowship, and service.  

The physical being of the church building - the nave, the sanctuary, the baptismal font, the altar, the cross, the reredos, the lingering aroma of incense - it all speaks to the ways in which our life stories are interwoven into the story of the faith so succinctly summarized in the catholic creeds.  The sterile, secular setting of a funeral home silences that story.  And while I've known many wonderful, helpful, pastorally sensitive people who work in the business, a service in a funeral home feels contrived and alienated from the core of the Christian faith.

People sometimes say that the building is not the church; the people are the church.  Having lived through the destruction of the church building in which I was confirmed and married, I understand the point being made only too well.

But like bodies, places matter.  The Book of Common Prayer acknowledges this when it says: "Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church" (p. 490; emphasis added).  And so, to me, the decision to bypass the church for a Christian's funeral feels deeply wrong, almost like taking a mother's baby and giving it away to a stranger.

The second troubling thing I've experienced is funeral services without a body or cremains.  That hasn't come up in my ministry as often as a family's decision to use the funeral home rather than the church, but I've seen it enough times to be concerned.  I note that the Burial Offices in The Book of Common Prayer assume that a body is present (or, arguably by extension, that cremains are present).  Again, bodies matter.

The Prayer Book's assumption that a body is present is particularly true of the Commendation.  As the Prayer Book rubric for the Commendation makes explicit: "The Celebrant and other ministers take their places at the body" (p. 499; emphasis added).  And yet, I've actually seen an Episcopal priest do a Commendation with no body or cremains in the church.  That makes about as much sense as performing a baptism without a baptismal candidate present, or celebrating the Eucharist on a bare altar without the elements of bread and wine.

Again, I don't know for sure if these two things rise to the definition of a "trend."  But they both strike me as rather Gnostic departures from the Christian understanding of bodies, death, burial, resurrection, and hope for the life of the world to come.  


In a posting at catholicity and covenant entitled "Silencing the story? Hope, funerals, and the Eucharist," BC cites my posting and adds important observations, particularly regarding the importance of the Eucharist for the funeral liturgy.  BC writes:

It is in the very physicality of the Eucharist in which we see and taste how "life stories are interwoven in the story of the faith". In the Eucharist the Church's self-understanding as the community centred on and given meaning by the Paschal Mystery is made visible - and is made real. When the funeral liturgy is celebrated within the Eucharist, we are proclaiming and showing that the death of the baptised is to [be] understood not within the sterile story of secularism but within the hope-filled Paschal Mystery of the Crucified and Risen One.

Read it all.


Don said...

The decision to have a funeral in the funeral home vs. having it at church can be driven by more practical factors.

We attend a very large church. If the funeral is not expected to be attended by a large number of people, it makes more sense to have it at the funeral home; otherwise, you have the spectacle of a small group of people "rattling around" the church.

OTOH, many of these "economy" funeral service companies don't have a chapel. That actually serves to push more funerals back into church; the family doesn't have much of a choice.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts in response to my posting, Don.

You are quite right that going with a funeral home can be driven by practical matters (as I briefly note in my posting). But for the same reasons I've already offered for finding funeral home services sad and out of touch with the Christian faith, I disagree that if the attendance is small in a large church, it creates a "spectacle" that would be better to avoid. For the church space is not empty, but filled with the memories of the deceased as carried by that 'great cloud of witnesses' in the communion of saints as heaven and earth unite in the Eucharistic feast.

How much more glorious and holy that is, even with few of the living present, than a packed funeral home accompanied by canned music and Hampton Inn decor.

The Underground Pewster said...

Could it be that the survivors are either un-churched, anti-church, or they are a diverse lot who can't agree on where the funeral should be held and the FH was "neutral ground". or they have a few family members who, pardon the expression, wouldn't be caught dead in a church.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Underground Pewster. Yes, those are all possible scenarios. I've seen some of them play out before. And we do well to be pastorally sensitive and compassionate when these things come up.

But it's still sad when the issues of the living trump the wishes of the dead.

BC said...

Bryan, very many thanks indeed for this post - a similar trend is seen in Ireland.

"Like bodies, places matter". Yes, that is the heart of it. And, as you point out, to deny this echoes a characteristic of Gnosticism.

To remove the Funeral Liturgy from the place where baptism is administered and eucharist offered, does suggest a desire to remove death from the context of the Story sacramentally rendered in and by a particular place.

As you state, "The sterile, secular setting of a funeral home silences that story".

What is our response to be as Church? I guess we need to put some thought into both catechesis and our approaches to death.

Also, however, we probably need to reflect on how we make the Funeral Liturgy and its physical context (place) 'live' for the citizens of postmodernity - how do we present the Story sacramentally and physically rendered by the place (hallowed by prayer and eucharist) in such a way that its beauty and meaning provide meaning and significance?

Bryan Owen said...

Very well said, BC. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Father Bryan,
This was a great post and exchange with BC. Any chance you want to use it as a starting point for a 1 page "For families at the time of death" resource for parishes? I will buy the first set off the presses.

Steve Hayes said...

Funerals in undertakers' chapels are deadly affairs (pun intended).

Those buildings are used for nothing else, and so all they speak of is death.

Far better to have the funeral service in church, where, as you point out, there have been joyful as well as sorrowful occasions.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you for the comments from thegospelside. I'm interested in learning more about what you have in mind for a parish resource. Please feel free to email me at

Bryan Owen said...

Very well stated, Steve.

As I noted in my posting, places matter. And so I think you are right that precisely because funeral homes are used only for preparing dead bodies for burial, the very building speaks of death. A church - both by its design (f well constructed) and its use for so many occasions, ranging from the sorrowful and tragic to the joyful - opens persons to something and Someone beyond ourselves, thus pointing beyond death.

Places preach.

Anonymous said...

Did you get my comment? I just wrote you a complimentary note expressing my 100% agreement with you & the benefits of using the 1928 BCP burial service. After typing it I was told by your blog-site that I had to sign-in to my Wordpress page to post message. I did so, but when I returned to this page my message was gone. Did it get to you? If not, I'm sorry. Don't have time to re-type now. I prefer Wordpress to Google All the best to you (again).

- Brit NorAm Freedom

Bryan Owen said...

Hi bnafreedom. I'm very sorry that your original message did not get through. But thank for taking time to offer a reposting. I appreciate the kind words. Blessings to you!

Craig said...

Hello Bryan,

Excellent article. You certainly have captured some of the issues we face as church. A few years ago I flip the problem around. How can I as a parish priest better embody the Christian faith to those facing grief?

It has been quite a journey since then! Developing a team ministry model with pastoral care reps from the parish and having bi-monthly memorial prayers in the church has been amazing. 98% of the people contracted regarding the prayers have had a very positive response to participating or if unable to come for the prayers being held.

80% of our funerals are held in funeral homes and 75% have never attended our church.

All to say there is hope!