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The awful funeral

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 14 March 2014

By this title I do not mean that funeral precipitated by the tragic death of a child or a young person; that cutting off of so much promise. I mean the dreadful funeral that we are now accustomed to attend, often with the aid of a civil celebrant, but even if in professional hands of the ordained has become awful because they have been given over to planning by the family.

We now attend funerals in which a number of speakers are let loose on the congregation tolling the virtues of the deceased, often blubbering into the microphone as they read scripts spat out by computer printers. There are the old timers who insist on tracing the whole of the life of the dead. There are the grandchildren who get teary about Grandad or Grandma. It is all too much and too long and most often tells us what we know already or do not wish to know.

Funerals today often illustrate our discomfort with the formal and the sublime. In the Christian tradition a funeral is an occasional act of worship of God in which we acknowledge that one has died and in which we come face to face with our own death. It is a time in which the gospel is to be preached directly into the reality of death that threatens to empty life of all meaning and purpose. It is not just a time of remembrance. Memory will not comfort us. We need more powerful medicine.


What we get instead is a celebration of the life of the deceased as if that celebration fills the chasm that death threatens to create. But no amount of the celebration of life will extinguish death's dark shadow, the end of all human possibilities. Certainly to give thanks for a life lived no matter how distinguished or short is commendable. It acknowledges that all of life is a temporary gift, but to simply celebrate life in the face of death leads us nowhere. It is mere dancing in the dark.

It used to be the case that clergy could comfort the grieving with the promise of heaven in the afterlife. This was a two edged sword because we could not know wether the deceased will be enjoying the furnishings of heaven or suffering indescribable pain for eternity in hell. The discovery by biblical scholars and theologians that the world to come, called the kingdom of God/heaven was an emerging reality in this world put paid to the hope of afterlife and knocked out a support for the faith much relied upon in previous centuries. This realization has shifted the focus of the Christian life from getting to heaven to the new reality of peace found in the community of the Church. "Eternal life" is now understood as a possibility since we understand that all life exists under the threat of nothingness and it is only the Word of God that dispels that threat. Thus "life" and "death" come to have dual meanings. There are the "living" whose lives are sold out to idols and hence nothingness, and there are the "living" whose lives are vouchsafed in Christ.

It may be said with confidence that funerals do not reflect this reality. In the absence of life after death, whether in heaven or hell, we are reduced to celebrating life even in the most tragic circumstances. This will not do! Death brings real loss, aching, un-relievable pain that, in the case of parents losing children, can last a lifetime. In the face of this reality, stoically celebrating life, whatever that means, is impossible, for how we can celebrate anything when all we care about is gone? Why is it that our only response to life changing events is to hold a party?

There is good reason for a funeral to be formal and liturgical and accompanied by appropriate music. The worshippers need to be assured that at the most difficult time in life they are in sure hands and a tradition that stands the test of time. This is not the time to play the deceased favourite music and certainly not Frank Sinatra singing "I did it my way". It is not the time for multiple and rambling eulogies but a time to come face to face with the grace of God.

The void created by secularization has been filled with civil celebrants and funerals company "chapels" and stark crematoriums. This is the fate of the unchurched, they have no minister or priest that they trust, no church community to stand by them and no understanding of the power of liturgy and music to sustain and comfort. For in the secular funeral there is no possibility of formal liturgical worship that has the power to speak to us in our darkest time. There is no room for live music, no room for a requiem mass, and no room for words that will uphold us. This is why funerals have become awful.

Since the secular rejects the transcendent funerals can only be about us. They are psychologized in terms of the grief process and that old pop psych chestnut "closure." But we who have been around for a while know that this is nonsense, grief and loss are often indelible and stay with us in some way until we die. Indeed, we are formed by it in the most profound way. We do not get over it, it becomes part of us, part of who we are and how we live our lives. Like the lines in our faces that show our maturity, grief and loss condition our souls.


Thus we do not understand the Christian funeral in instrumental terms, as thought it will help us to get over it. Rather we understand such rites to integrate grief and loss into our lives and to remind us that we too must go the way of the deceased. This is a great antidote to the shallow living that seems to be the goal of "the celebration of life." It is in this sense that Christians are called to face the reality of death in a way that does not lead to desperate hedonism; so much a mark of contemporary culture. Death is a constant companion but a companion whose sting has been pulled. We know that we must die but we know, even more, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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