A Personal Position Paper on Funerals, Cremation and End-of-Life matters.

Several days ago someone in my family e-mailed me about attending a “Celebration Service” where the deceased had been cremated. He described it as a “refreshing” service; a “different experience;” and was relieved at not having to be involved where one experienced the morbidity of “looking at the empty shell of a body.” That e-mail brought some of my recent thinking to the surface and prompted this essay.

Several times recently, I have noticed that there is an increase in services where the remains of the deceased are kept out of view, and where the emphasis is on ‘Celebrating a Life.’ When first exposed to these concepts, I welcomed them as a good thing. Anymore, I am not so sure. I have also been exposed to some ‘death’ issues recently which have taught me some things; (I hope,) and if not taught, at least helped to crystallize some concepts in my mind.

One of those ‘different experiences’ happened just last week. We had a singing group at our church which went by the name of “Everyday Dying.” “Hey, Neat!” “Taken right from Paul’s concept that he dies daily!” It was not until I studied the slogan on the tee shirts they were selling that I figured out, that perhaps, something had been missed in the translation. The tee shirts bragged, “I smile at the guillotine.”

“Smile?” If Paul was ‘smiling’ while he was ‘daily dying;’ If Jesus was smiling in the garden of Gethsemane, then I certainly missed something somewhere. I believe that real dying involves real pain, real suffering, real trauma; anything that makes it less so is probably a façade; is probably an elaborate attempt at deception. Death, in all its forms, is an “Enemy.” Anything that seeks to make death less of an enemy is an embellishment, and is robbing us of truth and reality. ‘Truth and reality’ that are sorely needed to face ourselves and deal with our weaknesses in the light of God’s provision: ‘Truth and reality,’ without which, none of us will ever otherwise be “set free.”

Even though the next experience happened last year, it too was brought home to me again just last week. While doing some church business, I was approached by a sister in our fellowship. “Oh Jonas, I’m so glad you’re here,” She said, “I have been struggling all week with the memories of what happened in that hospital room last year. Would you please pray for me?”

Last year, we had been dealing with the ravages of cancer. A sister, a young wife, a prayer warrior and a vital part of our small fellowship; had been struggling for some months. The physical prognosis had been one long ‘good news/bad news, roller coaster event’ for all of us. One moment, ‘she’s doing better,’ the next, ‘she’s doing worse.’ Against this backdrop, we had our faith. We thought we were primed for the fight. “Her work isn’t done, its only just started; God’s promises are ‘yea and amen;’ Holy Spirit of God, lead on.” When the final summons came, all of us were caught flat footed, and totally off guard.

Marlene and I received the phone call at one in the morning, and soon found ourselves in the hospital room, joining with others, and petitioning the return of life. The object of our love was lying before us; bereft of usual end-of-life care; her pretty face, suffering the physical trauma of what she had just been through, was literally twisted beyond recognition. It seemed to several of us, that Satan used that face to leer back at us and taunt us for the smallness of our faith. It is not unusual then, that several people have told me that they wished they had not been in that room at all that night, and that someone, just last week, was praying for peace and the healing of memories.

Does this mean that we should have avoided the morbidity of that room, and of that night? I can not talk for others, but for myself, there are several reasons why I’m glad I was there.

First of all; as hard as that was for all of us, it would had to have been, exponentially harder for the young widower. No Christian Brother or Sister should ever have to deal with that challenge in the absence of an entire cadre of support. Maybe, not necessarily, in that room, but in some way we all very much needed to ‘be there’ for him.

My second reason may be a little harder to explain but is not any less intensely felt. My personal world is bounded or hemmed in to the degree of life’s experiences that I allow myself to be exposed to. We don’t all have to experience everything or even experience the same things; and yet we find that many of us have never learned to cope when major events come our way because we have never learned the personal benefits of helping others cope during the trying times of their lives. Just last night, someone told me of a young man, twenty-five years old, who had never been around death or never attended any funeral activity. What will happen to him when a traumatic life event arises that he can no longer avoid? What will happen when one of those parents, which now shield him from his problems, are snatched away? From what source will he have derived a coping mechanism for facing the, ultimately unavoidable, challenges that will some day come his way? Do you presume that Jesse was wrong for sending young David out there with those sheep? After all, there might have been lions and bears out there. How will you stand; what skills will you have, when you face the real Goliath of your life?

Some years back, at the edge of a timber, I knelt over the carcass of a close friend and tried to force the essence of life past his cooling lips. For days afterwards my mouth felt weird. Today I have a choice. Today I can ‘gross out’ over how my lips felt or I can give thanks, that in that moment of need I was there. There, providing whatever aid I could. When our physical resources had been exhausted, I reached across a broken body, grasped the hands of a newly made widow and prayed for a peace that ‘passes all understanding.’ Definitely a ‘different experience,’ an ‘experience,’ that still today, is precious beyond belief.

“Okay Jonas, time to wrap it up and get to your point!”

I am glad for the wonderful variety of end-of-life choices available to us today. We are individuals, with individual needs and desires. There is no one-size-fits-all funeral; what is right for one may not meet the needs for others. Not all of us who are left behind find comfort and grace to continue in the same way. These choices, however, can become a bane or a blessing. With such a variety, it becomes easy to make decisions for ourselves and our loved ones which we or others will rue later. More importantly, I feel that it is easy for the emphasis to get out of focus and for us to plan services that miss the point of what an end-of-life service is supposed to provide.

In recent years, I believe that I have been witnessing in out-of-balance emphasis on the word “celebration” It is true that we Christians need to rejoice at funerals; we do not ‘sorrow as those who have no hope.’ Having said that; we need to remember that for every death there is still a ‘sorrow;’ there is always loss; there is always grieving; and furthermore, it has been oft proven that there are no shortcuts for mourning. In turning our funerals into celebrations we have short-circuited the process of public mourning. There is a “Time to Mourn.” That time is in the company of others who are there to mourn with us. We sanitize our services; we remove all words or items that would provoke to tears; and, when the party’s over we go home to mourn alone. I believe that this is a profound tragedy.

I don’t ‘smile’ at death but neither do I shrink from it. Death is a vital portion of our existence. Learning to deal with death, from a proper psychological and spiritual perspective, will set us free from fears that would otherwise hem us in and constrict our world. With our aversion to looking death full in the face, it should not surprise us that many of our kind suffer from mental anguish, and otherwise, have never learned to live life to its fullest.

Jonas J. Borntreger