My friend of more than two decades Bob Smietana, religion reporter for the Nashville Tennesean and for Christianity Today, noted a new article and book the other day on the poverty of modern Christian funerals. Bob made the comment that one of his favorite writers is also a funeral home director and wondered what that said about him. He was talking about Dr. Thomas G. Long, Candler School of Theology professor, and his new book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, and this accompanying article in the Christian Century. I just ordered Long’s book but haven’t yet read it.
Aside from being one who laments the lack of theological and eschatological preciseness in the church today, my interest in this topic also comes as one who deals with death and funerals in some form every month either in the church I serve or as police chaplain in our city. And, as many of you know, I’ve recently buried my beloved grandmother and both my parents. Also, this summer I read N.T. Wright’s excellent (but not perfect) book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. I couldn’t agree more with what is being said by both Long and Wright. Here are some important statements from the Christian Century article by Long:
These newer rituals, for all their virtues of freedom, simplicity and seeming festivity, are finally expressions of a corrupted understanding of the Christian view of death….
If Christian funerals today are impoverished, we must look primarily to the church’s own history… The fact is that many educated Christians in the late 19th century, the forebears of today’s white suburban Protestants, lost their eschatological nerve and their vibrant faith in the afterlife, and we are their theological and liturgical heirs….
In the meantime, the seeds planted in the 19th century continue to bear weeds.
Lots to factor in – the Civil War carnage resulting in a crisis of belief; Darwinism and the belief that making the best of earth IS “heaven”; cremation and ashes to the wind (a bit of a Buddhist notion that we are released to rejoin the earth); burials several states away…
So with heaven gone and with the cemetery miles away, neither the dead nor the living had anywhere to go, and the metaphor of the journey to God collapsed.