What happens to village death rituals when people move to town?

September 16, 2014
My Family's Ancestral Burial Gound

My Family’s Ancestral Burial Gound

The severely simple funeral ritual that I described in an earlier column was part of a complex system of community practices that surrounded dying persons, their families, and close friends with highly personalized expressions of love and support. This full set of activities allowed the community as a whole to respond to the breach that a death caused and draw together for healing and health.

My first experiences with funerals were in a rural community in northern Indiana during my three years as a seminary student. Older members of the congregation lived on farms their grandparents, some of whom remembered the Civil War, had homesteaded. Most families were still geographically concentrated, within easy driving distance of the old family farm, church, and cemetery. Families had been intertwined through at least three generations.

Of course, many had moved to the cities—Kokomo, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis—but even there the traditional patterns of village and country life persisted. My seminary professor, O. L. Shelton, had experienced similarly coherent ways of life in Oklahoma and Kansas City prior to coming to Indianapolis in mid career. Because the system for community action at the time of death was firmly in place, he could teach his students how to do their part.

People usually died at home, surrounded by family and close friends for whom the process of caring for loved ones as they died was part of what it meant to be family. The medicalization and hospitalization of dying and death had not yet developed.

It was assumed that the deceased would be embalmed, a process that took place in a local funeral home, some of which were still closely connected to furniture stores, by local people whom the community knew.

A day or two later, the visitation occurred, usually at the funeral home. The deceased lay in state, surrounded by flowers, the scene bathed in warm light that softened the pallor of death. Members of the family would gather in a comfortable room to greet friends and many people from the community at large.

Part of the process was to escort those who “came to pay their respects” to the casket to look at the corpse. Often visitors would reach down to clasp the hands, and often they would murmur how “natural” she or he looked. Tears were common, because for many of the grievers, the ties had been long and strong.

Newark Cemetery 2

A day or two later, the funeral took place at church, with coffin present. Here the immediacy of death as experienced at the visitation was compressed into the tight form of the religious ritual that was the formal, public rite of passage from this world to the next. Everyone knew who had died and who remained to grieve and names seemed hardly to be necessary.

Following this service, the coffin was wheeled to the church door where pall bearers carried it to the funeral coach that led many of the worshipers to the graveyard where the community had gathered many times to lay their own beloved dead into the grave. The committal was brief and direct: “dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”

The family then returned to the church where their friends in the congregation served them lunch as a sign of friendship and support as they began the process of turning their attention to reconstructing a new normal for their lives.

As these villagers moved west, they took these customs with them and they became established in towns everywhere. Two of the most vivid replications of village funeral practices that I have seen occurred in later years with the deaths of aged persons in Fresno, California followed by burial in the family cemetery up in the Sierra foothills village of Toll House, and Portland, Oregon, with final rites 150 miles to the south in the village of Creswell.

Several changes have occurred in American life that make this traditional pattern untenable: the medicalization of dying and death; the wide geographical spread of families; the commercialization of the funeral industry; the disappearance of the village and small town culture of solidarity; and the abandonment of coherent and agreed understandings of life that include reasonable expectations that life continues beyond the grave.

The results are twofold. First, the old ways, with clergy and churches at the center, are disappearing. Second, new patterns of remembrance and celebration are emerging, often with little sense of coherence or of the deeper meanings of life, especially of the life of the person who has died.

The challenge—and opportunity—for ministers today is to regain their work as ritualizers for communities that are increasingly in need of ceremonial systems that give coherence and meaning to dying and death.

Traveling Through

Traveling Through

Do urban bikeways make you safer?

September 15, 2014
Second Avenue Bikeway, Seattle

Second Avenue Bikeway, Seattle

Road testing Seattle’s new Second Avenue protected bike lane

In cities all across the country, traffic engineers are developing bikeways that separate cyclists from motorized vehicles. Their purposes are laudable: to increase the actual safety of cyclists and thereby encourage more people to use bicycles for some of their short trips.

With 40 years of experience cycling in cities—Indianapolis, Phoenix, Tucson, Portland, and Seattle—I have developed strong, road-tested opinions about these specialized facilities. The more important opinion is this: Just as well designed and well-marked traffic lanes and signaling make it easier and safer to drive cars in complex urban environments, so good bike lanes assist cyclists and drivers share these same streets.

The second opinion, however, is one that is shared by many experienced cyclists: Some bikeways, especially those that separate cyclists from motorized traffic, provide only the veneer of safety while actually increasing the danger for cyclists.

One of the major difficulties with highly engineered bikeways is that they create more complicated intersections and thus multiply the risks at the very points where risks are already the highest. Another is that some of these protected bike lanes obscure vision so that drivers can’t see cyclists and cyclists can’t see motor vehicles.

Cyclist on Second Avenue Bikeway

Cyclist on Second Avenue Bikeway

A weekend in Seattle, has given me the opportunity to ride on this city’s newest venture in developing a protected bikeway less than a week after its September 8, 2014, opening: the Second Avenue protected bike lane that runs ten blocks between Pike and Yesler. Most of my limited Seattle cycling (and driving) has been in the University District north of downtown and on Beacon Hill and along Lake Washington on the south side.

I understand why cyclists are easily unnerved by the complexity of Seattle’s downtown: the geometrical street grid has two tilts and a combination of one-way and two-way streets. From Elliott Bay on the west, streets go uphill, with short, steep grades between the north-south avenues. Public transit includes rails and overhead electrical conduits that force all vehicular traffic to adjust to the limited mobility of coaches and cars. Traffic is heavy, and the system of left and right turns multiplies hazards at many of the intersections.

Everyone is in a hurry and it is hard not to be impatient, especially when other drivers hesitate or act in a confused manner. Judging by news reports Second Avenue has been especially challenging to cyclists, with the result that many of them have abandoned this major southbound street through the heart of the city. Even more challenging is Fourth Avenue, the paired oneway street running north. The traffic is more intense than on Second, and it goes uphill!

My first ride on the new bikeway was on Friday afternoon, September 12, when I biked from my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill to her new office at Sixth and Stewart. After inspecting her working space , I cycled down to Second and turned left (south) two blocks before the new bikeway begins. I rode the ten blocks and three more blocks before heading back to Beacon Hill.

Here are my first impressions following one ride in the middle of a business day when cyclists are exposed to the full blast of downtown traffic.

  1. Limited Loading Zones

    Limited Loading Zones

    The bright green blocks of paint and flexible bollards (posts) clearly distinguish the bike lane from the rest of the street.

  2. The traffic signals include green and red lights specifically for cyclists and large green arrows, both straight ahead and left turn for main traffic lanes. Everyone has to pay attention, and cyclists still have to be vigilant. Even good signals can be overlooked, misunderstood, or disobeyed.
  3. Cyclists can ride at a reasonable downtown clip, but some are slower than others (like the guy who obstructed my way for several blocks) and there’s not much room to pass.
  4. It’s good that the bike lane is on the left side of the street because cyclists next to the vehicular lane are traveling the same direction as are automobiles. Cyclists on the lane going against the traffic ride between the sidewalk and face only cyclists going the opposite direction.

Is this protected lane for all cyclists on Second Avenue? Maybe not for a few. In a Seattle Times report, Mike Lindblom writes that “the city expects and actually hopes that bicyclists who can match car speeds in the general lanes of Second will continue to do so.”

If I were a commuter in downtown Seattle, would I use this bike lane? Going north, in all probability. Going south on work days? I’d try it out for a while before deciding.

Conclusion: The best example of a protected bike lane that I’ve seen. [Photos by Marilyn Watkins]

What's He Doing Here?



Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago

September 11, 2014

Second in a series on rituals at the time of death

Funeral Liturgy in "Christian Worship: A Service Book," 1953

Funeral Liturgy in “Christian Worship: A Service Book,” 1953

My first instructions on doing funerals came in 1954 early in my theological studies at the School of Religion, Butler University. My teacher was O. L. Shelton, dean and professor of church administration. Prior to coming to his faculty position, Shelton had been pastor of a Kansas City church with 2,500 members. His instruction was firmly grounded in practical experience.

Although I was barely into my 20s, about half of the class were returning to school on the G.I. bill. Some had been pastors prior to serving in World War II and already had been doing funerals. Others were like me, with virtually no experience with death and little knowledge of what should take place in the rituals with which the church marked the passing of people from this life into the next.

Shelton was a skillful teacher whose pastoral experience infused his classroom instruction. Whatever our previous practices might have been, we were inclined to listen carefully to his practical and sensitive guidance. My work as pastor and my early years of teaching as Shelton’s successor (twice removed) were influenced by his counsel. Five of the principles he taught have remained in my memory.

First, base your funeral practice on one of the patterns you find in a published book of worship. Since many of my classmates were Methodist, that meant they should use the funeral materials in the Methodist Ritual. For the majority of us in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ tradition, the book he recommended was the recently published Christian Worship: A Service Book, edited by G. Edwin Osborn. My copy, which I bought on November 16, 1955,, still bears the marks of the many times that I used it during my years of pastoral service.

Second, the sermon in the service should lift up one of the classic themes of life and death as proclaimed by the Christian faith rather than be a eulogy describing the life of the person whose funeral is being conducted.

Third, and this point is a direct follow-up of the second idea, the service should consist of scripture readings, music, sermon, and prayers. In fact, and this was an idea that surprised me but which I was willing to accept on his authority, it is unnecessary even to mention the name of the deceased in the service. As I remember his explanation, funerals had become events in which “people were being preached into heaven” and this was not their purpose.

The purpose of funerals, and this is the fourth point as I remember Shelton’s class, was twofold: to remember the deceased and to comfort the bereaved. This, he believed, could best be done by offering carefully composed, standardized prayers; hence the emphasis upon rituals in the recommended books of worship.

Fifth, funerals should be brief, never more than half an hour in length. This word of advice seemed to be consistent with what people mentioned to me when we would talk about a funeral for a loved one had died. One of the few requests they would make was, “Keep it brief.”

Normal practice for the funerals I conducted and others that I attended was for the casket to be present in the front of the congregation. When the funeral itself was over, the pastor would go to the head of the casket and the congregation would file past for their last viewing of the deceased. Then, the family and some others would drive in procession to the cemetery for a brief committal service and the first part of the actual burial.

One of the few items that students would discuss vigorously was whether the procession past the open casket in the church should be allowed. The preferred opinion was that the open casket and procession should be suppressed, on the grounds that their primary purpose was to display the embalmer’s skill.

At one of my first funerals, I came to a different point of view. The deceased was a village legend because of his mildly raucous ways. During the procession, his longtime buddy, stopped and with tear-filled eyes grasped and held the hands of his friend. It was one of the tenderest gestures I have ever seen in all of my pastoral experience.

Dr. Shelton was a persuasive teacher, and I continue to affirm part of what he taught me so long ago—especially his emphasis upon the funeral as a time to express a classic Christian theme about the meaning of life.

Almost from the beginning, however, I found myself demurring from the aggressive impersonalization of funeral services. Something more personal, it seemed to me, was needed.







Rituals at the time of death: Introducing a new series

September 2, 2014
Flowers at a Fresh Grave

Flowers at a Fresh Grave

No part of Christian liturgical practice in the United States has changed as radically as rituals when people die. As pastor, seminary professor, and family member I have given careful attention to this topic, gradually coming to significant changes of mind.

The death of my wife, Billie Lee Caton Watkins, on August 12, 2014, after 62 years of marriage and eight years with metastatic breast cancer, made it necessary to cut through conflicting ideas and practices in order to solemnize and celebrate her life in this world and to proclaim our faith that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

As summer draws to a close, I intend to resume regular postings on my blog with a series of columns in which I explore the changing patterns concerning funerals in ecumenical Protestant churches, outline the conclusions that I am reaching, raise questions for discussion, and suggest ideas for pastoral practice among liberal Christians in our time.

The first step in this process will be to repost previous blogs on this topic. In this way, I will refresh my own remembrance of what I have been thinking in the past two or three years. I will continue my reading of current literature that bears upon this subject and report on this material.

I welcome contributions to this ongoing series from readers of this blog. By reflecting upon our personal and pastoral experience, theological reflection, and liturgical practice, we can help our churches and their members come to renewed and healthful practices at the time that death comes.


An engaging primer on the Christian life

July 3, 2014

Sharon FrontSharon Watkins is the first woman to lead an American mainline denomination, having served for nine years as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She also was the first woman to preach at the National Prayer Service, delivering the sermon on the day after President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

Early in her administration as her church’s presiding minister, a visioning team developed an identity statement that expresses the central character of this church as it understands itself in this tumultuous era of history.

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the Body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

In a new book, Watkins interprets this statement in a highly personal way. The book, writes Robert Welsh, “begins and ends with personal stories and vignettes centered upon the key concepts that give us [Disciples] our identity as a faith community.”

Although I have read the book, both in earlier drafts and in its published version, I do not plan to review the book. As father of the author, I would not be able to offer a sufficiently “objective” evaluation. Instead, I am transmitting statements that are published as part of the front matter of this slender volume.

“Sharon Watkins is one of America’s great reconcilers. In my time in the White House, I saw firsthand how Sharon’s witness for Christ in the wider world knit both her own denomination and the country closer together, and helped us focus on the issues that matter most. Now with Whole, we have a powerful blueprint for unity that each of us can apply in our own areas of influence. This book is a gift; it will change organizations, and lives.” —Joshua DuBois, Author of The President’s Devotional, and former head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“There are leaders within the church that everyone should be listening to and engaging. Sharon Watkins…is always near the top of my list. Her deep passion for helping Christians live out their faith in ways large and small, the great wisdom she offers from decades of ministry, and the powerful vision she paints of what it means to be one of Christ’s disciples in the kind of world we live in—whether or not you belong to her denomination—makes this book a must read. Watkins brings people together, articulates a direction we need, and is one of the best voices we have for bringing faith into public life.”—Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners.

“Come and feast at the banquet prepared for you from the beginning of the world. ‘You’ means everyone, no exceptions. Turn in here and join the feast, and bring your neighbor with you. Sharon Watkins has prepared a veritable banquet—come and taste—and a tender invitation to come and feast.”—Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church.

The book is published by Chalice Press and is also is available in electronic versions.

The Twisting Flow of Water

May 28, 2014

Reviewing Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon (HarperCollins, 2010)

Solomon - WaterMy interest in issues related to water has developed during my retirement years. In part, this was because we lived for a time in the desert southwest where golf courses and lush agricultural fields luxuriated despite the aridity of the climate and where archaeological remains testified to the fragility of previous hydrological societies.

My interest in water also developed as a corollary to my activities as an open road cyclist, taking long tours through river systems drained by the Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande in the West and the Potomac and Ohio in the East. The writing on water that I have done has been primarily as a secondary theme within travel narratives based on cycling expeditions.

One of the reasons for giving more sustained attention to water related issues is the growing evidence that climate change has become a serious issue now rather than one that is waiting to happen in another generation. The hydrological systems of the earth are behaving in ways that are outside of our experience. Deluges, droughts, and intense fires are more common and more extreme than they used to be, and they take place simultaneously. Climatic patterns that our civilizations have relied upon are becoming undependable.

A second reason is my interest in reflecting upon the meaning of these changes from a theological and ethical point of view. Current literature tends to focus on factual descriptions: where water is found, how contemporary societies are using it, and changes that are taking place in the availability and use of water. As long as we focus on description, it is possible to reach broad agreement on water in the current global economy and political scene.

A more difficult challenge is to agree on evaluations of how well the hydrological systems are working and prospects for both the near and longer term futures. More difficult still are the challenges of agreeing on the causes of the hydrological challenges now confronting the people of the world and determining courses of action that we ought to be taking.

The first step in moving the discussion forward is to recognize the varied roles that water has played in the development of human civilization—water for drinking and cleansing, water as a means of exercising power and developing wealth, water as the enabling agent for urban society and also the source of some of the most urgent problems facing these societies, water as the substance upon which everything else seems to depend.

This is where Steven Solomon’s 500-page book Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization is the very thing we need. In a remarkably comprehensive, concise, and compelling manner, this journalist, who publishes in major American media, describes “the twisting flow of water” (quoting from a statement by Daniel Yergin on the book jacket).

In his prologue, Solomon summarizes the major themes of the book: (1) Control and manipulation of water has been a pivotal axis of power and human achievement throughout history. (2) Preeminent societies have invariably exploited their water resources in ways that were more productive and unleashed larger supplies than in slower adapting societies. (3) Water challenges on an epic scale are unfolding today. (4) The societies that find the most innovative responses to these crises will most likely come out as winners, while the others will fade behind. (5) Civilization also will be shaped by water’s inextricable and deep interdependencies with energy, food, and climate change.

The book is filled with factual information, but the facts are presented in a strong narrative manner rather than in a technical manner. Solomon depends more upon historians than geologists as the sources of information and insight. Read more. . . . Twisting Flow of Water


Straight talk about gay marriage

May 12, 2014

A review of God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, by Gene Robinson (New York: Knopf, 2012)


Paperback Edition

The thesis of this book is succinctly stated in the final paragraph: “I believe in marriage. I believe it is the crucible in which we come to know most deeply about love. It is in marriage that God’s will for me to love all humankind gets focused in one person. It is impossible to love humankind if I can’t love one person. That opportunity to love one person and to have that love sanctioned and supported by the culture in which we live is a right denied gay and lesbian people for countless centuries. It’s time to open that opportunity to all of us. Because in the end, God believes in love” (196).

In the rest of the book—all 195 pages—Gene Robinson, who at the time he wrote it was the Episcopal Church’s bishop of New Hampshire, develops the theological meaning of married love, summarizes the history of marriage in western society, explains the separation of Religion and State in the American constitutional system, and states the case for same-sex marriage as an authentic manifestation of the love in which God believes.

The author’s life experience provides the context for this book and contributes to its emotional impact: born to tobacco sharecroppers in rural Kentucky; “massively injured in childbirth” and not expected to live; nurtured as a Christian in a small congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); confessed his faith and was baptized into Christ at age twelve. His “greatest desire was to live like Christ.”

By the time he graduated from the University of the South, discerned a call to ordained ministry (in the Episcopal Church), and enrolled in seminary, he knew that he was attracted to men, didn’t like it, and loathed himself for it. After two years of therapy, he believed that he was ready to be married. From the beginning of his relationship with the woman he married, he told her of his history of attraction to men. She responded that their love was strong enough to deal with whatever might happen.

When Robinson was thirty-nine and their two daughters were still in elementary school, the marriage was dissolved before a judge and in a poignant ceremony at a church. Robinson continued his ministry, fell in love with a man, and they established a home. They established a civil union and later were married. Despite opposition from many people in world-wide Anglicanism, Robinson was elected to the office of bishop. Since the book was published, Robinson has retired and on May 4, 2014 announced that he and his husband plan to divorce.

Most of the book consists of Robinson’s answers to ten questions most often asked him over the years: Why gay marriage now? Why should you care about gay marriage if you’re straight? What’s wrong with civil unions? Doesn’t the Bible condemn homosexuality? What would Jesus do? Doesn’t gay marriage change the definition of marriage that’s been in place for thousands of years? Doesn’t gay marriage undermine marriage? What if my religion doesn’t believe in gay marriage? Don’t children need a mother and a father? Is this about civil rights or getting approval for questionable behavior?

Robinson’s answers are written in clear, straightforward, serious but non-technical language. Some of the contributions he makes are these:

  1. He provides a theologically coherent support for same-sex marriage despite the long tradition of vigorous opposition by culture and religious communities.
  2. He outlines the radically varied patterns of marriage in western society, thus undercutting the assumption that current discussions are contrary to ages-old systems.
  3. He explains the fact that in the United States marriage has always been a civil institution that is clearly distinct from the religious blessing of the union of two persons in a relationship of love.
  4. He positions the recognition of gay marriage with other movements to overcome discrimination and grant full civil rights to minorities whom majoritarian systems oppress.
  5. He draws upon a substantial body of factual data to answer questions such as the effect upon children when they grow up in homes with same-sex parents. Read more. . . . Straight talk about gay marriage



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