Three death rites that boggled my mind

Tribute Center

Funerals – Receptions – Cremations

I closed the previous column in this series with the assertion that old religious patterns for marking death are disappearing and new ways of commemorating the ending of life are coming into use. The character of these changes became evident to me in a period beginning in 1999 when I served as interim minister in four churches in Oregon.

I quickly came to realize how different practices were in the Pacific Northwest from those I had known in Indiana. The visitation a day or two before the funeral did not take place. The body was never present at the service. Whether held in a church or in some other location, the death-related event was a memorial service rather than a funeral and it focused upon remembering the deceased rather than upon a religious interpretation of the meaning of life in the face of death.

A prominent feature was a series of comments or interpretations, often during an open mic session. A video with pictures from the life of the deceased was sometimes displayed as the climax to the service.

Three celebrations during my years as an interim pastor were especially forceful in helping me recognize how different practices were in Oregon compared with those in other parts of the country where I had previous experience.

The first took place following the death of a 90-year-old woman who had been an active member of the congregation since childhood. She had sung in the sanctuary choir for many years and had saved the texts of anthems she liked. She also had made lists of words and phrases she liked—all kinds of twists and turns of language that conveyed glimpses of how the world struck her.

Her daughters met the church staff one morning and presented these lists and texts. They hoped that the church’s choir, augmented by other singers whom they would enlist, would sing several of the anthems. They also wanted their mother’s lists to be read. The staff added two or three psalms and prayers. The celebration was unconventional but it seemed suitable both to the family and to the pastoral staff.

The family also asked that it take place late in the afternoon on a weekday and be followed by a potluck dinner in the church’s community room. People sat around for a long time around the tables remembering their lives in the light of the life of the person who had died.

A second service at this same church was for a man in his early 40s who had died in his car at the side of a city street. Apparently he suddenly had felt bad and pulled over, and then died of a cerebral accident. The family had no church ties other than the fact that the couple had been married at the church as part of the church’s practice of serving as a wedding venue.

When I talked with the family, it was clear that they had little interest in a religious service. Rather, they had a list of people whom they wanted to comment on the life, spirit, and character of the deceased. They hoped that I would serve as moderator and they agreed that it would be OK for me to say a prayer. It was a church, after all. There was a large attendance, and from all that I could tell, most people went away to a banquet facility afterwards content that they had done right by their friend.

The third service was in a church in a small county seat town. The deceased and his widow had been active members for most of their married lives. The man had been in a nursing facility during my brief interim and I had visited him there at least weekly. A day after his death, someone from the local funeral home—which had renamed itself “tribute center”—phoned on the family’s behalf, to invite me to participate in the celebration of life. Everything was done at the funeral home’s chapel, presided over by a “celebrant” on its staff. I was permitted to make a brief statement and say a prayer. The celebration ended with a video of the deceased’s life in pictures.

Later, the owner of the tribute center told me that three-fourths of the people who came to him had no church connection and no interest in a religious service. He had reshaped his business, training both himself and several others (at a school in Oklahoma) to be “celebrants.” He was also set up to cater the celebratory banquets right there in his establishment.

One other factor also has affected my thinking about rites and ceremonies at the time of death: the insufficiency of some of the more conventional funerals and memorial services that I have attended in churches. I sometimes go away, discouraged because the event seemed not to be worthy of the person who had died.

So what are we as leaders of churches supposed to do?

4 Responses to Three death rites that boggled my mind

  1. Dave says:

    Thanks Keith for this series in a time of reflection. Each, so far, has given us all something to think about now, and how to handle our own walk in times of loss.

    Your question is one I will ponder. First thought though…After years on the reservation I find there is noteworthiness in a few local practices, one of which was once most of ours in the past. The dressing of the deceased by family (and sometimes friends) is an experience that honors living and non-living alike. At the least, it seems (I’ve not done this so cannot speak definitively) the intimacy of the act enhances the grieving process, allowing for deeper conversation between family, friends, and I leading up to the act of burial or cremation.

    What should we do?…I encourage the dressing practice. However, knowing few will engage such a practice, I go back to your question wondering how an old practice might be rethought and modeled today.

    I will give your words more thought and perhaps allow it to lead to a bit of writing.

    • Dave, Some of the old practices were born out of necessity, but they also provided a way for grief and mourning to be expressed. Several members of our family were with me at our home and shared in caring for my wife during her final illness last month. We were with her when she died and when the hospice nurse confirmed her death and then when persons from the funeral home came for her. Most of our family also saw her at the cemetery in Indianapolis. Although we did not cleanse and dress her, we were closely involved with her during those last hours of life and her movement into death. This all was important to us. I am continuing to read, reflect, and process my experiences and the shifting patterns that I observe. Your ideas will be welcome.

  2. jacbikes says:

    The open mic time has become increasingly popular where we have served for the pastor for the last 10-15 years. Sometimes that creates very awkward moments when a speaker says something others consider inappropriate – embarassing, off color, too intimate. On other occasions, the personal testimonies have been quite touching. As pastor, I have tried to provide a spiritual framework for the remembrances in my meditation rooted in scripture, but related to the good qualities of the deceased’s life.
    When we were in Nebraska, most of the funeral homes had a community room with a small kitchen set up to provide a meal after the funeral. This was the first place where I experienced the shift from churches providing meals to funeral homes as a business catering the food in the neutral atmosphere of their facility. Interestingly, people would also rent the room for other occasions such as graduation & anniversary receptions! What an interesting place to have a joyful milestone celebration – in a funeral home!
    It’s interesting to see the changes in terminology through the years. Undertaker then Mortuary, then Funeral Home, then Memorial Chapel, now Tribute Center! (Just as churches have become Worship Centers & sanctuaries have become auditoriums!) Also other funeral terms have changed: coffin then casket, hearse now funeral coach, corpse now remains. The use of euphemisms abounds! Of course the funeral home chapel is also devoid of specific religious symbols, so it is spiritually neutral at best, or non-spiritual at worst. For a faithful active member of a church or other religious group, visually & contextually a religious setting would seem to be much better for honoring their faith.
    Thanks for a thought provoking series!

    • We did not provide for an open mic at Billie’s service. Instead, there were four prepared statements by people I chose. All were well done. It is hard to keep them brief, however, which means that the service was longer than probably it should have been. It seemed even more so in the Indianapolis version because it was hot and the AC wasn’t working well. The shift toward business can be seen in churches, too, because it is not uncommon for families of the bereaved to compensate the church for use of facilities and for receptions or dinners. This is part of what I’m trying to think through.

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