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?