Why Funerals Matter
When a dear friend died recently I found myself unexplainably disappointed when I learned that there would be only a memorial service. I wanted a funeral, and I was not sure why. Even more unexplainably, I wished there had been a "viewing" or wake--a chance to see her face. Is this wholly indefensible? I am sure that it is wholly human, but is it mere idle curiosity? Is it crass, or childish, or pagan, or materialistic? Is it hideously ghoulish?
"Christians do not need to make much of the body. We believe in the Resurrection. We know the person is not here but There." Thus I argued with myself.
''Who wants to see somebody dead? Wouldn't you rather remember him as you knew him, strong and healthy and alive?" That makes sense too.
"Funerals are meaningless ordeals, pompous, expensive, emotionally costly, and serve no purpose other than conventional and commercial. And as for viewings--what can possibly be the point of coiffing, painting, powdering, and dressing up a corpse, stretching it out lugubriously in a satin-lined mahogany box with its head on a fancy Pillow, for People to stare at?'' What indeed?
I could not come up with immediate rejoinders. There did not seem much logic in my protest. Didn't it spring from emotions alone, and those perhaps crude and primeval? Yes, very likely. But crude and primeval emotions may be eminently human and not necessarily sinful. They may even be useful. How do we know? Well, back to the Bible. What does it say?
The Bible does not say "Thou shalt have funerals," or ''Thou shalt not have memorial services."
When Jacob died there was the final scene in which he blessed each of his sons, then drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was "gathered to his people." Then Joseph threw himself on his father's body and wept over him and kissed him and commanded that he be embalmed. The Egyptians went through the customary seventy days of mourning. Then Joseph carried the body to Canaan, accompanied by a huge retinue of servants, elders, relatives, friends, chariots, and horsemen. Seven more days were spent in "a very great and sorrowful lamentation."
When Moses died God buried him, but the people of Israel wept for him thirty days. Joseph's bones were carried by the people of Egypt to be buried at Shechem.
Stephen was the first martyr, stoned to death, and it says "devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him." It was right and proper that a man killed for his Christian witness should be buried by those who shared his faith--devout men. It was right and proper that they should grieve greatly, that they should grieve together, and that they should grieve "over him," which I take to mean literally over the grave.
Only last week my friend Van found her little black dog which had been lost ten days before. But she was dead--drowned in a pond where she had apparently fallen through the ice. Little Nell was Van's friend, and Van grieved for her, but she thanked God she found her and knew at last what had become of her. She lifted the wet furry thing in her arms and looked into her face and talked to her. Then, of course, giving her back to death, she buried her.
That was what we had been deprived of in my late friend's decision not to have a funeral. The memorial service was held eleven days after her death, and when we entered the church there was nothing of her there. It would only have been a body, of course--but it would have been the "earthly house of this tabernacle" in which our friend had lived, through which we had known her, and it would have been the resurrectible body. It was long since deposited miles away in a mausoleum. We could not see her face. We could not even see a closed box with the knowledge that what was left of her was inside it. She had died of that most feared of diseases and no doubt its ravages were great. She had not wanted any of us to come near her during the last four or five weeks of her life. We understood her feeling. It is doubtful that she was in a position to understand ours. It was too late. I write this so that thoughtful people can consider the matter before it is too late.
We longed for the privilege of entering into her suffering insofar as it would have been possible. She was too ill to talk. We understood that. We would not have asked her to. If we had been allowed only to slip into the room for a minute, hold her hand, pray briefly or be silent, we would have been grateful. Perhaps a little of the loneliness of dying would have been assuaged for her, and a little of our sorrow and love communicated. I am sure that we, at least, would have been helped. But it was not to be. Even after she died, we to whom she had meant so much needed to establish a last link. That, too, was denied.
Several months ago a friend from New York wrote of the death of a child she had been close to. ''I have mixed feelings about private funerals. Does that seem harsh to you? I so badly wanted to be with them in their grief, and I think a lot of others felt the same way. It was almost more than I could do, having an errand at the church, to walk past the hearse and out of sight before the family arrived. There will be a memorial service, but not for several weeks. I guess I am very old-fashioned or something. It is not a morbid hankering to 'view' the body, but the sight of a coffin brings home the reality and gives an outlet for grief, in my experience, as nothing else can."
Yes, my heart said, she is right. Now, after many years, I have sorted out why it mattered to me that we had only a memorial service for my first husband and real funeral for the second. In the first case, we had no choice. He was murdered, and the body was not found for five days. It was deep in uninhabited jungle from which transportation would have been nearly impossible. My second husband knew he was going to die, and we had time to discuss the funeral together. I don't remember his saying anything about a viewing, but I made that decision without difficulty as soon as he died. I knew that I had missed something when Jim died. Add had been beaten down by cancer and the last weeks were horrifying. Somehow it was a relief to see his face one more time in a different setting from his sickroom. The face was thin and aged and pallid, of course, but this time free from pain. The strength of the features was still there, the brow, as somebody observed, still noble. I could say good-bye to him then in my heart and resign him to the grave.
When I was nine years old, my best and almost my only friend died. I remember the hot July day when I was playing in the side yard and my mother came out to tell me that Essie had gone. I remember my parents driving me up Broad Street in Philadelphia to the funeral parlor where she lay in a white dress with her golden curls around her face. She was nine years old too.
Nobody said to me, "But it's only a body. The spirit has flown, you know." Nobody needed to. I could see that. But I could also see my friend who had led me on many a wild chase through vacant lots and back alleys and had scared the wits out of me with terrible tales of giants she had run across. She was very quiet now, very subdued. My playmate was dead. The sight was very real to me. It was not a shock. Children are not shocked at things. It is their elders who cannot face reality. I was awed and solemn, and I thought about it for years afterward. It was a very wise decision of my parents to take me to the funeral.
I appeal to Christians. Plan your funeral now. If you are "getting on in years" it may be possible even to choose the minister and discuss things with him. If death seems more remote, at least write down the fact that you want a funeral, and choose hymns and Scripture passages to be used. Don't be too dogmatic about the practical arrangements. Leave those to whoever is responsible for disposing of you, so that it will be easiest for them.
But please remember your friends. They are the people to whom it will matter greatly to be allowed to bid you farewell, and to grieve in company with others who love you. Don't make light of that.
C. S. Lewis, that wise man who seems to have thought through almost everything, writes in his Preface to Paradise Lost: ''Those who dislike ritual in general--ritual in any way and every department of life--may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance" (Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 21).
If it is a Christian funeral, we will be reminded in word and hymn that we do not "grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus," and "we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14, 17 NEB). Let funerals be, then, for Christians, celebrations in the presence of the mortal remains, visible signs of those glorious invisible realities which we believe with all our hearts.