March 22, 2011

OK, So Now I'm in a Box...Now What?

Sooner or later...
I suppose it was bound to happen, now that I’m well into middle age.

Over the past five years I have attended over a dozen funerals. My friends and family are dying off like never before.  My grandparents were no surprise, since I was in my twenties and they were, well, old. That’s what ninety year-olds are supposed to do.  Well, you know what I mean.

But now it seems different: They’re dropping off younger and younger, closer and closer to my own age.  To me they appeared young and vital, with many productive years ahead. Some were devout believers of various denominations, while others were unbelievers or perpetual agnostics. From this eclectic mix of experiences, I’ve formed a few opinions about what a funeral should look like:

  • Funerals are for the living, not for the dead.  Grampa’s fate was determined by the time he drew his last breath, and there’s nothing we can do for him now. This is a time to honor his memory, to recall our fond memories and the lessons he taught us.  It’s a teachable moment for children, that they might begin to understand the fullness of the circle of life.
  • The flesh counts for nothing (John 6:63). Yet from what I’ve been told, the fancier and pricier the casket, the longer it will preserve human remains. Are you freaking kidding me? Why should we even bother with such a thing?  I think the old Jewish tradition has it about right: Use a plain wooden box and drill holes in it to hasten decomposition. Your loved one is gone, never to return; it’s time to let go.
  • Unbelievers shouldn’t be sent off with fancy church rituals and ceremonies. If Cousin Ted wasn’t religious in life, this is no time to start pretending. He made his own choices, and we shouldn’t impose our own.
  • If the deceased was a scoundrel – and everyone in the room knows it – let’s not canonize him now. I don’t suggest that we should recite a litany of his misdeeds, but nor should we invent a fictional biography for the sake of a warm fuzzy moment.
  • No one should ever eulogize a stranger. At my cousin’s memorial service a few months ago, the minister ended his beautiful homily by calling her “Mrs. Wesley.”  Huh?  Who? She never allowed anyone to call her that.  I quickly figured out that the guy was a talking head, a hired hand, an employee of the funeral home who never met her. I felt violated.
As Christians, we claim to know and follow Jesus. We decry pagan superstition, empty rituals, and graven images. And yet at a time like this, we seem to forget all of our sacred principles and jump in with both feet.

We think our physical bodies are intrinsically “holy,” and shouldn’t be allowed to decompose.

We suppose that unsaved people can make it into heaven if we only perform certain rites and recite the proper incantations.

We prefer a somber sermon from a seminary graduate in a fancy robe, over a heartfelt testimony from a friend.

One of these days it’s going to be me in that box.  If you see fit to gather in my honor, don’t follow a script. I don’t care what happens to my shell after I’m done with it, because it’s not me. Don’t pray for me, shower me in “holy” water, or choke me with “sacred” incense; the way I see it, either I’m already heaven-bound or I’m not. I don’t need a steak dinner in a fancy restaurant, or a police escort across town to the cemetery.

It’s not me.

I’m not there.

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