By Thomas Lynch
An adaptation of a lecture given by poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch during his tenure as the McDonald Chair in spring 2013.
"A good funeral." I first heard that from my father, who was a funeral director. He used to come home from work when I was a kid, sit down at the dinner table, and talk about how he'd had a couple of good funerals" that day—by which he meant, it got the dead where they needed to go and the living where they wanted to be. That became for me a sort of rule of thumb: A good funeral gets both the dead and the living where they need to be.
In my time as a visiting professor at Candler, I've learned to provide a scriptural predicate for much of what I do and write and say. And so, this, from the Gospel of John:
Of these verses surrounding the burial of Christ, what always impressed me is the one that reads "according to the burial customs of the Jews," because it affirms that every tribe and sect, religious and ethnic community is obliged to figure out what to do with their dead. And so when Joseph the Arimathean, in league with Nicodemus, petitioned Pilate for the body of Christ, they were acting out a primal office of their species and the particular dictates of their tribe.
It was much the same eight years ago at the Vatican when Pope John Paul II died. That first week of April 2005 was dominated by images of the dead man's body vested in red, mitered, and laid out among the faithful with bells and books and candles, blessed with water and incense, borne from one station to the next in what began to take shape as a final journey. The front pages of the world's newspapers were uniform in their iconography: a corpse clothed in sumptuous vestments from head to toe, still as stone and horizontal. Such images flickering across their ubiquitous screens no doubt gave pause to many Americans for whom the presence of the dead at their own funerals had gone strangely out of style.
For many bereaved Americans, the relatively new "celebration of life" funeral involves a guest list open to everyone except the actual corpse, which is often dismissed, disappeared without rubric or witness, out of sight, out of mind. So the visible presence of the Pope's body at the Pope's funeral struck many as an oddity, a quaint relic of old customs. How "Catholic" some predictably said, or how "Italian," or "Polish," or "traditional," or "barbaric." Or "when in Rome," the perpetually beleaguered cable TV commentators would say.
In point of fact, what happened in Rome that week followed a pattern as old as the species—it was "human," this immediate focus on the dead and this sense that the living must go the distance with them. Most of nature does not stop for death. But we do. Wherever our spirits go, or don't, ours is a species which has learned to process grief by processing the objects of our grief—the bodies of the dead—from one place to the next. We bear mortality by bearing mortals, the living and the dead, to the brink of a uniquely changed reality: Heaven or Valhalla or Whatever Is Next. We commit and commend them into the nothingness or somethingness, into the presence of God or God's absence. Whatever afterlife there is or isn't, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going the distance with their dead, getting them to the edge of a new reality—to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion we consign them to. And we've been doing this since the beginning.
As Christians, our theology is shaped by our eschatology; our living faith informed by our best hopes for the dead. Thus, the defining truth of our Christianity—the empty tomb—proceeds from the defining truth of our humanity: We fill tombs. The mystery of the resurrection to eternal life is bound inextricably to the certainty of the cross of suffering and death. Indeed, the effort to make sense of it all, the religious impulse, owes to our primeval questions about the nature of death. Save for these uniquely human curiosities about last things and eschatologies and the liturgies we construct to answer them, we would be so much road-kill and windfall, our lives and deaths unmarked and unremarkable. Like baptisms and nuptials, we do funerals to address the uniquely human questions—what is permanent, what is passing, what is the meaning of life and love, suffering and death. Gladioli and goldfish are not much troubled by these things. Only humans are.
Ours is the species bound to the dirt, fashioned from it, according to the Book of Genesis (Gen 2:7). Thus human and humus occupy the same page of our dictionaries because we are beings "of the soil," of the earth. The lexicon and language are full of such wisdoms. Thus, our "humic density," as the scholar Robert Pogue Harrison calls it, the notion that everything human—our architecture and history, our monuments and cities—all rooted in and rising from the humus, the earth, the ground in which our dead are buried, is what eventually defines us.
Years ago I took to trying to imagine the first human widow awakening to the dead lump of a fellow next to her, stone still under the hides that covered and warmed them against the elements. I always imagine a cave and primitive tools and art and artifacts. They have fire and some form of language and social orders. This first human widow wakes up to find the man she's been sleeping with and cooking for and breeding with gone cold and quiet in a way she had not formerly considered. Depending on the weather, sooner or later she begins to sense that something about him has changed quite utterly and irreversibly. Probably she smells the truth of this within a matter of a day or two. And what makes her human is that she figures she¿d better do something about it. Let us, for a moment, consider her options.
Perhaps she gathers her things together and follows the nomadic herd of her group elsewhere, leaving the cave to him, in which case we could call it his tomb. Or maybe she likes the decor of the place and has put some of herself into the improvements so decides that she should stay and that the now unresponsive and decomposing lump of matter next to her should be removed. She drags him out by the ankles and begins her search for a cliff to push him over or a ditch to push him into. Or maybe she digs a pit in the earth to bury him because she doesn't want wild animals attracted to his odor. Or maybe she builds a fire, a large fire, around and atop his rotting body and feeds it with fuel until the body is consumed. Maybe she keeps one of the bones for a totem or remembrance. Or let's say she lives near a body of water and counts on the fish to cleanse his remains. Maybe she enlists the assistance of others of her kind in the performance of these duties, and they do their part, sensing that they may need exactly this kind of help in the future.
Here is where the course of history is set. It has to do with the momentary pause before she turns and leaves the cave, or the ditch or the pit or the fire or the pond or whatever oblivion she has chosen for him. In that pause she stares into the oblivion she has consigned him to and frames what are the signature questions of our species: Is that all there is? Why is he cold? Can this happen to me? What comes next? Of course, there are other questions, many more, but all of them are uniquely human, because no other species ponders such things. This is when the first glimpse of a life before or beyond this one begins to flicker into the species' consciousness and questions about where we come from and where we go take up more and more of the moments not spent on rudimentary survival. Maybe the way the sun rises and sets or the seasons change or the tide ebbs and flows begin to replicate her own existence. And maybe whatever made the larger and the smaller lights in the night sky and great yellow disk that moves across the sky had something to do with her and the man whose body she is disposing of.
And here is the point I am trying to make: that the contemplation of the existential mysteries, those around being and ceasing to be, is what separates humans from the rest of creation; and that our humanity is, therefore, directly tied to how we respond to mortality. In short, how we deal with our dead in their physical reality and how we deal with death as an existential reality define and describe us in primary ways. Furthermore, the physical reality of death and the existential contemplation of the concept of death are inextricably linked so that it can be said, in trying to define what might be among the first principles of humanity, that ours is the species that deals with death (the idea of the thing) by dealing with our dead (the physical fact of the thing itself).
Insofar as our first human widow is concerned, it was by dealing with the corpse of her dead man that she began to deal with the concept of death. This intimate connection between the mortal corpse and the concept of mortality, it goes without saying, is at the core of our religious, artistic, scientific, and social impulses.
"No form of human life," writes the sociologist Zymunt Bauman in Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies, "has been found that failed to pattern the treatment of deceased bodies and their posthumous presence in the memory of the descendants. Indeed, the patterning has been found so universal that discovery of graves and cemeteries is generally accepted by the explorers of prehistory as proof that a humanoid strain whose life was never observed directly had passed the threshold of humanhood."
I want to emphasize that Bauman finds two elements to this "threshold of humanhood." First, "to pattern the treatment of deceased bodies" and secondly, "their (the dead's) presence in the memory of descendants." And when we find evidence of ancient graves and cemeteries, crematories or other sites of final disposition, we can assume that they are venues where humans sought to deal with death by dealing with their dead—by treating their deceased bodies in ways that said they intended to keep 'their posthumous presence in (their) memory."
And this formula—dealing with death by dealing with the dead—defined and described and worked for humans for forty or fifty thousand years all over the planet, across every culture until we come to the most recent generations of North Americans who for the past forty or fifty years have begun to avoid and outsource and ignore their obligations to deal with the dead. They are willing enough to keep "their presence in the memory of descendants" (the idea of the thing), so long as they don't have to deal with "the treatment of deceased bodies" (the thing itself). A picture on the piano is fine, but public wakes, bearing the dead to open graves, are strictly out of fashion.
The bodiless obsequy, which has become a staple of available options for bereaved families in the past half-century, has created an estrangement between the living and the dead that is unique in human history. Furthermore, this estrangement, this disconnect, this refusal to deal with our dead (their corpses), could be reasonably expected to handicap our ability to deal with death (the concept, the idea of it). And a failure to deal authentically with death may have something to do with an inability to deal authentically with life.
It bears mentioning that while this estrangement is coincident with the increased use of cremation as a method of disposing of the dead over the same half-century, and may be correlated to it, cremation is not the cause of this estrangement. Indeed, cremation is an ancient and honorable and effective method of body disposition, but in most cultures where it is practiced it is done publicly in ceremonial and commemorative venues, whereas in North America very often it is consigned to an off-site, out-of-sight, industrial venue where everything is handled privately and efficiently. Only in North America has cremation lost its ancient connection to fire, because it is so rarely actually witnessed. Here, cremation has become synonymous with disappearance, not so much an alternative to burial or entombment, rather an alternative to having to bother with the dead body.
Ours is a species that deals with death (the idea, the concept, the human condition) by dealing with the dead (the thing itself, in the flesh, the corpse). Whatever our responses to death might be—intellectual, philosophical, religious, ritual, social, emotional, cultural, artistic, etc.—they are firstly and undeniably connected to the embodied remnant of the person who was. And while the dead can be pictured and imagined and conjured by symbol and metaphor, photo and recording, our allegiance and our primary obligations ought to be to the real rather than the virtual dead. Inasmuch as a death in the family is primarily occasioned by the presence of a corpse, the emergent, immediate, collective, and purposeful response to that emergency is what a funeral is. In short, a funeral responds to the signature human concern of what to do about a dead human.
Thus, the presence of the dead is an essential, definitive element of a funeral. Funerals differ from all other commemorative events in that the presence of the dead and their subsequent disposition are primary concerns. Memorial services, celebrations of life, or variations on these commemorative events, whether held sooner or later or at intervals or anniversaries, in a variety of locales, while useful socially for commemorating the dead and paying tribute to their memories, lack an essential manifest and function: the disposition of the dead. In this sense, the option to dispose of the dead privately, through the agency of hirelings, however professional they might be, and however moving the memorial that follows may be, is an abdication of an essential undertaking and fundamental humanity.
A second essential, definitive element of a funeral is that there must be those to whom the death matters. A death happens to both the one who dies and to those who survive the death and are affected by it. If no one cares, if there is no one to mark the change that has happened, if there is no one to name and claim the loss and the memory of the dead, then the dead assume the status of Bishop Berkeley's tree falling noiselessly in the forest: If no one hears it, it did not fall, it never was. It is the same with humans. And like Bishop Berkeley, it may become for us the case for a god who sees and hears and claims everything in creation.
A third essential, definitive element of a funeral is that there must be some narrative, some effort towards an answer, however provisional, of those signature human questions about what death means for both the one who has died and those to whom it matters. Thus, an effort to broker some peace between the corpse and the mourners by describing the changed reality death occasions is part of the essential response to mortality. Very often this is a religious narrative. Often it is written in a book, the text of which is widely read. Or it might be philosophical, artistic, intellectual—a poem in place of a psalm, a song in place of prayer—either way there must be some case to be made for what has happened to the dead and what the living might expect because of it. "Behold, I show you a mystery," or words to that effect are often heard.
A fourth and final essential, definitive element of a funeral is that it must accomplish the disposition of the dead. They are not welcome, we know intuitively, to remain among us in the way they were while living. Furthermore, it is by getting the dead where they need to go that the living get where they need to be. And while this disposition often involves the larger muscles and real work, it also enacts our essential narratives, assists in the process of our essential emotions, images, and intellection about the dead, and fixes their changed status in the landscape of our future and daily lives. Whether the dead are buried, burned, entombed, enshrined or scattered, hoist into the air, cast into the sea, or left out for the scavenging birds, our choice of their oblivion makes their disposition palatable, acceptable, maybe even holy, and our participation in it remedial, honorable, maybe even holy.
These four essential, definitive elements, then: the corpse, the caring survivors, some brokered change of status between them, and the disposition of the dead make a human funeral what it is.
Once we can separate the essential elements from the accessories, the fundamental obligations from fashionable options, we might be able to assign relative measures of worth to what we do when one of our own kind dies. We might be able to figure not only the costs, but the values. Thus, coffin and casket, mum plants and carnations, candles and pall, vaults and monuments, limousines and video tributes—all of them accessories, non-essentials. They may be a comfort, but they are non-essential. Same for funeral directors and rabbis, sextons and pastors, priests and clerks, florists and lawyers and hearse drivers—all of them accessories who may, nonetheless, assist the essential purpose of a funeral. And when we endeavor to serve the living by caring for the dead, we are assisting in the essential, definitive work of the funeral and the species that devised this deeply and uniquely human response to death.
So much of what I know of final things I have learned from the reverend clergy: these men and women of God who drop what they're doing and come on the run when there is trouble. These are the local heroes who show up, armed only with faith, who respond to calls in the middle of the night, the middle of dinner, the middle of already busy days to bedsides and roadsides, intensive care and emergency rooms, nursing homes and hospice wards and family homes, to try and make some sense of senseless things. They are on the front lines, holy corpsmen in the flesh-and-blood combat between hope and fear. Their faith is contagious and emboldening. Their presence is balm and anointing. The Lutheran pastor who always sang the common doxology at graveside: "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow," his hymn sung into the open maw of unspeakable sadness, startling in its comfort and assurance. The priest who would intone the Gregorian chant and tribal Latin of the In Paradisum while leading the pallbearers to the grave, counting on the raised voice and ancient language to invoke the heavenly and earthly hosts. The young Baptist preacher who, at a loss for words, pulled out his harmonica and played the mournful and familiar notes of "Just As I Am" over the coffin of one of our town's most famous sinners.
My friend Jake Andrews, an Episcopal priest, now dead for years but still remembered, apart from serving his little local parish, was chaplain to the fire and police departments and became the default minister, the go-to guy for the churchless and lapsed among our local citizenry. Father Andrews always rode in the hearse with me, whether the graveyard was minutes or hours away, in clement and inclement weather, and whether there were hundreds or dozens or only the two of us to hear, he would stand and read the holy script such as it had been given him to do. When cremation became, as it did, the norm among his townspeople and congregants, he would leave the living to the tea and cakes and ices in the parish hall and ride with me and the dead to the crematory. There he would perform his priestly offices with the sure faith and deep humanity that seems to me an imitation of Christ.
It was Jake Andrews's belief that pastoral care included care of the saints he was called on to bury and cremate. Baptisms and weddings were, he said, "easy duties," whereas funerals were "the deep end of the pool." I think he had, as we all do, his dark nights of the soul, but still, he believed the dead to be alive in Christ. He met the mourners at the door and pressed the heavens with their lamentations. It was Jake who taught me the power of presence, the work of mercy in the showing up, pitching in, bearing our share of whatever burden, and going the distance with the living and the dead. He taught me that a living faith ought not be estranged from death's rudiments and duties. Faith claims based upon redemptive suffering and meaningful death, a risen corpse and an empty tomb lose something of their power when the dead and the living become so distant and estranged from the shoulder work and shovel work the dead require.
So the question presents itself: What harm if we simply forget how to do a good funeral? What harm if we grow more distant from our dead?
2013 marked the ten-year anniversary of the commencement of our nation's long misadventure in Iraq. To me one of the worst miscalculations was the one that prevented media coverage of the return of our dead soldiers to Dover AFB where our military operates its mortuary services, preparing the dead to be sent back home to towns and cities across the nation. Imposed during the first Gulf War, this ban—which was lifted in 2009—reversed an open media policy that had held from World War II through the invasion of Panama in 1989.
Might we ask ourselves, would we have remained entrenched in that misadventure for more than eight years if every night the evening news included images of the coffins of our dead countrymen and women being carried from the cargo hold of transport planes?
Or ought we ask, as more and more of our fellow Americans are joining the Church of "none of the above" when it comes to religious identity, is there any connection between the slow but steady decline in church attendance and pop culture's seemingly insatiable interest in True Blood and Twilight and The Walking Dead and the zombie apocalypse? Are the erotically charged vamps and vampires served up by Hollywood somehow connected to "the failure of our eschatological nerve," as Tom Long elegantly calls the slow but steady decline in the relevance of the Christian message in its current telling?
These are queries beyond my scope or scholarship, but still it seems to me a simple thing, that we should restore to the funeral some aspect of goodness, some gravity and purpose, some shoulder and shovel work, some Christian witness at the very least. Perhaps if the dead are more welcome in church, the living will find more reason to be there.
Long accustomed to endings, Thomas Lynch is looking forward to the beginning of the West Clare Drama Festival in Doonbeg, Ireland, where shopkeepers and publicans turn into leading men and women, local police and farmers take up their roles, and their fellow citizens watch in rapt amazement.