Although I live nine miles away from town, there is nothing much to slow me down on my way in. After the first two miles of tooth-rattling dirt road, it is a straight shot down state highway 17, with only one stop sign between me and the city limits.
"When I’m gone just cremate me,” Hughey MacSwiggan told his third and final wife as she stood at his bedside while the hospice nurse fiddled with the morphine drip that hadn’t kept his pain at bay. The operative word in his directive was just. He wasn’t especially fond of fire. He hadn’t picked out a favorite urn. He saw burning not so much as an alternative to burial as an alternative to bother. He just wanted it all to be over.
With surprising swiftness and dramatic results, a significant segment of American Christians has over the past 50 years abandoned previously established funeral customs in favor of an entirely new pattern of memorializing the dead. Generally included in the pattern is a brief, customized memorial service (instead of a funeral), a focus on the life of the deceased, an emphasis on joy rather than sadness, and a private disposition of the deceased.
When Harriet Ericson died at age 93, she went to the grave in the same manner in which she lived her final years—lovingly tended by her son Rodger Ericson of Austin, Texas. The former U.S. Air Force chaplain and Lutheran pastor (ELCA) bathed, anointed and dressed his mother’s body, then laid it in a casket he had built himself and named “hope chest” to reflect the family’s faith in the resurrection. The next day, with the help of his daughters and grandsons, he lifted her casketed remains into the bed of his pickup truck and secured the precious cargofor a road trek to Minnesota, where a family grave plot waswaiting.
The articles in this issue on funerals set me to thinking about my own experience and the changes I have witnessed in funerals. In my first two congregations I never conducted a funeral in the church itself. Every funeral was held in a funeral home, and every funeral was followed by a graveside interment and committal.
When I tell other pastors that I hate weddings and love funerals, they smile knowingly. Of course, the dark humor rings true with them—every pastor I know can tell a “wedding from hell” story, and all pastors can think of a few funerals at which they’d love to preside.
Having read Selwa Roosevelt’s review in the Washington Post weekly edition (June 20-26), I intend to read Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral (Miramax, $19.95). It’s a spoof on various denominational approaches to funerals.
Those of us who work in the church know how trivial, vain and self-serving the “institutional” church (as we used to call it in seminary—as if there were any other kind) can be. But we also wonder what we would do without the church. How could you celebrate Christmas without the church? How could you wake up in the dark of Easter morning without the church?
One of the difficult decisions, and sometimes compromises, ministers regularly make involves conducting funerals and memorial services for people who are not members of the congregation. It happens fairly often: a telephone call, sometimes from a funeral director, informs you of a death and the family’s hope that the service can be in your church and that you will preside.