Weekly Edgework #84 - February 6, 2006

Funeral Foibles

A golden heart stopped beating, two loving hands at rest; God broke our hearts to prove to us he only takes the best…Someday we will meet you. Someday, we know not when. To clasp your hand in the better land, never to part again.

It seems that I spend more time in funeral parlors and at funeral services than I used to. It’s part of the aging process, they tell me. Not only am I helping to bury my parents and those of my friends, but frequently also my friends whose DNA has become unraveled sometime in their fifties or sixties. I am becoming ever-more conscious of how tenuous human life really is.

I am also, in this process, becoming more aware of dynamics at work at viewing and funeral services. There is no question that everyone is generally sincere in wanting to bring comfort to those affected most directly by a death. Showing up to share the pain is a noble gesture indeed. And it is encouraging to witness that the general taboos against full-body embraces and the showing of emotions are temporarily suspended. So far, so good. We have come together to share the most universal of human experiences and in the process catch a glimpse of true community at work.

But I have also become increasingly disturbed at some of the theological concepts and attendant verbiage that permeate much of what happens at these events. God needed a special flower for his heavenly garden. Or, God broke our hearts to prove to us he only takes the best. Or, Don’t cry, because in a few short years the family will all be reunited on the other side. “Oh well,” say some of my friends, “it’s poetic license. It’s okay to say anything that brings momentary relief of one kind or another even if it is not true.” I don’t buy it. We don’t have to fabricate condolences like third-rate card manufacturers do. As people of faith we have more meaningful and more theologically sound things to say. And in the end they are of greater comfort than the folksy ditties so freely expressed at many Christian funerals.

Much of it is simply bad theology – the kind that actually works against us instead of for us. What cold comfort it is to a young child to be told that God took the mommy she desperately needs just to enhance his already well-endowed heavenly garden. The sweet Jesus of her childhood prayers has suddenly acted capriciously by causing a drunk driver to batter her loving mother to death – and for quite selfish reasons at that. And what solace is there for a widow who has lost a loving spouse in mid-life when she is told that God did it to prove a point – the point being that the one taken away was a very special person? How she must wish that her husband had not been of the very “best” variety. Perhaps God might then have left him alone to be with her.

Such foolishness must stop. But it doesn’t – because too many people feel they must be able to make sense of human tragedy, even if it means creating a monster God. It would be much more helpful to acknowledge that tragedy is part of the human experience and that it is indiscriminate in nature. To say that God took mommy makes God the author, or at least the director, of evil. How much more helpful to say that God has received the one who so tragically had to lay down her life far too soon in the context of a broken world. That can be a source of comfort. A monster God is quite stingy with offering comfort.

Perhaps the greatest fabrication to dismantle in the context of Christian funerals is the notion that heaven is basically designed as an instrument to ensure happy family gatherings on the other side. It is so deeply entrenched in the gospel song tradition that it is usually considered to be rooted in solid biblical teaching. The truth is that we know very little about what to expect on the other side of the grave. Scriptures assure us of being in the presence of Christ, but beyond that discourse on the subject gives way to imagery and metaphor. While it may be understandable that some might wish heaven to be a continuation of what we know to be good here – just in another place – that does not give us the right to make promises based on such desires.

In the process of trying to trap Jesus, Sadducees presented Jesus with what probably was a hypothetical situation. Seven brothers, each in their turn, married the same woman only to die a short time later. Of course these Jewish leaders tried to make a joke of it by asking in whose bed this woman would sleep in the resurrection. Jesus is equal to the challenge by disputing the premise that life after death is simply an extension of life as we know it now. In the new world beyond the grave, according to Jesus, marriage and family no longer play a part. (Matthew 22:23-33) We would do much better to go with Jesus and accept the mystery that life on the other side is of a different order than to create our own folksy myths.

Our grieving processes will only be wholesome within the confines of a wholesome theology. I have been to funerals at which I suspect the consolation of being reunited with a second wife in heaven was lost to everyone present except the preacher. Of course he had used the same consolation at the funeral of this man’s first wife. If our grieving is guided by notions of a capricious God doing us harm for his own mysterious purposes, we are not likely to feel his gentle and comforting embrace in the midst of our sorrow. And if we see funerals as a farewell, pure and simple – until we meet again as a family on the other side – not only will we have perpetuated a non-biblical myth, but we will be hampered in “turning again to life” following the death of our loved ones.