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Funerals

Is it just me or do our funeral services reek of dualism?  Lately I have attended a number of Christian funeral services.  A few were really good.  Others, sadly, were not.  For example, at one service I kept hearing things like, ‘This isn’t N. here.  N., the real N., is heaven, in the arms of God’, etc.  And then there would be some type of ‘altar call’ message.  You know the type.  The ‘minister’ finds this a grand opportunity to tell people to ‘accept Christ’ or they're ‘going to hell’.

Nice.

People are coming to ‘pay their respect’, remember someone dear to them, or grieve and other people feel obligated to shove religion down the throats of those who mourn.

Now, I understand that funerals are a good place to talk about what happens after physical death.  I mean, some people are naturally thinking about their own mortality at that time.  But there should be some decency in this, some tact, some respect; don’t you think?  Is it just me or is it really bad form to talk about ‘getting ready to meet your maker’ when we are supposed to be honoring and remembering the departed?  Shouldn’t the ‘minister’ actual minister to those who are mourning?  Shouldn’t there be some type of consoling?  Perhaps I just don’t get it.  The whole thing seems so very platonic.

Since I have yet to attend a funeral in the Episcopal church, I turned to my handy-dandy Book of Common Prayer to see how we might do the service.  What an eye-opening read.

~~~~~~~~

The service starts with a celebration in song of the Resurrection of Jesus.  Next we have a prayer regarding the departed and God giving them to us in our ‘earthly pilgrimage’; of God consoling the mourners; the insight to death as the ‘gate to eternal life’; and the hope that we will see the departed once more.

Next we move to the Liturgy of the Word.  Like other liturgical services, we have an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a Psalm, and finally a Gospel reading.  After this there is a short homily.  This is followed by reciting the Apostles Creed.  The Eucharist may follow.

Next is the commendation part of the service where we entrust the departed back to God.  This can be seen in the following prayer:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant N.  We humbly ask that you acknowledge her as a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.  Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  May her soul and the souls of all the departed, through your mercy, rest in peace.  Then, at the consummation of your New Creation, bring N. and all the saints into new bodily life at the resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

As the remains are being removed from the church, another resurrection anthem is sung.

The service then continues at the grave site for the Committal.  (If the grave hasn’t been blessed for Christian burial before, there is also a prayer provided for that.)  This part also starts with an anthem about the resurrection and the faithfulness of God.  Next comes the Lord’s Prayer, a closing prayer, and the dismissal.

~~~~~~~~

After reading through that service, I was struck with the thought, ‘This is more in line with what I have seen in other faiths’.  (Okay, ‘other faiths’ as revealed in movies.  And we all know how accurate movies are.)  I can imagine a great Norse ship being set ablaze and drifting out to sea with a departed loved one on board as he or she goes off to embrace the netherworld.  In the Episcopal tradition, there is that sense of a cycle – God giving us the person at the beginning of life and we giving the person back to God at the (supposed) end of life.  In our service we realize that the departed were with us for a while and, just like God ‘delivered’ our loved ones from the mother’s womb to us in this life, we are (symbolically) delivering them back to God.

Not only are we delivering the departed to God, we recognize that the body is still important.  That the ‘real’ person in not ‘in heaven’ but that the ‘real’ person is the whole person -- soul and body.  The soul may be in the hand of God, but it is only there for a while.  It will one day, at the consummation of God’s New Creation Project, be rejoined (or, to use the words of St Paul, be clothed) with a new ‘spiritual body’ or ‘eternal body’.  Now don’t misunderstand me or St Paul.  When he wrote ‘spiritual body’ in 1Corinthians, he didn’t mean a non-physical body but a transphysical body.  A body that is not limited or motivated by fallen nature.  It is a body like that of Jesus at his resurrection.

Now, I know a lot of people who have a real problem with this.  They ask all of the same type of questions, ‘What will we look like?  Will our bodies represent the age we were when we died or will they be like they were when we were at our prime?’  While I think these are valid questions (even though, sometimes, they are used to show how absurd the ‘physical’ resurrection is), I think they miss the point.  As St John wrote, we don't really know for certain ‘what we will be like when [Jesus] appears.  But we do know that we will be like him’ (1John 3.2).  Paul wrote that the new body would be somewhat like our old one but it will be transformed.  But that is about as far as he goes.  Why is that do you suppose?  I think it is because we are at the very fringe of language when talking about this.  Furthermore, I think it is supposed to be left a mystery.  There are plenty of things we are to know about God, Jesus, the Spirit, eternal destinations, etc.  But other things, like a lot of the details, we are on a need to know basis.  And, right now, we don't need to know.  We may like to know.  We may think that we need to know.  But God, in his holiness, thought otherwise.

So, I am so thankful that the funeral service at the Episcopal church is more of a celebration about the resurrection of Jesus and that it is about the whole person, the real person, not just some platonic ideal that leaves the impression that the natural world is (just this side of) evil and that the only thing that matters is the ‘spiritual’ world.

Well, this all came to a very personal point quite recently.  A friend of mine called me and asked me if I would oversee his mother’s funeral.  Now, my friend does not profess to be a Christian, but he told me that his mother was.  So I was trying to determine how to respect his mother’s wishes and not (purposely) offend some people in attendance.  This would be a challenge.  I asked my friend if I could have some time to pray and think about it.  He assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.  After meeting with my Priest, I felt at complete peace about doing it.  I called my friend and told him that I would do the ceremony and asked to meet him to discuss the details.  When we met, my friend informed me that his mother was an Episcopalian and that she would want a Christian service.  He had some songs picked out that where his mother’s favorites -- ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’, ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.  And here I was worried about offending someone.  He said he wanted it to be short and it was, about thirty minutes or less.  Afterward, I had numerous people come up to me and say that it was a really good service and that my friend’s mother would have liked it.  And for the record, I (loosely) followed the service in the Book of Common Prayer.  No hellfire.  No damnation.  Just a simple celebration of the life of this dear Sister and her love for family and friends and the faithfulness of God and the certainty of the Resurrection.

Peace be with you.

+ OD

Comments

Pinball said…
Captain, I don't think we should ever worry about offending someone with the gospel. In fact, I think that's our job sometimes.

Having just said that, I agree that we should be wise in how we present the gospel. As always, it's a matter of knowing your culture and knowing your audience. In a funeral situation, you don't always have time to get to know your audience the way you would if you were coming to be their priest full-time. That's when you pray and let God -- who always knows them better than you -- lead you, as it appears you did.

Your original question of dualism and your previous conversations about our physical bodies still trouble me a bit. As you correctly observed, we will be clothed in a new body that is transphysical. Our physical bodies that we were born with rot and become wormfood. There is no denying that. Yet anytime someone draws attention to that, it seems to me that you fear they are becoming "dualistic". I would say that not all dualism is Platonic dualism. There is undoubtedly a dualistic concept Paul expresses when he describes the flesh and the spirit. "The flesh" is figurative to some degree, but I think your equivocation in applying this phrase to the physical body is unfounded.

Clearly presenting the gospel message -- which does indeed include hell -- is not necesssarily shoving religion down the throats of those who mourn. There are ways to say the exact same thing without producing fear, and you are right to decry that. We both hate it when people paint Jonathan Edwards with a brush that is only dipped in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God".

I guess what I'm saying is that "ministering" to people doesn't mean "making them comfortable in their sin and separation from God." In a funeral, ministering includes ministering to the one who died, in a sense. Or rather, it might be better to say ministering FOR the one who died. If I died and my kids weren't Christians, I'd want the pastor to unload on 'em with both barrels. But that's part of my personality, and my kids would probably be disappointed with anything less.

So I say, good on ya' for how you handled this one. In the future, don't be afraid to be as bold (or bolder, if I'm the dead dude in question.)
Pinball said…
Darn it! I thought I was done. One more thought: I personally couldn't use the BCP service in good conscience if I knew the person was not a believer. I'd have a hard time asking God to receive someone back if I knew for a fact that they weren't going there.

On the other hand, none of us gets to judge that, and ya never know what happens in the final seconds before the last breath. So, if I'm honest with myself, I could never "know for a fact". In cases where I strongly suspect the worst, I would definitely add a, "We don't know for sure" disclaimer with an appeal -- appropriately done -- to those present that they can know for sure.
Pinball said…
And of course, I disagree with you still on the whole "body is good" part. I don't agree with your interpretation of scripture here. And this is pretty darn funny considering our ongoing debate about the "body of death" at the end Romans 7. There you contend that it refers to the law and not our physical bodies. And I think you're nuts.

Here, you're saying that body here refers to the physical body and not the law, and again, I think you're nuts. (Unless you're talking about a different passage than what I'm thinking of. And granted, you could be contending that it applies to both the law and our physical bodies, but I don't agree with that either, given the context.) If our physical bodies are so good, then why do they die and rot? The new bodies we'll be given are not the same as our physical bodies. I think scripture is pretty clear about that.

So I believe I can demonstrate from Scripture that the "real" person IS in heaven. Otherwise, you're saying that a portion of the "real" person is breaking down little by little and becoming something (or even someone, given the nature of the food chain) else. I don't buy that.

Also, there is a separation in scripture where the holy and spiritual is deemed by God to be more "real" than this planet in its current state. And that is the proper origin of such dualism. Sure, enlightenment thinking will take this much too far, but I think your reaction goes too far in the other direction.
Anglican said…
Odysseus,

When you are finally able to attend an Episcopal funeral, you will probably find what you are looking for, as you have so eloquently pointed out in your analysis of the burial liturgy. When I was the usher coordinator for a few years at our parish, I attended more funerals than most people my age would otherwise have seen. It was quite an experience, and it was a blessing.

I would also call your attention (though I'm sure you noticed it) to the note on BCP, p. 507, reminding us that "the liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy." I find great hope in that.

As for your observation about the Episcopal service seeming so familiar from movies and popular culture, you are spot on. The same goes for the Episcopal wedding liturgy. It is no surprise that so many people outside the church flock to one when they need a wedding or a funeral; the words are beautiful through and through. I have relatives who still comment to me about how moved they were and how "spiritual" our Episcopal wedding was for them, years after the fact. That they were surprised a wedding should be "spiritual" tells me something about the expectations of what goes on in other places. No one was going to sing "The Rose" at our wedding!

Great post, as always. Keep writing!

Jay
Anglican said…
Whoops. I didn't read closely enough. You HAVE attended an Episcopal funeral; you were the celebrant. God bless you for that ministry to people in need.
Odysseus said…
Jay,

Thanks for stopping by! While I did a modified version of an Episcopal funeral, I would still like to attend a full service. I imagine that it is as 'spiritual' as you state.

Oh, and don't mind Pinball and me. We have debated like this for years. One of these days, he'll get it.

Peace to you.

+ OD
Pam said…
What do you want conveyed to those who will be at your funeral? What would you want to say to them, if for just a moment, you could sit up and talk before a final goodbye?
Odysseus said…
Pam,

Great questions! Some really great questions. I suppose the answer would depend on the faith (or no faith) of the deceased.
Pinball said…
Oh, holy crap. For 2 guys with the same basic theology, it is stunning that there is no end to our ability to disagree.

The irony this time is that you're being literal when the text is figurative and figurative where I believe it is literal. (For the record, Romans 7 is certainly talking about the law when it says it is. But you will never convince me that "body of death" refers to the law. Why would Paul suddenly call it a "body of death" from which he needs to be rescued when he spent a whole chapter -- what is it... 3? -- describing how the law is GOOD?)

I am so glad we love each other so much. It is important for me to reiterate that for the benefit of those who may be reading that don't know the nature of our friendship.

You sound like the church officials who persecuted Copernicus for saying the world revolved around the sun. Remember? They were mad because they were sure that the Bible said the sun revolved around the earth.

There is a scientific issue here that makes your proposition ludicrous. You said that he somehow uses our "stuff" to make the new bodies. Since even bones disintegrate over time, there are many people who walked the face of this earth whose "stuff" doesn't belong to them in any coherent fashion. In fact, a good portion of their "stuff" belongs to other creatures, even humans. So some of the atoms present in my body may very well have been present in someone else's body in the course of history -- possibly multiple someone elses. So when God comes to remake us, who gets those atoms?

I think a much more workable and probable interpretation of the first passage you quoted is that Paul is drawing a parallel between our earthly bodies and the bodies in the life to come to illustrate that there will be observable similarities between the two. I doubt he was making a scientific statement. It would seem to me that the language of "burying and raising" is figurative and not literal. (Just as it is in the language of baptism and as similar language is used in Colossians 3: "For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.")

Here's another way to look at it that is ridiculous, but illustrates my point. Let's say I become a missionary to a tribe of cannibals. Skinny though I may be, one of them decides to eat me. Let's say sometime before my wife becomes their next meal, she is able by God's grace to lead the one who ate me to newness of life, and within minutes, he dies. At that point, a good portion of me would be part of this cannibal, and both of us would have significant claim to the atoms.

This is an extremely unlikely event, but the fact that it is squarely in the realm of possibility means that it's useful as part of this discussion.

Your second quote is funny to me, because that is the very verse I'm talking about when I say that the new bodies we'll be given are not the same as our physical bodies. Paul said, "Our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever." This is exactly why I believe the body is not part of the everlasting good me that God created. As Paul says elsewhere, we have to beat our bodies to keep them in line. If they were part of the "good" of creation, this wouldn't be so.
Odysseus said…
I love you too. And it's amazing to me that you always seem to bring that up right when you are about to blast me.

Since this is not about the 'body of death' I won't address this further. But I will say that your last comment was very good.

Concerning the 'scientific issue...that makes [my] proposition ludicrous': I know that you're aware that people who deny the resurrection use your same argument. You are aware of that, right? To which I would respond: smarten up! We are talking about the creator God. The God who spoke the world into existence. We are talking about the God who raises the dead! Are you going to tell me that all the people that were resurrected when Jesus died, all were resurrected before they started to decay (Matthew 27.51-53)? What about Lazarus? He already started to decay, being dead for four days. Just because we can't understand it doesn't mean it won't work that way.

Furthermore, how is what you are talking about 'resurrection'? Every instance of resurrection we have is about a dead person coming out of a grave. What would be the point if they were just given a completely new body? How is that 'resurrection'?

Concerning our bodies not being 'part of the everlasting good...that God created': Again, you do realize that Jesus was resurrected in his earthly body? It didn't see decay. In other words, it didn't dissolve. It was the same body he had while he walked on earth, albeit 'transformed'.

Concerning Paul and 'beat[ing] our bodies to keep them in line': Again, this is because we are still in a fallen state. That has nothing to do with the consummation. At that point, 'all things will be made new'. And notice, God didn't say that he would make all new things.

Lastly, we both must realize that we are talking about mysterious things here. Things that are beyond our comprehension. Who knows, perhaps we are both right? And I think that is probably closer to the truth of the matter.

Peace to you, Pinball.

+ OD
Pinball said…
I really want to let this go, because your ultimate statement is correct: what the heck do we know anyway?

But I have some responses to some of your concernings, and you and I have a history of convincing each other through arguments like this. (And I say argument in the classical sense, not the animosity sense.) So in case it is worth something, I'll press on.

I almost pre-empted your "God can do anything he wants" statement, but I wanted to see if you'd go there. My Cousin the Deist always takes me to task for using this argument as a "fait d'acompli". (That might not mean what I think it means. I hate French anyway. Maybe I mean "raison d'ture" or "coup de grace". That reminds me: I need to coup my grass at home. It's getting too long.)

And while I DO agree that God can do anything he wants, as an argument of logic, it can be a copout.

Lazarus and Jesus aren't very good examples in comparison to my cannibal story for 2 reasons: 1) They weren't dead that long, and 2) They were laid in stone tombs. We don't have an example of

And for this discussion, you can count Jesus out entirely since he was without sin. I would argue, therefore, that his flesh was as incorruptable as his soul and spirit. (Another division we've argued about!)

So that leaves us with 2 very valid and thought-provoking points: 1) The dead that walked around after Jesus died -- who very clearly HAD been dead for centuries and WERE subject to all manner of decay, and 2) The statement 'all things will be made new' that clearly doesn't say 'I will make all new things'.

These are good points for me to think about. In the meantime, you can think about whether or not these points invalidate my supposition. We'll probably end up reaching the same conclusion in about 2 years.

To be sure, we'll reach the same conclusion someday!
Odysseus said…
Pinball,

In thinking about this more, I want to push my thoughts a little bit further.

Concerning your statement regarding Lazarus not being dead 'that long': It appears from the context that his body started to rot somewhere along the way since he already began to stink by the time Jesus showed up. So, there again, we have a break down of tissues, cells, atoms, whatever. Something is decomposing by that time. His body was changing chemically by then.

Concerning Jesus body: I find it interesting that you use this as an argument. Since your whole point is that our bodies aren't 'good' or they wouldn't die. As you also point out, Jesus' body, like the rest of him, was without sin, and yet he died. How can that be if his body was 'good'?

Lastly, concerning my supposed copout: Whatever. You can call it a copout if you want, but that doesn't change the fact that God can and does do things that we can't explain logically. And I'm glad! For if I could explain the way God does things, then there would not be a reason for trust. And, btw, raising the dead, even if it was Jesus, is not something that can be explained logically. The dead do not come back to life. That is what human logic tells us. And yet, we have more than one account of God doing just that.

Peace be with you.

+ OD
Pinball said…
O Captain, my captain. (Wait a minute. I just quoted Whitman to a guy. Does that make me gay?)

Sorry. I digress. Often.

Concerning Lazarus: Now we're really splitting hairs. Let's see if I can stop it. My point about decomposition is not the middling degrees of it (or beginning degrees either), but the total and near-total phases of it. But if you want to lump Lazarus in with the people who walked around on the day Christ died, I'll let you. It doesn't change the essence of either of our points enough to tip the scales.

Concerning Jesus: You're missing my point. My point ISN'T that our bodies wouldn't die if they were "good". My point is that our flesh is the repository of our sin. It's the part of us that can't be joined to God because it is corruptable. The suffix is critical here. Corruptable doesn't mean corrupt. It means the POTENTIAL to be corrupt. My contention is that every human EXCEPT Jesus has followed through on the potential. That made his first body uncorrupted, though still mortal. He had to die, not only to pay the penalty for our sin, but to shed the mortal body and put on the incorruptable body. (Or, from your point of view, to bury the mortal body and raise it as the incorruptable body.) Paul makes it pretty clear that only those who are alive when the "twinkling of an eye" thing happens (I was very careful not to say "rapture". Are you proud of me?) will be transformed in an instant. Until then, the only way to "change clothes" so to speak is to die.

Concerning the last concerning: Please pay attention to my qualifiers. I told the story about my cousin for a reason. I said "can be a copout" (not "IS a copout") and limited it to discussions of logic for a reason. And here is the reason: Debating atheists and deists is very helpful because the good ones who really love you will show you the holes in your argument. I was too often ending arguments with, "God can do whatever he wants" because it was easy. That is, I was being intellectually lazy, and my faith allowed me to get away with it. Since he didn't share my faith, he called me on it. On issues where we CAN'T know something (like this one), "God can do anything he wants" is indeed the ultimate answer. I brought up the possibility of a copout just to make sure we aren't trotting out that answer before its time.

And for that matter, God can make a transphysical body out of different stuff that looks just like our original stuff if he wants. So the ultimate point is that the "God can do it" argument works both ways, which effectively takes it off the table for the purposes of debate.
Pinball said…
Now, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

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