The Strangeness of Loving Funerals
A friend of mine who serves as a church musician attended a memorial service recently and following the event, offered reflections that needed something of a disclaimer. “I hope this doesn’t come across wrong,” he wrote, “but I really love funerals.”
I love funerals, too; leading funeral services is one of the great privileges of ministry, at least in my experience. This is probably because it is where the spiritual significance of my work is most obvious. The love shared between the deceased and those who mourn is expressed so clearly at funerals, and love is beautiful even when its expression is occasioned by death. Plus, who could deny the power of community and ritual on display during visitation and funeral services? These are the occasions that set the grief stricken on a path towards remembrance, healing and a new normal.
And yet I understand the disclaimer. It would not occur to most people to say that they love funerals. The gifts of grief can be recognized with time and from a distance, but the work of mourning is so painfully difficult in the moment and deep sadness has a way of eclipsing all else, at least for a while.
Balancing Life and Death
Christians are faced with a tricky balancing act when it comes to our stance toward life and death. We believe in the sacredness and value of life and we also believe that death is an inevitable part of our existence. Christ went about a ministry of comfort and healing and yet also taught that it is a blessed thing to mourn.
So how should Christians regard the prospect of death? Is it OK to accept it or would that somehow demonstrate a lack of belief in God’s capacity to heal? Is it a necessary consequence of a belief in the value of life to pursue aggressive and likely painful treatments that may or may not extend a life span?
Are Pastors Helping?
In an article for The Association of Religion Data Archives, David Briggs summarizes the findings of two recent studies on faith and end-of-life treatment. The studies suggest that “many clergy are both ill-prepared and reluctant to fully engage in end-of-life conversations with terminally ill congregation members and their families." The result is that many believers spend their final days “enduring painful treatments with little chance of success in intensive care units rather than receiving comfort care at home.”
From the perspective of Briggs and others who have set out to study these trends, clergy can and should do more to support decision making that is grounded in faith while also minimizing unnecessary physical and spiritual suffering. Religious professionals are held back, however, by a lack of medical knowledge or by an unwillingness to speak to a perspective on death and dying that runs counter to a patient and family’s initially stated desires.
What is there to be done if something is indeed out of balance when it comes to our stance toward death and dying? Perhaps we as faith leaders could speak more often and more clearly to the value of comfort care at the end of life, and do so from a theological perspective.
Simply put: let’s make it OK to die. Don’t feed into the idea that death is somehow a failure, whether of medicine or of faith. It is a nonnegotiable aspect of our creaturely existence, of our mortality, that we will someday die. So we should be able to make peace with that reality while also retaining our belief in the value of life and in God’s ability to heal.
We might even frame the acceptance of death as an act of faith in and of itself. By accepting death and dying well, we trust that we are in God’s good care “whether we live or whether we die.” We acknowledge that not everything can be healed and set right in this world, and we trust that God’s intentions for us will be fully realized in the world to come.