I want to be present at my funeral. Rather, I want my body to be present even if it is cremated later. Today at many funeral services everyone is present but the deceased person.
As I watched news clips of funerals of Sandy Hook young school children deliberately shot recently, I noticed the small coffins carried lovingly, gently, to the cemeteries. Their funeral services had the bodies present.
Were any of these small bodies buried or cremated first and the service held later? I don’t know but I doubt it.
Today funeral services, or memorial services as they are called, are often held without the body. Only a few photos, maybe a video of the person’s life and other mementos, sometimes anecdotes, represent the “dearly departed” person. It’s a celebration of life, not death, we’re told.So the body is buried first with just a few people present and the services held later, sometimes weeks later.
Yet such a service is impoverished without the body. Bodies matter, even in death, at funeral services.
Sometime in the 1970s I visited India for an extended period. At one stop we were told on arrival that the infant daughter of one of the seminary teachers had died. In that hot country burial always takes place within 24 hours.
My hostess and a few of us went to the home where the body of the tiny infant was laid out on a bed bedecked with flowers. Friends and family would spend the night here drinking tea, praying and singing.
The next morning, very early, we headed for the chapel for the funeral service. A tiny white coffin stood before the altar. After the service, the entire congregation headed slowly for the cemetery about a quarter of a mile away. At the head of the procession several men carried the precious little burden, followed by the immediate family of mourners, singing hymns of faith and trust. The memory of that long line winding up the hill, women in beautifully colored saris, will never leave me. The body of Christ was upholding the body of one of their members.
Funerals should make a theological statement about life and death. But I don't mean a high-powered evangelistic sermon. These people had supported this young family in life. Now they were performing the final task for them in death --- carrying the body to its final resting place and together stating that life is a journey toward God and we make this journey together as believers in Christ. Bearing the body is evidence of the church in action.
I have another memory of a funeral procession that took place here in Wichita about six years ago. My son’s father-in-law, Preston Huston, had died. At the cemetery the pallbearers, six young adult grandchildren, including three girls, carried the heavy coffin from the hearse to the burial spot. They staggered slightly before they found their balance. In life Grandpa Huston had supported them in many ways. In death, they were now carrying his body. The symbolism was strong.
Today funeral services, often divorced from the body, are a showy, sometimes expensive feel-good service for mourners – to help them get over it and get on with living. To get on with it is today’s mantra. Yet mourning is a process, sometimes a long one, and it begins with saying good-bye to the body as well as the spirit of the person.
Death, the great enemy, is much more than a medical failure or biological ending to a life. It is not just a blip on the screen of life highlighted by a video clip. It is an autobiographical event, especially in the life of believers – a journey onward to God and eternity.
Yes, I want my body to be present at my funeral.