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The new American way of death

Culture

We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the funeral director, who with soft voice and soft hands gently steers the bereaved toward the high-end cherry-wood casket and the $10,000 Perpetual Care plan with subtle hints that, after all, we don’t want to send our dearly departed off with anything less than the best. Always good for satire, but the model is changing fast. From taking charge of the body and all arrangements from embalming to entombing, the funeral director is now is taking a backseat to the event planner.

Such as the owner/operator of Faith Moore and Associates, who expanded her special-events business to include funerals—or rather, memorial services, where the body has been quietly disposed of, usually by cremation, and the bereaved gather not to reflect on death but to celebrate life. It’s like a wedding, says Faith Moore: “people eat and drink, you have music, you have special touches, you have linens.” And you have a bill: “In a major, upscale environment that’s $150 to $250 a head.” This might include the mourners (not that they call them that) gathering at a meaningful location for the deceased, an open mic for recollections, playing and/or dancing to favorite songs, champagne toasts at sunset, and a “No Tear Zone.”

The replacement of funerals with “Life Celebrations” comes naturally to the post-WWII generation, who are accustomed to shaping reality to suit themselves. As young adults we heard that “death is a part of life,” along with confident-sounding assertions about what comes after. This is pure foolishness. Death is not an anodyne “part of life,” but just the opposite: a penalty (Genesis 2:17), an unclean thing (Numbers 19:11), the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). And what authority have you, O man or woman, to dictate the terms of your hereafter—you who can’t even get out of a speeding ticket in this life?

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Before we get too smug, Christians have also deviated toward the way of the world in their funeral/memorial practices, at least according to Thomas G. Long, who sought to correct the trend in his book Accompany Them with Singing. Moore, a professor of preaching who has studied early Christian burial practices, believes that the memorial service defeats the purpose of a Christian burial, where the believer is shown bodily on a pilgrimage to heaven. The body represents the saint’s final stage of transition from death to life and his or her place in God’s story of redemption. Cremation is not forbidden, but neither is it ideal, because it obliterates the body and blunts Paul’s beautiful language of 1 Corinthians 15:43: “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.” A funeral is the Christian’s opportunity not only to preach the gospel, but also to embody it.

The event planners are right about this: These final ceremonies should be planned. If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking about what people will say about you at your funeral, you might also consider what your funeral should say.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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