What makes for a good funeral?
On the surface, it's an easy question to answer. You need a death, a church or funeral home, a pastor or some other religious figure, some mourners.
Oh, yeah -- and a body, too.
You'd be surprised how often the deceased isn't at his or her own funeral, says Thomas Lynch, an undertaker and author of The Good Funeral, who will be speaking at St. Margaret's Anglican Church in Winnipeg Sunday and Monday.
It's Lynch's experience many funerals have become bodiless events -- the dead aren't welcome at their own funeral. This is due partly, he says, to the popularity of cremation. But it's also because more people today find the presence of the deceased at a funeral to be morbid.
In the book, which he co-authored with theologian Thomas Long, Lynch quotes Mark Duffey, a funeral director in Texas. "The body's a downer, especially for boomers. If the body doesn't have to be there, it frees us up to do what we want," Duffey says.
The result, says Lynch, is funerals have become "celebrations of life," with a guest list that includes everyone "except the actual corpse, which is often dismissed, disappeared without rubric or witness, buried or burned, out of sight, out of mind, by paid functionaries such as me -- the undertaker."
So what's the problem with that? For Lynch, not acknowledging the fact of death at a funeral is a handicap. By not dealing "authentically with death," people are unable to "deal authentically with life."
For Lynch, a good funeral is one where the reality of death is faced full-on so the living can get on with their lives without the deceased. Or, as he puts it, "by getting the dead where they need to go, the living get where they need to be."
And where do the living need to be?
They need to "get to the edge of the life they will be living without the one who has died," he says. "In the best of all worlds, the funeral gets the newly bereaved to the brink of that life in the care of a community of support... it gets the mourner poised for the often difficult, often desolate, often lonesome journey ahead."
Done well, a funeral provides the living with "a residual hope that stands the mourner in good stead against the darker nights of grieving," he adds.
Why don't we have these kinds of funerals as much anymore? One reason, he says, is the growing lack of religiosity in North America.
"We've lost the narrative of redemption, salvation, heaven and eternal life, so we are left with the downsized narratives of personal biography," he says.
Without it, many people have no direction for how to bury their loved ones, no rituals to help them process the loss, no way of dealing with "the space between the living and the dead."
As a result, many funerals today don't wrestle with the big questions. "We no longer have funerals for saints and sinners saved by faith, nor for non-believers who wrestle with their non-belief, nor for secular humanists in awe of humanity. Now we have funerals for bowlers and bikers and gardeners and golfers."
For Lynch, bodiless memorial services rob us of an essential experience.
"The presence of the dead embodies, wordlessly, in utter stillness, the raison d'etre for the gathering," he says. It makes possible, and gives significance and meaning to "nervous laughter and the tears, for the wailing and belly laughs, for the entire spectrum of responses and conversations, some holy, some hilarious, all of them focused on the dead and the ones to whom the death most matters."
Lynch, who is also author of the award-winning book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, will be speaking about the idea of a good funeral on Monday, 7 p.m. at Saint Margaret's Anglican Church, 160 Ethelbert St. He will also preach at the church on Sunday at 7 p.m. His presentations are part of St. Margaret's Slater-Maguire Lecture series. For more information, visit www.saintmargarets.ca.