It's not often that a whole nation is talking about funerals. But that's what happened last week, when Jack Layton received his final send-off.
According to Brent Hawkes, the minister who presided over the service, he and Layton began talking about the service in July. Layton, he said, was very clear that he didn't want a traditional service. He wanted it to be upbeat, and for music to play a prominent role.
Watching Layton's funeral, I had to agree that Layton certainly got his wish. His funeral was moving, inspiring, poignant, personal, funny and sad -- just the way he planned it.
But as I watched it, I also wondered: What makes for a good funeral, anyway? More to the point, what makes for a good Christian funeral?
One person who has a lot to say on that subject is Thomas Long, a respected professor of preaching and author of the book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral.
"The Christian church has lost its way concerning funerals," Long says, noting that for a long time Christian funerals followed a fairly similar pattern -- prayers, songs, a simple eulogy and a sermon.
The main focus, he notes, was on God's activity in the world. The primary metaphor was the deceased as a baptized saint who has been on a lifelong, baptismal journey of faith toward God -- a journey that was now ended in death.
"It's a fairly simple picture, but it's actually very profound theologically," he says. "It involves honouring the body and the identity of the deceased, but it also involves the deceased moving toward a new community -- the communion of saints."
For Long, the funeral is supposed to be a drama, a "piece of 'community theatre' in which people act out what they believe about life and death."
But that's not what many Christian funerals are like today -- at least, not most of the ones I've attended. Those funerals were more apt to be celebrations of the deceased's life; some of them felt more like a celebrity roast, but without the subject actually being alive in the room.
In place of a simple eulogy, many of these funerals featured a number of speakers sharing anecdotes, memories and stories about the deceased. Very often, there were also poems, tributes, readings and special songs -- and, increasingly, pictures and videos of the deceased's life, from birth to death.
Of course, there often was a sermon, too. But by the time they began, they almost seemed like an afterthought -- an addendum at the end of what had already been a long morning or afternoon.
For Long, this style of funeral represents a "dramatic and fairly sudden departure from classic Christian funeral practices."
In place of liturgy, ritual, worship and the central role of clergy, Long says, today's church funerals are more like a memorial service instead of a funeral, focusing more on the deceased than on God.
"The trend lines are clear," he states. "It is apparent that funeral practices for all Christians, as a part of the larger culture, are moving at various rates of speed toward this new pattern."
But what could be wrong with celebrating the life of the deceased? Nothing, says Long; it just should be done separately from the funeral -- at the viewing, after the service or during some other special event.
The focus of the funeral, he says, should be on God, not the deceased. It's a time to reflect on the "the grand cosmic drama of the church marching to the edge of eternity with a fellow saint, singing songs of resurrection victory and sneering in the face of the final enemy."
The change in Christian funeral practices isn't only a North American phenomenon, or even just a Protestant one; it's something Catholics in Australia have also wrestled with. A year ago that church created guidelines banning football club songs, pictures and videos and pop or rock music at funerals held in its churches.
According to the guidelines, the wishes of the deceased, family and friends should be taken into account, but the church should "moderate any tendency to turn the funeral into a secular celebration of the life of the deceased."
In a pastoral letter, Denis Hart, Archbishop of Melbourne, noted that "our funeral services are getting overloaded -- a lengthy combination of a commemorative event, a wake, a liturgy. . . the result is that the funeral can become more like a secular memorial service with several eulogies or audio-visual presentations with secular readings and songs."
The goal of a Christian funeral, he went on to say, is to "acknowledge where families are at in their faith journey in life, but also to lift up their hearts to discover how deep is God's love through the proclamation of the Scriptures and the sharing of the Eucharist."
Does that sound like what you want your funeral to be like? If yes, then maybe now is a good time to leave instructions with your family and friends about what you want your final send-off to be -- just as Jack Layton did.