February 18, 2019

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Funerals becoming less formal

Culture shift means fewer rituals, more open bars

Insisting upon cremation and requesting no formal service upon your death doesn’t mean you won’t have a funeral, says a theologian and author on a book about death.

“There’s no way to avoid the funeral,” says Thomas G. Long, a Presbyterian minister and retired professor of preaching, who lives on Chesapeake Bay, near Cambridge, Md.

“The carrying of the corpse from the place of death to the place of disposition is the funeral.”

The co-author, with funeral director Thomas Lynch, of The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care speaks about death, funerals and Christian hope at a conference for pastors at Canadian Mennonite University which takes place on Tuesday, and Wednesday.

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Insisting upon cremation and requesting no formal service upon your death doesn’t mean you won’t have a funeral, says a theologian and author on a book about death.

"There’s no way to avoid the funeral," says Thomas G. Long, a Presbyterian minister and retired professor of preaching, who lives on Chesapeake Bay, near Cambridge, Md.

Supplied</p><p>Thomas G. Long</p></p>

Supplied

Thomas G. Long

"The carrying of the corpse from the place of death to the place of disposition is the funeral."

The co-author, with funeral director Thomas Lynch, of The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care speaks about death, funerals and Christian hope at a conference for pastors at Canadian Mennonite University which takes place on Tuesday, and Wednesday.

He says the culture around funerals has shifted from formal rituals to grief management at informal gatherings, and people are more likely to attend a wake or visitation than a funeral.

"Until the last couple of generations, regardless of whether you were Jewish or Catholic, or Protestant or nothing, there was a ritualization of death," Long says in a telephone interview.

The funeral ritual provides family and friends a symbolic way to carry the deceased to their final farewell and on to the great beyond, whatever that may be, Long says.

He says the recent trend to hold celebrations of life without a casket or urn holding the remains means the mourning process has often turned into a party with an open microphone and an open bar, in an attempt to make it seem like there has been no death.

"We are the first people in the history of the world to make the dead unwelcome at their own funeral," the retired professor of preaching says about cultural shifts around funerals.

A Winnipeg minister who has witnessed the move away from church funerals to more casual affairs agrees with Long that the formal service provides a ritualized way of mourning for family and friends.

"It provides a structure of remembrance. There’s value in the structure itself," says Rev. Michael Wilson of Charleswood United Church.

"It honours the fact a life has been lived and is over and deserves something more than a come-and-go (event) or open bar."

Officiating at about 20 funerals a year, including a recent one at RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg attended by 1,200 people, Wilson says his church offers a no-fee funeral to anyone who asks. Yet he rarely performs a funeral for someone he doesn’t know, which is a change from when he started at Charleswood 25 years ago.

"I do fewer funerals of people I’m not familiar with, because I think those people are finding other options," says Wilson, scheduled to offer a formal response to one of Long’s presentations at the CMU conference.

The toughest funerals to perform often involve bitter family disputes or the death of a young person by suicide, adds Rev. Rick Sauer of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in River Heights.

In those cases, the structure of a church funeral can promote healing by acknowledging grief and offering encouragement to survivors, says Sauer, who will share an experience of a difficult funeral at the conference.

"This is part of the role God offers: to be present and to give hope," he says.

Another essential part of a good funeral is ensuring the community gathers to honour the deceased person and retell the life-and-death story of the Christian gospel, says Long, adding that rural communities understand their role in funerals differently than urban dwellers do.

"One of the great gifts of rural understandings of funerals is everyone has a job. Everyone has a job and you care for the living and the dead."

Part of caring for the dead involves moving the body to its final resting place, a task mostly left to professionals in western cultures. No matter how it is done, that final act is a mark of a caring community, Long says.

"We don’t leave the dead among the living," he says.

"The work of carrying the dead is holy work."

brenda@suderman.com

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