Does the body need to be there?

The recent death in our family has me thinking, again, about funerals. Not so much the “plain” version as still practiced in smaller and more cohesive settings like the Mennonite settlements of Paraguay, as the ways in which we’re doing it here, in North America. 

Poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch, quoted in the previous post, notes “the disappearance of corpses in the funeral ceremony” and he’s not pleased. “These celebrations are notable for the fact that everybody’s welcome but the dead guy,” he says. “This, to me, is offensive and I think perilous for our species.”

Thomas G. Long, in a recent Christian Century article, “The good funeral,” here, complains about it too, this “entirely new pattern of memorializing the dead,” marked by: memorial services instead of funerals (remains not present), customized rather than clergy-centred rituals, focus on the deceased person’s life, emphasis on joy/celebration rather than sadness, private disposition of the body.

I don’t mean to go all Jessica Mitford-ish here but isn’t it a little disingenuous on the undertaker’s part? Didn’t the bodies disappear already, a long time ago, taken away from us into the North American funeral parlour, to be embalmed and suitably suited-up for their carefully controlled reappearance? 

Long’s article, which I found helpful for its tracing of customs in history, acknowledges as much. The problems to which today’s trends react also concern shifts that happened in the latter part of the 19th century. He says it wasn’t so much “the guild of embalming technicians” taking the funeral away, however, as “church and culture…more than ready to hand it over.” 

But I find myself “yes-but-ing” Long as well.

Cemeteries are separated from us now, he writes, not near the church to help us remember that “the living and the dead are part of one ‘holy communion’.” Yes, but those cemeteries next door could also be brutal displays of who was “in” and who was “out,” judgments we surely had no business making.

Yes, the public gathering is different when the order is reversed — a private burial followed by a memorial, or a service with the body there. But does that preclude accompanying the loved one on “the journey of Christian dead toward the life everlasting”? Can it not be done through the rituals of “the viewing” and the burial that we do?  

It seems to me that’s what’s important in the funeral as far as being Christian is concerned, is the content, the assertions of what we believe, whatever the order, body there or not. Saying, counter-culturally, that we believe there’s life after life on earth. I weighed in on aspects of this in an MB Herald editorial once, here, and want to think that with deliberation, we can do our funerals well, in spite of our inevitable shifts along with the wider culture. Or am I being too accommodating, too optimistic?

The sounds of burial

November is well into summer season in the Paraguayan Chaco and it may be hot today, though perhaps the morning will be pleasant enough. The funeral service for our sister/sister-in-law will be at 9.

We’re not there, of course, as we live in Canada. But our thoughts will be. Already are. — One thing I like about the way the Mennonites in Paraguay bury their dead (which I saw for the first time when our family lived there in the early 1980s) is the custom of the mourners themselves filling up the hole. Here the coffin may be left to “float” over the cavity, or, if it’s lowered,  any dirt thrown over will be symbolic. A machine will come later and take care of it quickly.

But in the Chaco, the men of the family (I only observed men doing this) take the shovels that are waiting and start filling in the hole, and as they tire, others come and relieve them, and while everyone watches, the hole is filled — not just filled, but mounded (for the earth will sink) — and the wreaths that stood in the church are piled on the mound. Only then is the burial complete. “You deal with death, the big notion, by dealing with the dead thing,” says Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker. This custom makes unavoidable the awareness of how death is truly a return to decay, and the earth.

But I learned something else. In H.’s memories of childhood, those sounds — of the clods of earth hitting the wooden box that held the body — were terrifying and gruesome. Others said the same thing. At the last funeral we attended there, he immediately noticed that the earth had been dampened, and that the young men who began the shovelling had been careful to throw it against the side of the cavity, not on the coffin directly.  

So yes, dealing with the dead thing. But for the children standing round the grave this morning, this hope — so nothing will frighten them:

             oh, may the earth be loose and light,

             may it fall as quietly as leaves,

             may it wrap her with a whisper…

            oh, may the earth be loose and light.