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?