Good grief: On attending to the body and not just the soul in death

[Viewing Casket, Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2006]

Many thanks to Rob Moll for pointing me to the following wonderful article on death and funerals by Thomas Lynch. The article is years old now, but Lynch, who is a funeral director, has a message that we still need to hear. And because I know from looking at the statistics on this site that many readers don’t click through the links to articles that I provide, contenting themselves to read just the excerpt in the blog page, I want to excerpt here the part of the article that I found most powerful–its ending. 

But let me say: the whole thing is well worth reading (despite the frequent typos owing to poor scanning and editing). In the first half of the article, Lynch challenges eloquently and effectively the super-spiritualizing presumption that my body, your body, in death even as in life, is “just a shell.” The argument is particularly poignant for me, as I have just in recent weeks attended my grandmother’s memorial service–that convenient gathering at which the body (“shell”) is notably absent, except in this case by the representative urn of ashes. Here is the conclusion to which that argument leads:

Among the several blessings of my work as a funeral director is that I have seen the power of such faith in the face of death. I remember the churchman at the deathbed of a neighbor — it was four in the morning in the middle of winter — who gathered the family around to pray, then helped me guide the stretcher through the snow out to where our hearse was parked. Three days later, after the services at church, he rode with me in the hearse to the grave, committed the body with a handful of earth and then stood with the family and friends as the grave was filled, reading from the psalms — the calm in his voice and the assurance of the words making the sad and honorable duties bearable.

I remember the priest I called to bury one of our town’s indigents — a man without family or friends or finances. He, the gravediggers and I carried the casket to the grave. The priest incensed the body blessed it with holy water and read from the liturgy for 20 minutes, then sang In Paradisum — that gorgeous Latin for “May the angels lead you into Paradise” — as we lowered the poor mans body into the ground. When I asked him why he’d gone to such trouble he said these are the most important funerals — even if only God is watching — because it affirms the agreement between “all God’s children” that we will witness and remember and take care of each other.

And I remember the Presbyterian pastor, a woman of strength and compassion who assisted a young mother whose baby had died in placing the infant’s body into a tiny casket. She held the young woman as she placed a cross in the baby’s hands and a teddy bear at the baby’s side and then, because the mother couldn’t, the pastor carefully closed the casket lid. They stood and prayed together — “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change” — then drove with me to the crematory.

Or the Baptist preacher called to preach the funeral of one of our famously imperfect citizens who drank and smoked and ran a little wild, contrary to how his born-again parents had raised him. Instead of damnation and altar calls, the pastor turned the service into a lesson in God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. After speaking about the man’s Christian youth, he allowed as how he had “gone astray” after he’d left home and joined the army. “It seems be couldn’t keep his body and his soul aligned,” the young pastor said, and seemed a little lost for words until he left the pulpit, walked over and opened the casket, took out a harmonica and began to play “Just As I Am” while everyone in the congregation nodded and wept and smiled, some of them mouthing the words of promise and comfort to themselves.

In each case these holy people treated the bodies of the dead neither as a bother or embarrassment, nor an idol or Icon, nor just a shell, They treated the dead like one of our own, precious to the people who loved them, temples of the Holy Spirit, neighbors, family, fellow pilgrims. They stand — these local heroes, these saints and sinners, these men and women of God — in that difficult space between the living and the dead, between faith and fear, between humanity and Christianity and say out loud, “Behold, I show you a mystery.”

The full article may, and should, be read here.

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