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Monday, November 18, 2013

"The Good Funeral" (Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch)

TITLE: The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care
AUTHOR: Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (280 pages).

Many people like to talk about life. Few are willing to talk about death. Truth is, everyone will die one day. They will leave behind loved ones. They will set in motion a series of mourning and bereavement that are flooded with tears, accompanied by sobs, or silenced by grief. How do we treat the dead with dignity? How do we comfort the bereaved with sensitivity? Two persons, one a well-known funeral director and the other a renowned pastor-theologian come together to talk about the topic of death, grief, dying, caring, and preparing for a good funeral. In fact, a good and dignified funeral is the best way to say a permanent goodbye to a life that has ended. This conviction is shared by the authors who also share the same firstnames. Even the forewords are written by two persons of similar backgrounds to the author: one, a brother of the funeral director, and the other, a Presbyterian minister. While Lynch's work orientates him toward an agnostic disposition, Long tries to nuance his understanding and appreciation of different faiths, and at the same time, not compromise on his beliefs. Both know what it means to grieve.

From Lynch's perspective as a funeral director, caring for the dead means learning the rituals of the funeral process. It means helping families deal with the disposing of the dead, helping people consider their options, and the many unanswered questions of life and death. He even cites from the TV series "Six Feet Under" about a family running a mortuary, where every episode begins with a corpse and coincides with the disposal of the body. Amid the mourning and the confusion, there is a great need for practical guidance on what and what not to do.  One of the big issues is money. Using the example of Alan Ball (creator of the TV series), and Jessica Mitford (author of The American Way of Death Revisited), Lynch contrasts how Ball and Mitford agree on the need to pay attention to funeral matters; and how they differ in terms of how the bodies are to be disposed. For death for some is not about a person dying in hospital beds. There are also those who died at wars, bodies not found, or involved in some terrible terrorist attacks. Essential to any funeral is the presence of the corpse, the grieving loved ones, a brief narrative of the life of the dead person, and how they all tie in on the final disposal of the body. On his role as an undertaker, Lynch maintains that often, they are their own worst enemies. They struggle with providing services on the one hand, and yet trying to maintain dignified care for people both the living and the dead. One example is the services and sales they provide. Do they upsell boxes and caskets or do they simply play down the importance of such things at the detriment of their own sustainability? What is a sales pitch and what is a sensitivity message? Pre-arranging funerals even sound morbid in the first place. What is the threshold for funeral directors entering into "insurance agents?" Long recognizes the problem too, that funeral directors can be accused of "cashing in on death." Instead of getting embroiled in the money business and the bickering over sales and services, Long prefers to defend funeral directors as providing a service that is not just necessary, but caring too. Case in point. Just remove the funeral directors and their services, and we will have a huge void between the grieving family and the motionless corpse.

From Long's perspective, he affirms the importance of the body per se, saying that treating bodies with dignity has deep religious significance, that movements and actions are important not in themselves, but in terms of the bodies that made those happen. Despite his Presbyterian background, Long is able to notice how significant bodies are to Buddhists, citing the example of Arai being able to clean her mother's face when the body was discovered after being swept away by the deadly Japanese tsunami in 2011. He notes how caring for the dead is part of Jewish piety; the Early Christians treating executed bodies with such reverence that impressed even the tough Roman authorities; and makes a case for death rites to be done with the presence of the dead body.  Despite sectarian differences, it is important to serve all people through respectfulness and the common identity in humanity.

Cremation is also a topic covered substantially here by both Lynch and Long. Lynch supplies both theory and practice of cremation. While it is highly practical and cost effective, Lynch understands how the act of burning the body can impact the family. Family, friends and loved ones ought to be present at the time of farewell. For the Christian, it is not simply a farewell, but in the gospel, it is a symbolic ushering of the person's "triumphant homegoing" plus giving every family member a "share of the memory." For Long, funerals need a death ritual to provide a movement of emotions, a sense of meaning and hope for all present. Calling a funeral "good" is not rude but provides a sensible closure for a person's journey through life and death. Throughout the funeral, the one leading the service needs to be aware of a movement, a celebration of life, and a hope that remains alive, even when the body is dead. 

Finally, there is a word about the grieving. Long looks at the popular "five stages of grief" and how Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's model has inspired an industry around it. He then builds his case that not only is the model non-biblical, there is something rather artificial about the neatly-packaged stages. While the funeral and the stages of grieving can help move one toward closure, the truth is, for Christians, the object is not to find any kind of closure, but to find ourselves in the greater narrative of God's story, that is unending, eternal, and powerfully triumphant. Lynch ends his contribution with another plea for people, that downsizing the funeral essentially downsizes the "relative importance of the corpse." Put it another way, just having a "memorial service" without the body simply don't cut it because one can do away with the money, but one unwittingly does away with the opportunity to preserve a shared memory as well. Beware of sinking to a "therapeutic level" that honours the living more than appreciating the dead.

So What?

This book addresses a critical need for five reasons. The first is how we deal with our responses to the grieving. Very often, silence is the best response one can provide to any grieving person. If anyone cares to speak at all, one had better have something worthwhile, appropriate, and sensible to say. Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch have many things to say, and their words fill a vacuum that few people dare to enter. Both of them share the common conviction that the dead needs to be buried with dignity, the living needs to be reminded that death is not only real, but may come to anyone sooner or later. We learn about the importance of caring for not just the living family members, but also the dead bodies. Funeral directors and clergy play a hugely important role in being a bridge between the grieving and the dead.

Secondly, there is much fear, confusion, and mistaken ideas about what a good funeral entails. Some people fear the funeral home directors overselling their products and services. Others carry with them mistaken ideas about cremation, death rituals, burial services, and compounded by a mournful disposition, become even more misinformed. The tips and guidance, and especially the perspectives from the experience of Lynch and Long can help clarify the muddled waters of the industry.

Thirdly, it affirms the special role of funeral directors and clergy. There are many books and movies that talk about death and dying, funerals and rituals, but where do we start? It is important that this book is written by two persons well established and who understood the industry and the needs. Readers will also appreciate the fact that funeral directors are aware of the tensions between doing businesses and taking care of the needs.

Fourthly, it gives family members a way to grieve, especially when many are unfamiliar with funeral matters. Worse, without adequate understanding of the purposes of the funeral, people may end up having preconceived ideas of what to do, or misconstrued ideas of what not to do. Without an experienced hand and a knowledgeable guide, the worst thing to happen is to turn a grieving situation worse, making it a nightmare for the living and an improper funeral for the dead.

Finally, celebration of life can be a positive thing but it can certainly downplay the reality of death. One can be overly positivistic that one becomes entrapped by ideals and fantasies instead of reality and down to earth practicality. Grief is not something easily buried. In learning not only to celebrate the life of the person, we can commemorate the person's death through an intentional movement of the death rituals, enabling us to say a tearful but memorable goodbye, that will form a pillar for a good funeral and an honest grieving.

In summary, I give this book a thumbs up because of its comprehensiveness from reasons to rituals; from cremation to burial; from caring for the living to caring for the dead; and the many little things that funeral directors and clergy have done, that so many of us have taken for granted. We may not need any funerals for anyone we know, but sooner or later, people will die, and we will need one.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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