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June 10, 2012


FUNerals show that “spiritual, not religious” is no improvement over “organized religion”

When people critique the many and manifest flaws and failures of the church, I look to see if their alternative brings something better.  The classic example is when someone just out of freshman year disses the church because of “all the religious wars.”  OK, then, did western religion’s three biggest replacements - the Enlightenment, Leninist/Maoist varieties of Communism and Fascism - do better at building a peaceful world?  No, in fact they spilled more blood, increased the capacity for global death and created lingering world tensions that ensure conflict for generations to come.

Just bumped into a human interest piece called “Putting the ‘fun’ in funerals.”  As you might imagine, it takes broad swipes at the church while hymning the next new thing:

Allen, who died at age 81 of cancer, didn’t want a “traditional, sad funeral,” said his widow, Ellen, who described him as spiritual but distanced from organized religion.

Wanna know why church funerals seem sad to so many?  Because there’s nothing joyful about handing over to God some person, albeit a very nice person, who never understood, embraced and lived for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

I am glad that folks who don’t believe the Gospel are choosing to do non-church funerals.  I know I speak for many clergy when I say that I get a sinking feeling when I get a request to “do a funeral” for some person who wasn’t part of the church.  If the Gospel means nothing to the departed or the family, a Christian service will of course seem ponderous and sad - because the death of any person apart from Christ is just that. 

But on to some compare and contrast stuff:

Allen’s memorial “shouldn’t be morbid,” said his longtime friend and golfing partner, Bubby Klotter. “He was a very gregarious person. It’s pretty consistent that he would be remembered this way…

Christian burial (and Christianity generally) is faulted for emphasizing afterlife over this life.  A hard core non-believer would go on to say that Christian burial is an exercise in what Freud called an illusion - anesthetizing our pain and fear with made up stuff about an afterlife. 

Do the “spiritual, not religious” do better?

No.  They practice plenty of denial and myth-making themselves.  This usually gathers around phrases like the golf buddy’s quote above: it’s about how we are remembered.

I was at a seminar with a hospital grief counselor.  He did a simple exercise with our group of about thirty people.  He asked if we remembered our parents’ names and what they did for a living.  All the hands went up.  Then he asked the same about our grandparents.  Way fewer hands.  Then he went to great grandparents and maybe one or two hands went up.  His point was that our lives are largely forgotten within one or two generations.  All the blather about “leaving a legacy” and justifying our life by “the memories we create” is empty.

“...A lot of that [non-religious funerals] is being driven by the baby boomer spirit,” said Chris Hammon, executive director of the the Louisville-based Wayne Oates Institute, which trains ministers in integrating spirituality, health and ethics.

“We seek to embrace life a lot more than death — even in death,” he said.

So the “spiritual, not religious” are saying, “We need to do something that makes us feel good in the face of death.”  Any honest pagan should say “Hey, wait, that’s even worse than what those Christians do.  The Christians grieve the death and seek comfort in an illusion of afterlife.  These ‘spiritual, not religious types’ are even in denial about the grief part.”

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise since it’s the “baby boomer spirit” driving this.  My self-absorbed generation binged on divorce, abortion and sundry other dysfunction from which our surviving offspring are still in recovery.  Everything comes down to “me feeling good,” and the FUNeral as a self-medicating space that can’t admit to grief or God’s judgment is an expression of that neurotic disposition.

Am I being mean and harsh?  Not really.  The “spiritual, not religious” are the ones painting the work of the church as “sad and morbid.”  I am simply asking if they offer a better way.  And by any honest appraisal of the ways humans navigate death, they ain’t.


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9 comments

When my dad died in 2001, I still remember the Episcopal memorial service for him.  Except for weddings and funerals, he’d completely given up going to church.  I was living with him before he died but I don’t know what he believed about anything since communication was never something that anybody in my family did very well.  Just before the end, I started leaving these pamphlets of particularly evangelistic Charles Spurgeon sermons by his chair and I know he at least read them.

The service was good even though I don’t think any of the clergy who performed it had ever met my dad.  But there was this vibe that, hey, we don’t care who he was, everybody deserves to be remembered when they die.  It didn’t happen very often but I remember being uplifted by that service. 

For my part, when I die, I have no objection to spending some of whatever’s left of my patrimony on brats, buns, cases of beer and whatever else is necessary for a brief time away from it all.  Keep the service short, blow through it and then go enjoy yourselves for a while.  Given where I’ll hopefully be, I’ll be enjoying myself WAY more than anyone still back here on this plane of existence.

[1] Posted by Christopher Johnson on 6-10-2012 at 01:45 PM · [top]

Based on some of Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 7, I never object to offering Christian burial to an unchurched member of a Christian family. 

There’s an interesting contrast in the older burial offices and the ‘79 BCP.  The ‘79 is more open to personalization which creates some pressure to express certainties about the person.  The older rites, faulted for being “impersonal,” placed all in God’s hands and left the modulation of grief and joy to the survivors.  The prayers and Scriptures are sufficient to state the Gospel message and the people are most gifted to give thanks for a life they shared.

As you say, “But there was this vibe that, hey, we don’t care who he was, everybody deserves to be remembered when they die.”  No objection here, and like I say I think people for whom the church is not meaningful should find another way to honor the departed.

[2] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 6-10-2012 at 02:23 PM · [top]

I thought Christian burial celebrated first the Resurrection of Christ, second the Resurrection of the deceased with Christ as one of His followers, third the promise of our own Resurrection with Christ should we, like the parted accept Him, and lastly in the promise of the Resurrection a celebration of the life of the departed - in that priority order. There is a service for non-Christian burial in the Book of Occasional Services.

[3] Posted by Don+ on 6-10-2012 at 02:50 PM · [top]

Good point, Don+.  It is up to the priest to steward the ceremonies appropriate to the situation and the family to steward the remembrance of the beloved.  We try too often to conflate these in the liturgy and that produces results such as empty gloom, awkwardness and glib insincerity.

I’m reminded of the lib prot funeral at the beginning of a movie - a think it was The Big Chill , in which one of the attendees is mouthing the platitudes just before the minister says them.

[4] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 6-10-2012 at 02:56 PM · [top]

I don’t think a spiritual but not religious funeral for a 6 year old would be much “fun.”

[5] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 6-10-2012 at 04:25 PM · [top]

Wow, Pewster, excellent insight.  Or for a baby.  “Let’s celebrate all his achievements and wonderful qualities!” just doesn’t get it… there needs to be some context.  Even a secular gathering to just mourn is better than some kind of thematic hocus pocus.

[6] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 6-10-2012 at 05:01 PM · [top]

Episcopalians adopting the practice of other denominations - having friends and relatives of the deceased get up and “remember” or “eulogize” the deceased at the service makes my teeth grate.  Worse yet….the open call to have people get up and mumble through unprepared “memories”. 

Good music, good liturgy, a meaningful homily based upon scripture, and communion.  Perfection.

[7] Posted by midwestnorwegian on 6-11-2012 at 06:46 AM · [top]

Re [7] A eulogy about the deceased by a friend or family member that establishes that individual’s connection and service to Christ is a wonderful contribution to the service. Otherwise there is normally a reception of some sort after the service where memories and stories and expressions of connection to the deceased can be made.

[8] Posted by Don+ on 6-11-2012 at 10:45 AM · [top]

Re [4]: And the “hymn” they played on the organ at that funeral was the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  Too true, in that case.

[9] Posted by Cindy T. in TX on 6-11-2012 at 05:46 PM · [top]

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