Accompanying them with singing: a Christian reflection on the theology and practice of funerals

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One of the most moving places I have ever been to is a countryside churchyard in western Finland. I was in Finland for an ecumenical conference and those of us at the conference had gone to say morning prayer at the local Lutheran parish church. After the service I visited the church yard and was struck by row upon row of identical black gravestones with the names of the dead carved on them in grey. Seeing those grim black gravestones in the half light of a November morning in Finland was intensely moving.

When I asked who the dead were, I was told that they were the Finnish dead from the wars that Finland fought against the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany from 1939-1945. It was also explained to me that early in these wars the principle was established that 'the boys would be brought home.' Wherever Finnish servicemen died every effort was made to bring them home to their parish church for a proper Christian burial.

If we ask why it was so important to bring the boys home, the answer is that it was because Finland was a Christian country and consequently accepted the ancient Christian tradition that the bodies of the dead should be treated with proper respect.

It was a similar reflection of the Christian tradition that could be seen in this country when from 2007 -2011 the streets of Royal Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire were time and again lined with those who wished to pay respect to the bodies of the service personnel who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and who had been brought home via a flight to RAF Lyneham. People instinctively felt that the fallen should be treated with proper respect and that this meant showing honour to their bodies when they were driven through the town.

Was it not often realised is that the Christian tradition of honouring the bodies of the dead was strongly countercultural when it first began back in the days of the Early Church. As the American theologian Thomas Long comments in his book on Christian funerals, Accompany them with singing, drawing on the earlier work of Margaret Miles, one of the most bizarre forms of early Christian activity in the eyes of their Roman neighbours was:

'... the Christian practice of burying the dead - not just their own dead, but the poor as well. In Roman society, the bodies of poor people, if left unattended, were dumped in a common pit, a paupers' grave. Respectable Romans were horrified by the inhumanity of this, and some of them even formed burial societies to ensure that no person would go without a proper burial. However, despite the lofty rhetoric of these charitable organisations, nobody actually wanted to do the dirty work of burial, of handling a dead body - except the Christians. Not only did they volunteer to bury the dead, Miles says, they 'insisted on gathering the bones of those who have been executed full refusal to renounce the Christian sect. They put these bones in a place of honour and described them as capable or possessing the sanctity of the living holy person.' Educated secular Romans were convinced that all of this concern among Christians for bodies could only be the product of ignorance. One well-placed Roman, Miles reports, speculated that the Christians who were willing to bury the dead as an act of service were surely 'fleeing from the light,' in short, ignoring the enlightened wisdom but only minds and souls were spiritual more bodies were corrupt 'bags of dung' and worth nothing except to be despised. In other words. Christian attitudes toward the body were as counter cultural in antiquity as they are today, if not more so.'

If we ask why the early Christians adopted this countercultural attitude to the bodies of the dead and the practices that went with it, the answer is, Long says, that they based it on 'their theology of creation and their experience of Jesus Christ.' Their theology of creation told them that God had created human bodies and that like everything else created by God they were 'very good' (Genesis 1:31). Their experience of Jesus Christ told them that the bodies of the Christian dead have eternal value because, like the body of Jesus, they will one day be raised to share life with God forever.

To put it another way, Christians have seen, and continue to see the embodiment of human beings as a gift from God that should be celebrated not only during life, but also at the point of death. As Long argues, this means that a Christian funeral is, or should be, a piece of liturgical drama that has certain specific characteristics that link the funeral service to baptism:

'When Christians, travelling along the baptismal path die, the company of the faithful who were there to guide them at the beginning are also there to carry them at the end. In baptism, new Christians are 'buried with Christ by baptism into death' and they come up from the waters raised 'to walk in newness of life.' In funerals these same Christians, having travelled the pilgrim way, are once again buried with Christ in death in the sure confidence that they will be raised to new life. In baptism the faithful sang them into this new way of life; and now they gather around to sing them to God in death. Just as they washed the new Christian in the waters of baptism, they now lovingly wash the body of the deceased. Just as they adorned the newly baptised Christian with the garments of Christ, they now adorn the deceased in clothes fitting to meet God and perhaps place a pall, a symbol of the garments of baptism, over the coffin. As the Church has been travelling with the baptised saint on the road of faith, the church now walks with the deceased on the last mile to the place of farewell.'

The Christian theology of human embodiment and the Christian understanding of the funeral as ritual drama that flows from it has three consequences that I think Christians need to bear in mind today.

The first consequence is that Christians need to challenge a popular view of death that fails to do justice to its reality. This popular view of death is reflected in a well known anonymous funeral poem that runs as follows:

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there,
I did not die.

From a Christian perspective this poem is wrong on two points. (a) The dead are most definitely dead, just as we affirm in the Creed that Jesus most definitely died. (b) The dead have not been dissolved into the forces of nature in some form of limitless reincarnation. The dead, although dead, remain human. Their human souls have gone to be with God and to await the coming of the new creation and their human remains, whether in the form of corpses or ashes, are in a specific place (or places) where they will remain until God reunites them with their souls at the last day.

The second consequence is that a Christian funeral service needs to be more than just a time to recall the life of the person who has died, important though this is. Instead, it also needs to be an occasion in which thanks is given to God for the person who has died, both for his creating them, and for giving them new life in Christ. It needs to be an occasion in which the Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life is proclaimed. It needs to be an occasion in which a person who has died is committed into God's keeping for the next stage of their Christian journey. Finally, it needs to be an occasion when the body of the departed is interred or cremated - where there is a body to be buried or cremated.

The third consequence is that, if at all possible, the body of the dead needs to be present at the service. Their embodied presence as part of the Christian community now takes the form of a dead body and so their body needs to be with their brothers and sisters in Christ for this point in their journey, just as they were there for their baptism and were there week by week for Sunday worship and at other times. The Coptic Christian tradition in which the body of a dead Patriarch is seated in full regalia on the Patriarchal throne one last time to be greeted by the faithful may strike Western Christians as slightly ghoulish, but it unmistakably makes the point about the embodied presence of the Christian dead and is much better than viewing them as present only through memory or by means of a photo montage.

The fourth consequence is that the faithful should accompany the body of the dead person all the way to interment or cremation. Their earthly journey does not end until they get to that point and their Christian brothers and sisters should go with them all the way.

The final thing to note is that all that has been said means that Christian must object to, and protest against, the practice of a cut price 'direct cremation' which is currently being regularly advertised on television. Having the dead taken away for an unattended cremation with the ashes being returned later goes against all the theology and good Christian funeral practice I have just outlined.

As Christians have always insisted, there needs to be a proper Christian funeral service in which, where possible, the dead are present in the form of their body and in which all the elements of a good funeral liturgy are also present. This is the last act of Christian service that Christians can provide for a dead brother or sister in the Lord and it should not be denied them. It may cost money, but it is money that deserves to be spent. The post funeral bun fight is optional, a proper Christian funeral service should not be.