Ask a Funeral Director...(Response)

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Not surprisingly, our friend Caleb Wilde hit it out of the park in his responses to your questions for "Ask a Funeral Director."  

Caleb is a licensed and practicing funeral director in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  He was born from a Romeo and Juliet romance, as his father and mother are the son and daughter of two competing funeral home families.  On his father’s side, Caleb is the sixth generation of Wilde funeral directors and he would be the fifth generation on his mother’s side.  Caleb says he didn’t want to be a funeral director when he grew up.  He always wanted to be a missionary.  After two years with YWAM (Youth with a Mission), he decided that he was called to be both.  For the past 10 years, he has served God in the darkness of death, where God and humanity often intersect.  

Caleb also has a graduate degree in theology, and will soon have a certificate in thanatology. A consultant for a National Geographic project on death, he was recently featured on ABC’s 20/20. He blogs regularly atCalebWilde.com, and is nearing the completion of a book that journals how death has buried his perspective of God.  Caleb hopes to pursue a Ph.D. on the intersection of God and Death.  He is currently without a publisher and a university, so if you can provide either, he promises that “undertakers are the last people to let you down.” 

His responses to your questions are part of our ongoing interview series which has featured everyone from an atheist to a Calvinist to a humanitarian to a nun to a gay Christian to a pagan. You can see all the interviews here. Enjoy! 

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From Marcus: Based on the numerous funerals you've had to observe, what's the one (or as many as you'd like!) suggestion you'd give to pastors?

Marcus, here’s three suggestions:

Orthopathos.

I’ve rarely seen very religious people weep.  Cry, yes … but the body weakening, tears streaming, snot producing weeping? Rarely.

Very religious people are used to putting on a front and/or trying to accept the belief that “it all happened for a reason” that when it comes to grief and loss, they have a hard time realizing it.  They’re trying too hard to act like their immutable and impassible god that doesn’t exist.

Part of the reason death doesn’t affect us is because we have a theology that promotes an unaffected God. I wonder how pastors would approach funerals and the bereaved if we really believed that Jesus not only wept, but he probably still weeps with us today?

For many Christians, it’s too easy to major on orthodoxy and minor on orthopathos.  During death, perhaps there’s nothing more in line with living like Jesus than attempting to feel with the bereaved family. 

It’s easy to say the right stuff. It’s easy to memorize a funeral sermon or two. After some practice, it’s easy to visit the bereaved families. It’s too easy for this to just become a job. And it’s rare to feel as Jesus felt upon learning about the death of his friend and actually weep. 

It may not be your friend that you’re eulogizing; it may not even be an acquaintance, but I wonder how the Holy Spirit would minister through a pastor who communicates orthopathos at funerals? 

And while you might get your orthodoxy right, and even your orthopraxy, if you can find orthopathos, the family will never forget you or the God you represent.

Try not preaching the Gospel.

Pastors are losing touch, and celebrants are taking their place in the funeral industry. The reason for pastors losing touch is that their Gospel is out of touch with the present, as it’s so focused on the future.

Many Christians are more worried about getting the individual soul to heaven than about bringing the kingdom to the world. We’re more worried about getting “decisions for Jesus” than we are about making Jesus disciples who will transform the world now.

 In the context of a funeral, part of “transforming the world now” is addressing death as real, our grief as real, acknowledging the sorrow of God over death, and yet planting that seed of hope in the Kingdom come and resurrection. It’s bringing our memories of this world together with our hope of the world that’s been inaugurated by Christ and is here but is still not yet. The Gospel isn’t about bringing somebody to heaven. It’s about bringing heaven to us. If heaven can be brought to a funeral through good memories, love, tears, laughter, correction, and the hope of Christ, then by all means, preach it.

Allow others to share

Allow others to speak during times of ministry and comfort and during the service. Less of you is more: more laughter, more tears, more people paying attention, more life amidst death, all by allowing the plurality of others' voices to shape the life of the deceased during the service. 

Learning the art of encouraging people to share during the service takes time, but it’s well worth it and starts with a simple question, “Who’d like to share some memories?”  Sure, the service might take longer. Sure, there might be a story or two that makes you feel uncomfortable.  But then, when everyone’s done sharing, they’re ready for you. You, the pastor, who has shared in their bereavement and shared in their Holy Saturday – they’re ready for you to share with them the fellow suffering of Christ in death and the hope of the resurrection.

From Chad: Caleb, what is the best part of being a funeral director? What are the bright spots in the dark business of death? How do you keep your soul alive in the midst of such loss and grief?

Great question, friend!   

This is a picture of some of the Thank You Cards we’ve received over the years.  Each one represents a death.  Each one represents a family we’ve served.

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My grandfather has saved many of these cards that we’ve received.  I’ll often walk into the funeral home and find him rummaging through his pile of thank you cards, reading a letter like this:

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That’s what keeps us going.

From Bobbie: What is the most unique funeral custom you have ever been faced with? What rituals do you find to be most helpful to the grieving?

Great questions, Bobbie!    

From Famadihana (where the body is disinterred and paraded around in a dance) in Madagascar to Sky Burials (the bodies are incised and left for the birds to eat) in Tibet, the world is full of unique funeral customs!

And although I’ve never participated in Famadihana or Sky Burials, I do live near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania … home of the Amish.  

The Amish are unique in life and death.  In death, the only part that a funeral director plays is the embalming.  We embalm the body, and then we drop the body off to their house.  The family dresses the body and the viewing and service is held in the home of the deceased.

Amish cemetery

Amish cemetery

There’s a movement within industrialized nations to go back to a more natural ritual of both dying and death.  In the West, dying and death have become a reflection of industrialization: cold, sterile, left to the professions, in their professional facilities, highly monetized and grossly mechanized.  In dying, a natural death – while not abandoning modern medicine – recognizes that the real professionals are the ones who can best care for the person and not necessarily the body.  In death, a more natural view seeks to have those who cared for the deceased in life also care for the deceased in death. 

The Amish are a prime example of rituals that I find most helpful to the grieving.  Give death and dying back to the family, with the “professionals” acting as the family’s servants.

From Rachel: Does anything about your profession trigger doubts about your faith? Do you ever doubt the afterlife?

Yes.  Most days I question.  Most days I doubt the afterlife. 

After I embalm a two year old, or watch as a spouse screams in agony over the loss of their loved one, it’s hard to believe in the goodness God.  

Here are some traditions that have helped me learn to accept my doubt:

Doubt and silence play a major role in the history of the Church; a role, that for the most part, has been written out of the Protestant and evangelical story.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the method through which they look at theology is called “apophatic theology”, which is contra the Western style of theology in that it speaks silence towards God, who is, they say, in many ways, unspeakable.  Cataphatic theology (the Western style), which is what almost all of us in America do, is the attempt to define God positively, which often involves definition and affirmation.  In other words, our theology often involves many words, while their theology often invokes silence (thus their use of icons as means of meditation during silence).

Doubt and silence has been written out of the Western view of God.

Protestant and evangelicals not only like to speak about God, they also like to assert about God. Doubt it not a part of our paradigm; thus, when somebody begins to doubt aspects of Christianity, it’s frowned upon, whereas in some Christian traditions – especially Orthodox and in some cases Catholicism – doubt is an accepted form of worship.

Holy Saturday is the Holy Day where doubt and silence is the PROPER POSITION of worship. Holy Saturday is the Holy Day between Good Friday and Easter.  It’s a day when we attempt to understand what the Disciples of Christ were feeling during that dark day of death … the day Jesus was in the tomb. 

A day when we try to understand, as the disciples had, the crucifixion WITHOUT the knowledge of the resurrection.  When death and tragedy has cast a dark shadow on life and God, I remember Holy Saturday. 

As odd as this sounds, I’ve learned to worship while doubting both God’s existence and the afterlife.

'Urn' photo (c) 2010, Chris  Murphy - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

From Sam: What are your views on cremation? Do you ever run into pastors who are opposed to it?

Sam, I thought I’d answer your second question first.

Since the joining of the Church and Rome, “Christian burial” was the mode of disposition for the Church in both the East and West.

Cremation – a disposition method that was associated with pagans – was seen as an act of disbelief in the bodily resurrection. During Charlemagne’s reign, cremation was an act punishable by death … supposedly they’d punish those who were doing the cremating and not those being cremated?

In the 1870s cremation was reintroduced in the West.  One hundred years later (1963) the Catholic Church officially okayed cremation, while the Orthodox Church remains in opposition to cremation to this day.

Here’s the Orthodox Church’s reasoning for opposing cremation:

"Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary, or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated.”  (Pastoral Guidelines by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)

Just this week a Greek Orthodox family that we were serving decided to cremate their loved one.  We called a local Orthodox priest to see if maybe he might officiate the funeral and he turned down our request.

What do I think?

From a religious standpoint, I have no difficulty with cremation.  It’s only hastening an inevitable process.  My problems with cremation are more from a psychological standpoint and have less to do with cremation per se and more to do with WHY one chooses cremation. 

As a preface, I should say that I avoid right and wrong binaries concerning dying, death, disposition and funeral customs.  As my friend Caitlin Doughty says, grief produces a “snowflake of despair.”  There is no objective “right”, nor is there an objective “wrong” because our grief work is as individual as our connection to our deceased loved one. 

Instead, I like to see things on a gradient from more healthy to less healthy.  And I can only get a sense of that gradient when I have a trusting relationship with the person who is experiencing the grief. 

With that said, it’s probably healthy for the family to see the deceased’s body to help start the grieving process.  If a family we are serving requests cremation, we suggest they view the deceased if they haven’t had a chance.  It’s healthy to see death, to touch death and to know that it exists. 

It’s probably unhealthy to use cremation as a way to deny the reality of death. 

The first stage of grief work is overcoming denial.  It’s too tempting – especially for those of us in the West who pay massive amounts of money to deny our own mortality – to give into denial by ignoring the sight of death. 

Cremation isn’t healthy or unhealthy in and of itself … just so we don’t use it as a way to get around confronting the reality of the death of our loved one.

From Martha: What about grieving as an act of worship?  I'd love to know your thoughts.  My husband died two years ago.  I thought I was basically through the intense part of grieving, but recent events have forced me to re-visit some grief issues.  How can I see this as an act of worship?  How can I turn this very painful process into worship?

Martha, I am so sorry for your loss. 

In some way, Martha, your painful process is worship.

I wrote an article that was RELEVANT Magazines most popular online article of 2011 that deals directly with your question.  It’s called Worshiping God Through Our Sorrow

It’s by no means brilliant, but I do hope it’s helpful.

From E-grush: I'm a father of two young children (ages 5 and 8) and have terminal cancer. What can I do for them that would be most helpful in the dying process?  And is there anything you can recommend that may help with the challenge to faith that these circumstances present? Most Christians' answers are trite and too easy, in my experience.

I admire your courage in thinking about your children during such a personally difficult stage of your life.  You, my friend, are a father that your children will never forget!

Here are a few helpful tips that I’ve gathered from three separate Counseling journals about how to help your children in both the dying process and in death.  Hopefully one or more are helpful for you:

• Children do indeed grieve, can comprehend loss and experience grief processes.

• Stay close to your children, giving them physical affection.

• Let your children see your own grief and pain; it gives them permission to grieve your loss on their own.  “It will help the child to see the remaining parent, friends and relatives grieve.  Grief shared is grief diminished…if everyone acts stoically around the child, he or she will be confused by the incongruity. If children get verbal or nonverbal cues that mourning is unacceptable, they cannot address the mourning task.”

• Avoid euphemisms.  In and of itself, the concept of death is difficult enough for a child to understand; using euphemisms can only add to the difficulty.

• Advise your children to attend and involve themselves in your funeral.

• Gently help your children grasp the concept of your mortality.  Avoid vague explanations to your children’s questions, but answer each question as honestly as possible.

• Keep other stressing situations, such as moving or changing schools to a minimum.

• Be honest with your children about the depth of the pain he or she will feel.  “You may say, ‘this is the most awful thing that could happen to you.  And it’s the most awful thing that could happen to me.’ Contrary to popular belief, minimizing the grief isn’t always helpful.

If you can, here’s a very practical project you might want to engage in: take the time you have remaining to record videos for your children to view when they are older.  Record separate videos for each of them for when they turn 10, 15, 20, 25, etc. and offer in those videos the experiences that you had at those ages and the lessons of wisdom you learned.  Give the videos to their mother and have her give your children those videos at the appropriate age. 

As to your second question: And is there anything you can recommend that may help with the challenge to faith that these circumstances present? Most Christians' answers are trite and too easy, in my experience.

Trite answers like:

“It’s all God’s plan.”  

“God knows what He’s doing.”  

“You’ll be in a better place.”  

“There’s a reason for everything.” 

I’m sure you heard them all.

Maybe Rachel’s wonderful readership can share what they’ve learned in their times of death and doubt. How have you guys moved past the trite answers to embrace the presence of God amidst tragedy?

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