Insights on Death, Dying and Funerals from The Undertaking

by Rebecca D. Higgins

(In my final year of seminary I took a class called Preaching for Special Occasions. One of the occasions which we discussed was funerals. As part of our class requirement we were assigned to read Thomas Lynch’s book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch offers important insights on death, dying, and funerals. The following is my reflection paper on the book.)

An ethereal, black-caped creature points menacingly into the darkness and a man falls trembling to the ground in terror as he reads the words “Ebenezer Scrooge” etched in the granite stone. Such is the movie rendition of Charles Dickens’s timeless tale depicting the inherent fear that the living have of that unknown quality we call death. And yet, as Thomas Lynch, professional undertaker and son of an undertaker, reminds us in his book The Undertaking, death is an inextricable part of living. “Where death means nothing, life is meaningless” (Lynch, p. 117). In order for us to make our lives meaningful, we, like Scrooge, need to be reminded of our mortality. We cannot be memorialized as a dead saint if we have not lived a life that matters.

Unfortunately, too often we have developed habits of pushing anything unpleasant from our consciousness. In our “progressive” society, we try to sanitize and hide the mess of life by over the years installing flush toilets inside our homes and moving our sick and dying outside—away to sterile environments to be cared for by professionals. In so doing, we have attempted silently to sweep away those things we view as “unpleasant.” They become embarrassments to be avoided.

Lynch, however, has another view—a reverent view toward death, dying, and memorializing. Death is the inevitable conclusion of living. Funerals, then, are not something the living should avoid or rush through unthinking, but rather something to embrace with solemnity and respect. “If the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and living are in for like treatment. McFunerals, McFamilies, McMarriage, McValues” (p. 25.)

In MemoryWhy do we bother with funerals and memorial services? The dead no longer care after all. Lynch poignantly observes that “we need our witnesses and archivists to say we lived, we died, we made this difference. . . .  We remember because we want to be remembered” (p. 117). As Lynch’s friend Milo phrased it, “One hand washes the other” (p. 11). We honor and remember the dead, burying them with the realization that one day we will join their number.

Through his observations and stories, Lynch invites us into the sacredness of his profession. While many would shudder at the thought of preparing a body for burial, Lynch and his compatriots view their undertaking not so much as a service to the dead but to the living, caring for the living by treating the bodies of their departed loved ones with dignity and honor. Lynch tells the heart-rending story of a girl raped and brutally murdered, whose body was further damaged by the autopsy. The mortician Wesley Rice could have urged the family to have a closed casket. Instead, he spent hours preparing the body tenderly so that the family could see and have closure. Through his kindness he had snatched the body of the girl back from the brutal clutches of the one who had killed her and returned it to the tender caresses of her loving, but broken-hearted family. Having that visual connection helps families say goodbye. This fact is underlined by the stories of many parents who have had a child become the victim of violence but whose body was never recovered. The agony of the unknown and the inability to lay the body of their child to rest make it difficult for the minds of those parents to be at rest and find closure.

After reading Lynch’s book, I have an even deeper appreciation for those who serve as undertakers. While all such workers demonstrate honor and respect for the bodies of the deceased and to their remaining loved ones, I have personally noted a marked difference between some Christian funeral directors who regard what they do as ministry for Christ and those for whom it is a business in the “service industry.” Such funeral directors provide Christian care in addition to that of the clergy.

With his lifetime of experience in directing funerals, Lynch has pertinent insight for ministers who conduct funeral and memorial services. While the overall programming tendency in some megachurches has been to “entertain rather than inspire, to wow rather than to worship” (p. 87), this should not be the atmosphere of a funeral service. Life and death are sacred and must be treated with proper solemnity and honor. Funerals nudge people to face the inevitable reality of their own death.  We all need to be reminded that our dying will only be as good as our living. Clergy members have a responsibility to include such reminders in the funeral service. They must be cognizant of the fact that just like those to whom they offer comfort in their time of sorrow and troubling questions, they too do not have all the answers. Ministers can, however, humbly offer the comfort and the grace of the One who knows all things. They can direct people’s attention and worship to God, the Giver of life. Lynch reminds us that the gospel message is for those who gather with heads bowed beside a grave. After all, “Easter was a body and blood thing” (p. 21). The comfort that ministers extend to the living is inherent in the gospel:  “for every death there’s some redemption; for every loss an Easter out there with our name on it, for every woe, a return to wooing” (p. 72). That comfort and hope is found in God himself.

There is a difference when conducting the funeral of someone who was old and that of an infant or a young person. “When we bury the old, we bury the known past. . . .  Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort. But burying infants, we bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits. . . .  Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams” (p. 51).

Ministers stand with the bereaved families as they say goodbye to their loved one, old or young. It is appropriate for members of the clergy to remember the deceased in their remarks. Any life lived has had value. Even if it may seem that the individual lying cold in the casket squandered the life given to him or her, words acknowledging their families and even the minutest of accomplishments are important.

Lynch urges people to think carefully about the type of music used at a funeral. It is for the living rather than the deceased and should reflect the sacredness and solemnity of the occasion. There is a difference, he says, “between a funeral with a few tunes and a concert with a corpse down front. Avoid, for your own sakes, anything you’ve heard in the dentist’s office or the roller rink” (p. 126).

As one who has participated in countless memorials, Lynch gives helpful advice—advice of which ministers need to be mindful. Rather than comforting people with empty platitudes and ignoring the very human emotions that rend their hearts in two, ministers must encourage people to feel whatever there is to feel, to find someone to whom they can entrust their questions, anger and tears.  “The only way around these things is through them” (p. 199). While some individuals wrongly urge people not to ask their questions, Scripture reveals that Christ himself understood the humanity of asking questions. Ministers can provide a pastoral presence of care to these vulnerable and hurting persons that will move them toward healing within the grace of God.

Lynch concludes his book with instructions about his own funeral, summarized with the words, “All I really wanted was a witness. To say I was. To say, daft as it still sounds, maybe I am” (p. 199). And there in the nuance between the past and present tense lies the sacredness of this business of life and death—a recognition that a person is so much more than flesh and blood that grows cold and subject to decay—a recognition that our souls stretch beyond the realm of this present time and space into eternity.

Lynch, Thomas (1997). The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. New York, NY:  Penguin Group.

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