There is a running joke among the members of my family that originated at the time of my grandmother’s death in 2002. While it may be funny now, it was a bit disconcerting then. It went like this: My grandmother passed away close to Thanksgiving that year, and a call went out to family members spread across the United States to prepare for her funeral. My grandmother died in Connecticut and would be buried at the family plot in New Jersey. Whether the result of being overcome by grief or the product of a strange naivete, my cousin Joseph, who lived in Arizona where he taught high school, announced to everyone on the email thread that it was just too busy a time for him to come to New Jersey, and pointedly asked if we could put grandma “on ice” and have the funeral at a more convenient time?
Well, you would have thought the Apocalypse had dawned with the reaction he received from other family members. My family on my mother’s side is southern Italian and a funeral takes place within three or four days of death, with EVERYONE present. My cousin did attend, but only after a severe reprimand from my aunt. To this day Joseph is needled at family gatherings whenever ice cream is served — “Is this what you had in mind for Grandma, Joe?”
This incident in my family’s history took on a different meaning after I arrived at parish in North Carolina on a pastoral ministry assignment. The parish invested, some years back, in a columbarium and memorial garden alongside the church building. Tastefully appointed, tranquil and serene, the columbarium consists of 792 niches and there are plans to expand the garden to meet rising demand for spaces. All very good and very sensitive to the problem of shortening supplies of available land for inhumation burials. Ideally, perhaps, the burial of cremains would be preceded by a funeral liturgy in the presence of the body of the deceased. In an inclusive way the family is able to revere the physical life and body of the deceased, after which liturgy the cremains are placed in an appropriate place of remembrance.
While this obviously necessitates a gap of time between funeral liturgy and burial, I have witnessed this movement as one of completing a circle of remembrance, which illuminates not only the life of the deceased, but also “the promise of immortality to come.” The connection between the physical body and the dust “to which we shall return” is given powerful and poignant emphasis in this ritual action.
That is, however, when the physical body of the deceased is, at some point, present. This is not always the case; from my experience the growing trend is a liturgy with cremains alone. The body of the deceased, whether death occurs in hospice, hospital, or the home, is quickly taken away to be cremated with the funeral liturgy focusing upon an urn alone. Again, this is perfectly acceptable and ritually valid according to the Order for Christian Funerals, even if more effort might be necessary to connect the orations of the funeral liturgy with what are now the remains of the deceased and not the deceased’s physical body.
A more puzzling trend I have encountered, however, is the growing tendency to delay the funeral liturgy after cremation has occurred. What this means is that after death, preparations for waking, keeping vigil, and burying a loved one are not immediate. Waking or keeping vigil are often not observed at all. Rather, the body is cremated and the deceased’s family and friends decide a future date on which to hold the funeral liturgy. This decision is often made to allow as many family members the time to make preparations to free their schedules and attend the funerary services. Sometimes this date is one, two or even four or five months after death.
I refer to this trend as puzzling because it raises questions for me as both a minister and as an eventual presider at the liturgy. The first question surrounds the idea of “convenience.” In as a commodity driven society as is the United States, does this practice inadvertently turn death into something that “fits into our schedules?” More than just putting grandma “on ice,” does it communicate, “While grandma’s death was inconvenient, her funeral will not be.”
A second question ponders grief and mourning as well as sure and certain hope in a purposefully delayed funeral liturgy. The experience of grief and mourning in the presence of one who has died or having learned about the death of a loved one is one part of a great movement in Christian funeral ritual. What accompanies this sorrow to remind family and friends of the hope Christians possess in the midst of death if ritual expression is delayed? When the family gathers after weeks or months to celebrate the funeral liturgy is it expected that they should have been in a constant state of mourning to this point or are they expected to reignite grief and sorrow, which may have become dormant. Does this take a toll on the ritual’s ability to foster care and belief in God’s mercy and love?
A third question addresses death itself and contemporary society’s pathological fear of it — does this trend contribute to reinforcing this fear? Death is the greatest of all boundary situations we human beings face. To encounter a physical body devoid of the life it once had can be both an unsettling and a probing experience of life and faith. The presence of a sealed urn or box communicates in a very different way the memory of the individual whose life is remembered. Does a quick move to cremate and then delay a funeral liturgy rob us of such a necessary encounter where ritually we are challenged by the truth that “for God’s faithful people, life is changed not ended?”
These are just a few questions that come to me as I reflect on this sometime growing practice in Christian funeral liturgies. There are perhaps many others and just as many insights into how this may be good practice. Navigating through death is a great challenge for any human being, but most especially it challenges a believer to affirm what is so easy to deny — “in the sight of the world [our loved one] is now dead; [but in God’s] sight [he/she] may live for ever.” In ritually experiencing the fullness of transition from earthly life to the promise of life beyond death it is important to assure engagement with that fullness in as profound a manner as possible; convenience notwithstanding.