If you go looking for a good book on funeral services, you will look for a while. Eventually, you will end up with one good book in hand: Accompany Them with Singing.
Most pastors I know would rather perform three funerals for well loved saints than one wedding full of family conflict and superficial pageantry. Ask yourself which wedding you performed lately that was really truly “meaningful” and you will probably find suffering or a funeral somehow connected to the story. Funerals are one of pastors’ most significant acts of ministry. So why are there so few books on how to engage them well?
The answer, apparently, is that funerals and worship at the time of death have been absorbed into the counseling sphere. In an interview on his book Tom Long states that “the disappearance of [writing] about the funeral was a major clue. That it had been absorbed into grief and psychotherapeutic literature was a good clue that there had been a shift, but I did not pick up on it.” Though he tries to help pastors realize there is more to funerals than grief care, more to the story of the people of God than a dead body, Long finds it difficult to convince people like you and me. “I can talk for six hours to a group of clergy, and they will still ask “but isn’t it really about grieving?” That’s how powerfully we have been trained in the psycho-therapy model to see death and dying only through that set of glasses. If you believe that even lament needs to be as much or more about God than about us, this book might help you find your way.
How do we know if our funerals have lost their way? Long highlights three elements that are required : necessity, custom, and conviction.
- Necessity reminds us there is a dead body and someone needs to do something about it. It cannot stay the way it is where it is. How are we dealing with that necessity? Are our dealings with it truly Christian?
- Custom is the simple realization that every society from the beginning of human history has found ways to ritually deal with death and the honor the body of the deceased. Christian pastors must deal with the necessity of the body and the customs of the community but what guides their choices Christianly?
- Conviction moves beyond “is” to “ought” and is rooted in the theological concerns of the Christian community.
For the process that includes a funeral to be done “well”, Long suggests it must attend to necessity, custom, and conviction. We cannot hand the entire enterprise over to business professionals, even Christian ones, and expect theological convictions to carry a significant force. We also cannot assume that every custom a community has is necessarily compatible with the convictions of the Christian faith. Long suggests we use this simple phrase when our convictions suggest our way of handling necessity could be more Christian: “consider this alternative…”
Where do we find alternatives to offer? One of the best contributions of Long’s book, perhaps even more significant than his very practical help in officiating funerals well, is a major shift in perspective about what funerals have traditionally been for Christians. Notice Tom Long’s journey toward realizing the difference between today and the past:
“The thing that finally was the figure/ground shift for me was doing the research on the history of the first five centuries of the Christian practice about funeral. I realized that I kept looking for what they did at the funeral. What did they do at the funeral? There was all this about how they would wash and anoint the body and sing and dress it in baptismal garments. They would carry it in broad daylight singing psalms to the cemetery and have Eucharist at the cemetery. Yeah that’s interesting, but what did they do at the funeral? And it suddenly dawned on me that that was the funeral. The drama of carrying the body to the place of farewell, with tear-soaked psalms of gratitude and thanksgiving, to give it back to God and to gather at the table with the saints—that was the funeral.”
Rather than a communal act of moving the body from the place where it died through theologically rich lament and worship to the place of its rest has been replaced, the funeral is now broken up into parts with very few people (even the family) knowing what happens in each of the parts. A sort of assembly line of death has been created, with a personal memorial at the end. God gets a brief cameo somewhere in the funeral sermon, primarily as cosmic counselor. Tom Long again, “everywhere I go the assumption is that grief management is what the funeral is about. That is a very powerful thing. I think that grief is accounted for and is part of the story: the great lament happens, but it is part of the larger script.” The plot for funerals according to Long, is the plot of the gospel not the descent into the soil.
The book is full of practical help for pastors who want to think through the theological, societal, and pragmatic issues related to pastoring at the time of death. The characteristics of a good funeral sermon are there. The elements of a well planned funeral are there. The best part of the book is this realization: the best way to grieve is to gospel. The lament is embedded in the gospel, but the gospel brings meaning to lament. I think Long is right in saying “the most basic need is not to be just comforted but to find meaning.” We need more than grief care at the time of death. To be sure we need that, and pastors for centuries failed to give it. Yet more than grief management, we need meaning for the soul. Otherwise with each death, a little more of our light leaks out.
~ Review by David B Ward, © 2015
Long, Thomas G. Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral
Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox, 2009
Interview quotations taken from: http://www.practicingourfaith.org/pdf/Transcription%20of%20ATWS%20remarks.pdf Accessed, March 2015