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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The State of the Church: Six Feet Under?

The Chatham Interfaith Clergy met at the rectory yesterday, for our annual Epiphany “Scones, Sherry and Proper Tea.” It’s always a great time. I am blessed with wonderful sisters and brothers in the faith we share in the One God of Abraham and Sarah.

Our Roman Catholic brother brought us a brochure that had just arrived at his parish. I’m sure my copy is in the office mail. I’ll read it more carefully later on today.

The brochure is from a local funeral home, informing the reader that it was now a ‘Full Service Funeral Home.’ Not only do they care for your loved one with ‘professionalism’ and your family with ‘compassion’, they also offer concierge service – someone who can help you with everything from a caterer for the funeral repast to hotel accommodations for out of town guests.

They can do a DVD of pictures of your loved one which can be shown during calling / viewing hours. They will then help you take all the ‘actual’ pictures and post them on tastefully done poster boards and position them around the parlor where your loved one lies in state.

Their website will post pictures of your loved one along with the obituary and any personal messages from the family. When you visit the webpage, you can choose from a selection of “condolence cards” which you can personalize and send to the family (no stamps, no running to the CVS to get a card – amazing, right?)

They also offer bereavement services with a licensed social worker, including bereavement support services.

But, wait! There’s more!

The funeral home now offers ‘specially trained’ (doesn’t say where) and ‘certified’ (doesn’t say by whom) . . . ready for this? . . . ‘celebrants’.

These ‘celebrants’ will work with the family of the bereaved to develop a ‘meaningful liturgy’ and ‘significant ritual’ with a ‘personalized eulogy’.

As you can imagine, a very interesting conversation followed. We began by speculating on those who might use this new service . It’s not hard to imagine that for those who are not connected to a church community, this new ‘service’ would be a godsend.

Or, for those who have difficulties with the current or interim pastor, or don’t have a regular pastor.

Or, perhaps for those whose loved one died a death due to alcohol, drugs or the cause of, say, a vehicular homicide.

We weren’t sure how we really felt about it, though. Is this a good thing, really? Should it be viewed as ‘competition’? Is it a sign of the further decline of the relevance of religion in our increasingly secularized culture?

Or, is it a sign that there is a deep hunger for spiritual nourishment which is simply not being met, much less fulfilled, by organized religion?

Is this an indication of the failure of the church to be relevant in the lives of people?

Or is it, rather, an unfortunate reality of the isolation of our consumer-oriented culture?

For many years, a person has not needed to ‘belong’ to a religious community in order to get married. There are Justices of the Peace and Mayors of Towns who do a lovely job. Wedding Chapels, complete with flowers and music have been in existence for years.

Confirmation and Bat Mitzvahs as a ‘rite of passage’ have been supplemented – and in some cases replaced – by elaborate Sweet Sixteen Parties – for boys and girls.

Why does anyone need to be a member of a church or a temple in order to have a ‘meaningful’ funeral service?

Why, you can simply purchase the service you need, when you need it, where you want it.

What’s next? Will ‘naming ceremonies’ replace baptism?

Well, sisters and brothers, how are we feeling about this? What do you think?

Is this a good thing or a bad innovation? Is this a threat or a benefit to organized religion? An indication of failure or irrelevance of organized religion or is it simply a sign of the times?

Is this just a way for funeral homes to keep their business successful at the local level and avoid being bought up by large, national chains?

Our Clergy Group is inviting the Funeral Home to come to our meeting next month to tell us more about this service. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m feeling pretty ambivalent about it, as a matter of fact. I guess I just need to process the information a bit more, which is why I’d love to hear what you have to say.


Mary Sue said...

What’s next? Will ‘naming ceremonies’ replace baptism?

Yeah. Come visit Oregon. They already have. For those who bother with a ceremony.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Oh, man, funerals are turning into what I hate about the modern American wedding. All show, no go. It's all about ME. Want Kenny Chesney to sing at your funeral? No problem, we'll pipe it in. Want all your friends to stand up front and cry and tell embarrassing stories that would make you die if you weren't already dead? We can do it. Personalized casket? We gotcha covered.

Don't get me wrong, certain rememberances and touches are great in a tasteful way. But dammit, a funeral is not just a "This is my life" party. It is about me becoming something BIGGER than me. Even if one is a non-believer, you are becoming part of the big old Earth. AAAAGGGHHH! This makes me crazy!

JCF said...


(i.e., I'm ambivalent, too)

I think it's cynical on the part of the funeral home...

...and other hand, I don't doubt it fills a need.

The Burning Question: WHY does it fill a need?

Because people don't want to deal w/ judgmental religious organizations?

Or because people don't want to deal w/ judgmental religious organizations? (See what I mean?)

There's a degree to which religious bodies DESERVE to be abandoned...

...and there's a degree to which people are weaseling out of having any moral accountability (that a religious body might call them to).

It's complicated.

Unknown said...

Hi Kirkepiscatoid,
My sympathies lie with the bereaved (and also the celebrants at weddings). This is all about a stab at meaning. Much of it seems tacky to me, but I am graced with membership in a faith community, gathering Sunday after Sunday near our parish columbarium in the midst of our dead. Part of the grace of faith is a structure of meaning in which we live, and die, and survive the death of loved ones. Without the support of my tradition and community I would reach out for any symbol that says my loved one's memory has real value.

I think there's some indictment here of the church, that people turn away from the church to other systems and structures for meaning.

You all might remember a tragic story in San Diego a few years ago. A gay man, who owned a bar, died. He was Catholic, and after the RC bishop received complaints from some of his stalwarts, the bishop withdrew permission for a funeral in the family's parish church. That is wrong on so many levels I wouldn't know where to start. My recollection is that the Episcopal bishop reached out to the family, and he RC bishop ended up apologizing to them. But the original message had been sent, loud and clear, and the damage done. How often, in smaller and subtler ways, does this happen at the point of greatest vulnerability for unchurched people? I think this is a conversation that we, inside the church, need to have.

Anonymous said...

I'm with JCF ... another ambivalent for the same reasons.

A very tricky business ...

I notice in reading obits that fewer and fewer funerals involve a church service.

David@Montreal said...

I'm the last person to have any respect or appreciation for the industrialization of funerals- or weddings for that matter.

I do however believe that there is a gift for the Churches burried in this slick packaging and promotion. A chance to ask ourselves how we've missed the connection with the vast majority, who are not even considering Church as a life option any more.

The churches had the same chance in the 60-70 when pews were emptying at an alarming rate, but rather than question the effectiveness of their ministry too many of the more vocal 'religious professionals' chose to rail at the 'fallen' world.

Well here's another chance folks- and what are we going to do with it?

As long as the Church chooses to 'stand apart' behind a hedge of rules & judgemental purity, we shouldn't be surprised at the results.
As I recently heard preached by one of our Church's finest- our Lord when he came to earth didn't choose to spend his life and ministry in either yesheva or too much of it even in the temple- but was right out there- in the everyday lives of real people.

As long as religion is a complication rather than 'Good News' in peoples' lives, the vast majority just might decide they can do without it- or settle for some 'fast food version' with a clearly determined price list.

The only real question in all of this, for me at least, is what are we prepared to learn from all of this?

IMHO it's got to be about the Good News- not packaging!

Kirkepiscatoid said...

JCF is right. It IS complicated. The upsetting part to me is our culture increasingly embraces "tacky" to greater and greater degrees as an attempt to create meaning.

Lou, I think in some degrees it is an indictment of the church, but I also think it is bigger than that. Living in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, it is a safe bet I will go to a vistation/wake or funeral about 15 or so times a year. That is just kind of the "small town thing." I see good ones and bad ones and awful ones.

I have seen some funeral homes seriously exploit families of little means in the name of "personalizing" the funeral. There are also 4 or 5 local pastors who get in cahoots with some of the funeral homes and make a good side income on preaching funerals for the "unchurched." I've seen those folks work the same funeral sermon 5 times in a calendar year. Some "personalization."

It is also a time when, if there is any dysfunction in a family, it will come out in spades. I think it is a situation where the funeral industry can really take advantage of this if they choose.

We had a recent episode in our parish. One of the old guard passed away. Somehow, the daughter (a fundamentalist Christian) managed to commandeer the funeral arrangements so the funeral would be held at the funeral home instead of our church, despite the fact he and his wife had been members for 40 years. It really put our priest in a sticky situation b/c although he was presiding over the funeral, there were all these other people involved from a church he never attended, carrying on like he had experienced a "deathbed conversion".

(What? He wasn't a Christian although he was one of the most faithful in our congregation?)

If that is what families can do, I can also see how funeral homes with "presiders" could commandeer business from the local church, and the whole schtick makes me very uncomfortable. So what Elizabeth is posting on makes me very nervous for a variety of reasons. Sure, the church has only themselves to blame in some instances, but this is also in a way another inroad for "sheep stealing" even among the churched.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It IS complicated, isn't it, which is what led me to ambivalence. This discussion is helping, strange as that may seem. Nothing like pushing at ambivalence to get you to come closer to what it is you really think. Let me sleep on this tonight. Thanks so much for everyone who has contributed.

Fr Craig said...

I'm ambivalent, too. I don't think it has much to do with a rejection of the church - that has already occurred for those who rely on the funeral home. Near as I can tell, funerals are a way for family to get together with friends and each other - had no idea what a social gathering these would be before I was ordained. I refuse to do eulogies, rather I preach the resurrection, and I think all the non-parishioners there basically just nod their heads to be polite. On the other hand, at every funeral some 'outsider' comes to tell me what a beautiful service it was (straight BCP).

I wish we could get out of the marriage business and simply bless a previously contracted wedding. Weddings are a civil function under the law. But funerals are for tending to great pain and often guilt and shame. I don't think a funeral home can offer the only healing for such things - the assurance of God's mercy and love along with some non-judgmental person representing Christ and the church who will simply be present to their pain.

But, I don't see what we can do about it - it all gets back to who is already involved in their parish and who isn't. I've never had a non-member come and ask for a Christian funeral (although lots of people want to get married in the church...)

Hey, EK - what ever happened to the alternative inaugural prayer blog? we're doing a 24 hour prayer vigil leading up to the inauguration and I'd love some prayers to use for that... by the way, it's really igniting some excitement around here (NE Pennsylvania).

Bill said...

Marketing 101: if there is a demand for a product or service, someone will come along to provide it. The service here is not merely a burial service, but a no strings attached burial service. They won’t have to produce documentation proving this or that religion. They won’t have to show that they belonged to a congregation. It doesn’t matter to the funeral home what their sexual preference was in life. This is a cash and carry business: “You stab em, we slab em.”

These services are not for the dead. I have it on very good authority that they no longer care. These services are for the living. This is an effort to bring peace and closure to family and loved ones. The last thing they need is some up-tight and righteous priest criticizing a life style and making demands.

This is a wake up call for the churches. You are not the only game in town. If you don’t start making nice to people, those same people will go somewhere else. And get this K-Mart shoppers they offer something the churches can’t – One Stop Shopping. They do it all.

Fr. John said...

Elizabeth, this whole discussion made me aware of the fact that I do not have a relationship with any of the funeral homes in my area. In the absence of a relationship with area clergy, a funeral home is simply going to do what it must to fill the gap. Whose "fault" is that?

Love to you, darlin'.


JCF said...

there were all these other people involved from a church he never attended, carrying on like he had experienced a "deathbed conversion". (What? He wasn't a Christian although he was one of the most faithful in our congregation?)


This begs the question of whether the Episcopal priest should have presided, if these fundies were essentially having a service FOR THEMSELVES, w/ no respect for the deceased whatsoever.

A parish is a family, too: perhaps a more genuine family, than this man's daughter. The priest should have perhaps only presided at a good ol' BCP funeral, for the man's True Family. (OCICBW)

Muthah+ said...

I have just returned from calling on a family for whom I am doing a funeral tomorrow. The mother of the woman I am celebrating is a member of my congregation. The woman was not a religious person and neither was her family. When I visited with them I did not wear my collar or take my prayerbook. I will not do a prayerbook service, but merely read a passage from John that will be familiar to all those who go to funerals. I am trying to guide a family through grief respecting whatever belief is there, but most of all trying to respect the unbelief that is there also.

If the emerging church is going to have any validity we must be willing to ritualize what people really believe instead of what the Church believes. Faith is about relationship and if we are unwilling to be in relationship with people who for whatever reason have no faith, church or whatever, how can we expect to evangelize them? We evangelize by being the loving presence of God with them even if we do not talk of God or Christ. I have had more people come to my church because they have experienced a loving funeral.

I work in a small town where the funeral director works with the clergy and is friendly with us. He respects the way we work and the constraints that we need to work with and for the most part we respect the situation he is in. I have worked with him on and off for almost 30 years and he is good memeber of the community. I try to also help with the fabric of the community. I do funerals for lots of people who have no church. I offer them the church if they want it, but am willing to work without it because it is the Christ within me that reaches out to them.

I am glad you are going to meet with your funeral director, Elizabeth. But there are more people dying who have NO church and are scared of church than there are church folk who are dying. Clergy no longer are the sole arbiters of the holy and the sooner we clergy realize that, the sooner the church is going to know resurrection.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I love what this conversation is surfacing - so many aspects of this issue I never really considered.

Thank you all so much.

I just had a conversation with a woman from another diocese whose church is in transition. The bishop there will not allow non-Episcopalians to be married in or buried from any Episcopal church in that diocese.

My grandmother would say, "That's cutting off the end of your nose to spite your face."

Kirkepiscatoid said...

JCF, I have to put on the "stick up for my priest" hat. He was the one thing that KEPT that funeral from becoming a disgusting show. He kept their involvement to a minimum. We still did a LOT of BCP stuff at that funeral, and responsive readings, much to the consternation of the fundies. It's just that the little bit that snuck through was pretty creepy, and my dislike of the fundies butting in is probably showing a bit.

In short, he did the best he could with what he had to work with and was loyal to the deceased's spouse and her loyalty to our congregation. There was no way he was going to abandon HER, even though her daughter was trying to throw a coup.

But, as muthah said, this is part of what being an emerging church is all about. We can't shy away from these sorts of uncomfortable things by saying, "You are not having the kind of funeral we are used to so I'm taking my BCP and going home."

I'll be the first to say there were parts of that funeral that grossed me out. But I'll also add that the part I was good with was that the dysfunction in the family was not allowed to totally take over.

(Hey, you ever have a use for a "rector's pit bull?" I do that role pretty well and work cheap. My Lutheran pastor friend often says she would pay good money for one...)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

If I ever need one, Kirke, and you never know, I just might, you're my gal. I know where you live and I'll come find you. Trust me.

Unknown said...

This is a good conversation.

Non-clergy person's thoughts. This is a time for truly radical inclusion (see my earlier post). It's also a time when the best of what the church is needs to be proclaimed in action. The participants may be unbelievers, but I think everybody is touched and comforted when the dignity of the deceased person is upheld and elevated. This is (not was) a Child of God that we remember, celebrate and mourn, no matter what the circumstances of their life or death. I saw in another blog the comment that TEC does gay funerals really well. I think that is true precisely for the reason I just stated.

I am now an Episcopalian, and no longer a Roman Catholic, at least partly as a result of an experience at a RC funeral. The incident didn't, in itself, drive me out of that church, but it certainly was the proverbial last straw. My daughter-in-law is Mexican-American. Her family, not atypically, has an ambiguous relationship with the Catholic Church due to divorces, remarriages, etc. Her aunt died. At the funeral, just before Communion, the priest said (and I am NOT exaggerating) "The invitation to Communion is for practicing Catholics only. If you are not going to Sunday mass, please remain in your seats." He then barked at my daughter-in-law's father because he held his hands the wrong way, or failed to say "Amen" or something, then again at somebody else (who ironically IS a practicing Catholc). Then at the door of the church, after sprinkling the casket with holy water, the priest turned to the congregation and said "I'm sorry if I embarrassed any of you at Communion, but you didn't do what I said." I had the literal physical sensation of something breaking in my chest. I felt dizzy and a little faint. I walked to my car knowing that this gross inhospitality (and there's more I am not going to bother you with) is wrong on every level. But most especially to dis-invite mourners from the Lord's Banquet is truly horrible and is anti-evangelization. I could no longer belong to such a church, and never went back. Two months later I was worshiping at a local Episcopal church. At the invitation to communion the priest held up the elements and said "The gifts of God, for the people of God," and I knew I belonged again.

IT said...

Well, what's a person with no church and no church relationship to do? Especially for a funeral, when emotions are raw and you know you need to do SOMETHING. It's not the time you start phoning churches randomly in hopes of finding a preacher.

When my wife and I were looking at venues for our wedding, the wedding planner at the one we eventually chose had in his information folder the card of a local minister who often presides there. He handed it over, saying doubtfully "I don't think he does same-sex couples". Of course we weren't going to phone and find out.

We had to scramble a bit to find a presider as BP, being Roman Catholic, wasn't going to get any clergy support and this was obviously a civil marriage. Eventually one of BP's choir mates got deputized for the day.

So the funeral home is offering a similar kind of service to the unchurched. How is this any different than the performance of civil marriages, and that minister's card in the planner's info folder?


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Lou, I'm so very sorry for your experience. The RC loss is TEC gain. (That's pretty much how TEC got me from Rome, too.)

IT, I get it. Honest to God I do.