10 11 11 Rethinking Funerals

Sometime in early spring this year a friend of a friend made his burial wishes clear shortly before he passed away. He instructed his son to build a simple wooden casket, informed the family he did not want to be embalmed, and that his trusted old pick-up truck was to serve as the hearse. The family complied. They buried his body the day after he died and then held a memorial service a number of days later.

This event got me thinking about the way we generally do funerals. One is tempted to think that present practices are the only “proper” way of doing it. Why would one even want to spend time rethinking funerals? But a lot of people are doing exactly that these days, and I think this is a good thing.

A good place to begin this process is to learn about the history of funerals. In my own tradition, a funeral was a communal affair, as it still is in many Mennonite villages in Latin America. Abram Schmitt describes such a funeral in his book, “Dialogue With Death.”

The body was prepared by the women-folk…The grave was dug by the husky young adult males. The coffin was built by the most skillful local capenter…Everyone of the one hundred villagers had to get involved if in no other way than to attend the funeral or at least see the men closing the grave with shovels…Every detail of the death was told over and over again with every person, to the youngest child, included in the conversation. What a natural healing process…

Later in the book he compares this experience to our present practice. The efficiency, the cleanliness, the systematic way of picking up, preparing, displaying, and finally disposing of the body without involving a single family member except to pay for it (seems) far superior to the cruel experiences of my past. Yet in later reflections, Schmitt comes to the conclusion that the village funeral was by far superior to the standard funeral conducted today.

Such a comparison forces one to ask a lot of questions, as many are doing these days. Why do we leave everything to the professionals? Why does a body have to be embalmed and how toxic are the chemicals used in the process? Are open-casket funerals necessary or even desirable? Why do we need expensive caskets that are not biodegradable? Why place the casket in a cement or wooden vault? Is cremation a desirable option or does it create more pollution than traditional funerals? For how many years do I want people to spend time and energy trimming my grave - fifty, one hundred, five hundred? How “green” can a funeral be?

Jack Heppner