Dying and living in America (part 1)

Benjamin Being Catholic, Church meets World

As the Catholic Church was pondering the resignation of Pope Benedict and saying goodbye to a beloved shepherd, my grandmother unexpectedly died at the age of 79. This meant that I almost completely ignored one of the most talked-about events of the year in order to focus on something that was, in a personal way, much more significant.

My father’s mother, Dorothy, was known to all of us as Grammy. She was a wonderful woman who always welcomed you to her house with home-cooked meals, followed inevitably by at least one dessert. She loved to sew, knit, and crochet, and she often expressed her love with something she had made herself. She enjoyed this sort of “work” so much that she never seemed to have enough grandchildren to wear out her desire to make things for them. I could not finish a phone conversation with her without hearing, several times, that she loved me. She is greatly missed.

As a priest, I have often led family through this process of saying goodbye, but it was different being part of the family of the deceased, and I want to share some of what I learned.

This experience confirmed an intuition I had as a young priest which was that the way we do funerals in America is strange. The funeral is the central part of the “funeral industry,” which at best a service-sector job, and at worst is a profit-making enterprise. Even those who see this work as a service believe that the service they offer is to make the experience of burying your loved one as comfortable as possible. The body of the deceased is covered with layers of makeup so that it does not look like what it is: a dead body. Everything is made as smooth as possible by the funeral director, who is there to do everything for the family unless they ask to do it themselves.

This attitude is taken so far that most American funerals never accomplish the main purpose of a funeral, which is to bury the dead. The grave itself (if the family wants to go to the grave) is ringed with fake grass so it does not look like what it is: a hole in the ground. A frame is fixed over the hole to hold the coffin while the family gathers around and the minister prays. When the prayer is over, the coffin is left dangling above the hole while the funeral director steps forward to tell everyone that the service is over and the can all go away now. This unfinished ending always bothered me as a young priest, and I was just as bothered by the fact that no one else seemed to mind; they obligingly got in their cars and drove away. After the family is safely out of sight, the graveyard worker lowers the casket and fills in the hole.

At my grandmother’s funeral, not only were the seven sons and sons-in-law pallbearers, but my grandfather insisted on being part of this as well. He was not content to sit in the pew, but he wanted to do something for his wife of 57 years; he wanted to walk her down the aisle one more time. When the funeral director understood this, he simply guided the casket from the front while my grandfather and his oldest son pushed the casket, and the other six men walked on either side.

Fr. Joel requested that the graveside service include lowering the coffin into the ground. The funeral director was clearly uncomfortable with the idea and said he had never done this before, but my brother said he had done this and it worked very well. My brother chanted a psalm while the coffin was lowered into the grave, and after the blessing my mother led the family in pulling flowers off the flower arrangements and dropping them onto the coffin. It was a touching moment, and we were all free to go with the sense that we had done our duty and she was now resting in her final resting place.
Monastic Funeral
I freely admit that were are not a typical family, especially with two priests among us, but the experience taught me two things for my future ministry. The first is that the “typical” approach to church is similar to the “typical” approach to funerals. Even the most committed churchgoers tend to expect the priest to do what they can and should do for themselves and for their loved ones. They expect the priest to handle the questions on religion, they expect the Church to do the praying for them, and they expect the “professional” catechist to teach their children and prepare them for the sacraments. We need to help people to be able share their faith with their co-workers, rather than offering to do it for them. We need to help parents to teach their children the faith, rather than teaching their children instead of them. The Church is here to help people to pray, not to pray instead of them. We need to help people bury their dead, not bury the dead for them.

A second thing I learned is that, just as the funeral industry tries to make the experience so comfortable that the funeral does actually bury the body, so there is huge pressure on the religious establishments to make church such a comfortable experience that it does not change the heart. There is a powerful culture among the clergy of wanting people to feel welcome, which goes to such an extreme that we avoid any topic that might disturb people and “forget” to mention a holy day of obligation because we do not want to interrupt people’s plans.

Secular culture is getting louder and louder in its demands that the Church change the teachings that are inconvenient and bend over backwards to help secular culture in its efforts to hide the uncomfortable parts of life, to make the dead bodies look pretty, to cover the graves with fake grass, and to interrupt the challenges of life somewhere in the middle and invite everyone to go distract themselves. This not how God acts, and it is not how the Church should act, but trying to act differently is a huge challenge.

One more insight that I have as I reflect on my grandmother’s life and death is that it helped me to see more clearly how differently we can and should be living. While my grandmother loved to sew, we have become comfortable with having our clothes sewn by sweatshop workers in China. While my grandmother loved to cook for others, we have become comfortable with feeding pre-made “baby food” to our toddlers, with buying take-out, and with heating up frozen meals for our loved ones. In a similar way, we have become comfortable with paying professionals to watch our children, to care for our sick, and to bury our dead.

There is a place for professional help, but this place is in helping us care for our loved ones, while we tend to see the professionals as being there do handle things so that we don’t have to. This breeds a climate of entitlement and a habit of ignoring others. My grandmother saw the human needs for food and clothing as opportunities to show her love. Professional help – whether this is the private sector, the government, or the religious institutions – is good when it assists us in meeting the needs of others. It is not good when it helps us to avoid doing for others what we ought to do. It is actually evil when it enables us to consistently choose our own comfort and ignore the needs of the people closest to us. This not how God acts, and learning to overcome this way of acting is the secret to living a life full of meaning. +