We know there are relationships between religion and funeral practices in America. For a long time, almost all funeral ceremonies were primarily religious, and today that still probably describes the vast majority.
When religion changes, therefore, we might expect some effect on funerals and burials. The effect isn’t easy to predict or quantify, though. Funeral changes, in turn, might arise from various causes apart from religion.
Theologian John Heywood Thomas notes that funerals touch on the meaning of life, but are also practical processes that, over time, have become neat and efficient, wherein the goal is to provide a “nice” service:
All too often death is for many both comfortless and without fear, a non-event. Besides the psychological effects of such an ignoring of death there is the more important ethical consequence that we neither properly value the life that has ended nor apply ourselves to that—perhaps secondary but still urgent—task of bringing our hearts to wisdom.1
The minister and professor Thomas Long suggests that as our religion has become less serious, our funeral practices have followed suit:
Turning from “less embodied, more free-flowing forms of spirituality … we now bow in the temple of a god who reigns over the airiness of souls set loose but who disdains the gravity of bodies and concrete practices.”2
With his co-author, poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch, Long bemoans our culture having left behind the “necessary tasks” of funerals of the past, when full engagement in the ritual brought mourners a better understanding of death, and our religious understanding of death was central to the event, in contrast to the contemporary funeral with it’s emphasis on “personalization and sentimentality” substituting therapy for theology.3
Intuitively, it seems that the mode of funeral can tell us something about the deceased, but perhaps even more about the community holding the service. Perhaps it is true that our “failure to deal authentically with death may have something to do with an inability to deal authentically with life.”4
What is the cause-and-effect relationship between beliefs and ceremonies? I think funeral practices are best understood as a trailing indicator of a society’s religious beliefs.
Providers operate in separate spheres: despite the fact that clergy usually have the main role in ceremonies, the funeral business has little to do with the religious establishment.
Also, while religion is optional, taking care of our dead is not. Of all the things the government does and doesn’t take an interest in, it reliably guarantees that those who die do not lay where they fall. Much like with marriage, the ceremonial concept can be whatever one wishes, as long as certain logistical matters are in order.
Funerals follow fashion, and are more likely to show us what has been happening in our culture than what will happen next. For consumers, this point may seem obvious, or uninteresting, although I will argue further down the road that certain ideas go well with funerals and perhaps should be highlighted.
For businesses, the relationship between funerals and other trends may not be as obvious as it first appears. On the face of it, one might think funeral providers should follow the marketplace if they want to survive. On the other hand, the modern market is often bare of meaning, sanitized to the point of emptiness.
Funeral facilitators, like their predecessors for millennia past, occupy a unique role in the meeting point between the reality we profess and the one we actually live. Few institutions, in fact, are able to straddle the two realms. Funeral businesses not only manage to do it but as of now they still have a literal mandate to do it.
There are a lot of challenges and problems facing the funeral industry, but in the area of bringing meaning to life there is an opportunity as well.