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Mattingly: The dark side of fun funerals

Published: Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 8:18 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 8:23 p.m. CDT

For centuries, religious believers have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that, in some cultures, could get pretty lively.

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people didn’t confuse their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted author Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor, who is best known online as a poet and hymn composer.

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: People started planning fun funerals.

“Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems the goal is for people to be able to keep their heads in the sand and not have to face what has happened to their loved one and in their family,” Bird said, in a telephone interview.

Thus, when it comes time to plan funerals, many people in the modern age – including many religious believers – have “lost that sense of the reality, the gravity of death itself,” he added. “The problem is that if death is denied, then it’s hard to understand the true meaning of life and our hope for the life to come.”

On one level, it’s easy to blame this on the baby boomers, that giant cohort of 76 million or so Americans who came of age during the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s and early ’70s. This also was an era, noted Bird, when people increasingly began to define their lives in terms of consumerism and entertainment.

These services tend to focus on good times in the past, rather than on faith, grief and hope in the present. The result, argues Bird, is an “egocentrism that extends beyond this life into a kind of necro-narcissism.”

Bird said religious leaders shouldn’t be surprised that secular consumers are choosing – encouraged by funeral-industry experts – to stage upbeat end-of-life celebrations laced with references to their favorite movies, music, hobbies and sports franchises. Want to end your “Celebration of Life” with your college fight song or a Beatles classic, like “The End”? The spirit of the age says, “Just do it.”

The bigger question, said Bird, is why clergy and believers who embrace their own faith traditions would want to join in this trend.

“The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith,” he noted. “If you pass up the chance to do that, then you really haven’t honored anyone, including the person who has died or the people who are mourning. ...

“This is serious, because liturgical scholars say that when our liturgies – including our funerals – have changed to fit the culture, then that change is real. I don’t see this as a passing fad.”

• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

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