A Culture of Resurrection
The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come
May 14, 2010
192 pp., $11.28
Our church doesn't have enough funerals," associate pastor John Stoltzfus said in his annual All Saints' Day sermon. In his suburban Mennonite congregation, members tend to leave the area after they retire. They move into denominational retirement communities, or they head south to warmer climates. Sometimes, older members will continue to spend their summers in the Chicago area but winter somewhere in the Sun Belt. So, in his eight years as senior pastor, Todd Friesen has performed just ten funerals. Other pastors he knows who serve at churches where retired members stay in the area perform on average one funeral a week.
Such a lack of funerals, Friesen says, is a missed opportunity for spiritual formation. A funeral, he says, is like the North Star in the sky, so that a navigator knows where the ship is and how to adjust its direction to get to the destination. At a funeral, "you get these coordinates" to position yourself in life, says Friesen.
Funerals are opportunities to measure ourselves by the same stick we are using to measure others. "He was a good dad," we say, "and a loving husband." Or, "She took care of the people who worked for her, and she mentored other young women in church." When we say that about another, we also ask the same questions of ourselves.
We live in a culture that has forgotten how to help people measure their days. Through medicine and science, we know more about death and how to forestall it than ever before. Yet we know little about how to prepare people for the inevitable. The church is a community that teaches people how to live well by teaching them how to measure their days. Put another way, when the church incarnates a culture of resurrection—one that recognizes the inevitability of death but not its triumph—it teaches people how to die well.
Saint Isaac the Syrian put it like this: "Prepare your heart for your departure. If you are wise, you will expect it every hour." Funerals are one way churches can prepare our hearts for our departure. But there are many other things churches can do before that service that teach us how to wisely expect death, and to be ready for it at every hour.
Markers Along the Way
Friesen's church helps prepare his congregation by marking significant points in members' lives. For significant milestones, the church combines a service or ritual with a gift or other tangible marker. At a birth or adoption, the baby is dedicated during the service, and a red rose is placed on the pulpit. Beginning in third grade, children have presentations during worship, and at the first, they receive a Bible with inscriptions from members of the church. At age 12, children receive a mentor, an adult member who is a non-parental source of guidance, wisdom, and companionship. This also creates valuable intergenerational relationships. The church marks other milestones when a young person makes the decision to become a Christian, when someone joins the church as a member, at high-school graduation, marriage, mission trips, and retirement.
At death, a member is remembered, but not just at the funeral. Throughout the year, a plaque hangs on a wall in the sanctuary, inscribed with the names of members who have passed away. Every year, at the All Saints' Day service, the church remembers those who have died that year. A young person stands beside the plaque and reads aloud the new names that have been added, members who have now joined the eternal communion of saints.