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.
Testimonies of church members provide another chance for individuals to reflect on their own lives and share that with the congregation. "People at various stages of life give us a vision for our own life at that stage," says Friesen. After Friesen's own grandmother died, at age 99, he was particularly struck by the testimonies from older members.
"My grandmother's influence on me started when she was 89 and extended to 99," he says. "In the eyes of our culture, she's a useless person. But her most productive time in my life was her final ten years." This is something that everyone approaching or in retirement needs to hear, Friesen says. "You think nobody's paying attention" because of your age. "Think again. You can have a tremendous impact on people in your final decades. And you're going to have more of them than you think." A major job for the church, Friesen says, is to "give people a vision of the good life in the seasons of fall and winter."
On occasion, the congregation takes a look at itself. Once, the worship leader asked groups of people to stand according to age, while the rest of the church applauded or otherwise recognized that age group. As the age groups grew older, fewer and fewer people stood up. When finally the oldest members of the church were standing and had been recognized, the worship leader asked the children to stand again. As the congregation looked at the oldest and youngest among them, all saw the link between the two groups. The oldest, who had spent a lifetime as caretakers of the church, were passing on their work and faith to those two or three generations younger.
"At each step in life, we're trying to give this sense of the with-God life," Friesen says. And when that life nears its end, its posture toward God does not change. "God is still with us," as he has been throughout our lives, "right to our final breath."
The church also builds a culture of resurrection when it fosters a sense of the universal body of Christ, across geography and through time.
Old church buildings and those Christian communities that maintain their centuries-old traditions provide a stark contrast with modern churches in how they remember—even live among—their dead brothers and sisters. Until the 19th century, church buildings were often graveyards, with walls and floors holding the bones of those who worshiped in ages past. Walking into such a church today may seem creepy or morbid, but from a spiritual perspective, these gatherings of the faithful are alive with the prayers, the history, the culture, the faith of generations.
The converted Orthodox poet Scott Cairns writes of his discovery of the Orthodox attitude toward the dead, which more closely resembles that of Christians from nearly any era but this one. "For starters," he says, "the dead are unlikely to be spoken of as dead. They are asleep. Since the Resurrection, Christian people do not die per se. They fall asleep. They are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord."
Orthodox funeral services include open caskets with the body in full view. "I was initially startled," Cairns says, "then strangely moved." While our culture hides from death, Cairns's congregation was comfortable, unafraid, and welcoming.
"Throughout the liturgy that followed, family and friends continued to worship by [the deceased's] side. Children and adults both turned to him throughout the service, as if to see if he was comfortable, attending to him as if he were still present."
Comparing this loving and respectful attitude with the death of his own father, Cairns writes, "We missed out on most of this." After a two-day battle in which his father struggled just to breathe, the ordeal finally ended. "We wept, of course, but we had little in our experience to help us attend as fully to his body … as we might have or as, perhaps, we should have."
And the Orthodox maintain their reverent attitude toward the dead long after anyone alive remembers who they are. In the monasteries of Mount Athos, Greece, Cairns describes basements full of bones, and monks who proudly call the deceased "my brothers."
Christians are right to challenge the modern idea that death is a solitary event. Those who are part of the body of Christ are never separated. Theologian Therese Lysaught writes,
Christians do not die alone. Rather, death within the Christian tradition is an experience of ongoing, communal presence …. Through a continuous set of rites and practices, the church maintains a constant and unbroken presence to those who are dying beyond the point of their burial.
Though churches these days are likely to run into building codes that prevent them from tearing into drywall to bury members, some churches have found alternative ways of caring for their "sleeping" members. One I visited had a garden outside the building and a marble wall rising beside the church. Walking through the garden, church members could see the names, carved into the wall, where the cremated ashes of church members remained. Some had names but no dates. The future occupant had yet to be called to join her deceased brothers and sisters. These columbaria, places where the ashes of the dead are stored, offer the rest of us a sense of the continuity of the faith and a reminder of our own destination. It is a visible reminder of the culture of resurrection.
A columbarium also offers church members basic help as they grieve. They have the opportunity to prepare the place where their bodies will await the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. And they allow loved ones to visit the resting place of their beloved any day of the week, and at least every Sunday.
Such reminders offer an occasion to remember who we are as part of a far larger body of Christians that extends two thousand years. As much as science, medicine, and a rapidly changing society have altered things and imposed new challenges and difficult questions, life and death are still the same. The church, by teaching and living out the values of a life lived with a view to the Resurrection, expresses a culture of resurrection. Such a culture cares for its elderly and their caregivers. It teaches young and old to live and die well.
Rob Moll is a Christianity Today editor at large and author of The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, from which this article is adapted. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press (ivpress.com), P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, Illinois, 60515.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Rob Moll's book The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles about death and dying include:
What 'Lost' Taught Us about Dying Well | The meaning behind "live together, die alone." (May 26, 2010)
A Chronicle of Hopeful Dying | Death is not the enemy, says cancer-stricken Walt Wangerin, but a chance for Jesus to shine. (March 2, 2010)
Jesus' Last Words as Ars Moriendi | How his seven last words can guide the Christian preparing for death. (April 5, 2007)
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