Thomas Lynch recalls how his father would come into the house from his funeral home in the small Michigan town of Milford.
His father would take off his striped tie, his starched white shirt and Wingtip shoes and then sit at the dining room table.
“He would look at me and say, ‘Well, we had a couple good funerals today’,” Lynch told an audience attending the spring preaching conference at Calvin Theological Seminary.
At first, said Lynch, he couldn’t understand how his father could have had a good funeral.
But, as he grew older and especially as he’s entered the undertaker’s trade himself, he has come to realize what his father meant.
“He was talking about a funeral that contributed more to him than to others. He was changed and blessed by it,” said Lynch, who today operates that funeral home in Milford. “Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to be in on a lot of good ones.”
Along with Thomas Long, a professor of preaching at Emory University, Lynch is author of The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the Community of Care, a book that seminary classes studied the past semester.
Among other things, the book talks about what makes for a good funeral. But a fair amount of it focuses on what comprises a bad funeral in today’s world.
“Funerals today lack gravitas; they are funeral lite,” said Lynch. “They lack any sense of history and tradition.”
For one thing, many funerals today don’t include the dead person.
“Funerals have downsized the dead guy. Everyone is welcome at the service except the dead. It is like a wedding without the bride and the bridegroom,” he said.
If there is a body at all, it has been cremated and sits in an urn, sometimes set off to the side, as if an afterthought, said Lynch.
Afterward, he said, people gather for some “finger food” and find ways of celebrating the life of the person who died. They like to tell upbeat stories, avoiding the reality of death.
“Today, I find myself burying good golfers and gardeners and fisherman. Rarely anymore does anyone want to talk about what transformed a dead person’s life, but instead what filled up their Saturday afternoons,” said Lynch.
In addition, he said, very few people want to drive to a cemetery for a burial and committal.
“This is troubling because we don’t bother relating to the dead person to get them where they need to go,” said Lynch. “When we do things this way, we are making things so easy. If we allow this to happen, we show that we’re not sure about the base claims of the Christian story.”
Long, a theologian and Presbyterian minister, said that there has been a centuries-old tradition of funerals, going back some 50,000 years when people first were confronted with the death of another human.
Back then, many people sensed that death was a holy event and that it required traditions to deal with it, said Long. “Every society recognized that a funeral was a sacred and meaningful activity,” said Long.
There were Jewish and Roman funeral rites and other practices down through the ages.
More recently, said Long, there was a Christian practice in which people would gather at the bedside of someone who was dying. They would sing and pray.
When that person died, they would prepare the body in the home and carry the body to the grave, where before burial they would have a graveside communion service.
“People believed that belief in Jesus changed death and that the deceased was part of the communion of saints,” said Long. “They would bury the person and give them into the hands of God who gives life.”
But about 150 years ago, many people started to lose touch with this practice as the “scientific winds” began to blow and they could no longer believe that anyone was going anywhere, said Long.
“At this point, the focus for those left behind was on grief, on what happened to them,” he said. “That is when we started to get rid of the dead person because we could not bear the weight of our grief, thinking he or she isn’t going anywhere.”
Both Long and Lynch said the essentials of a good funeral include having the dead person there, whether in a casket or prominently displayed in an urn; people who care and mourn for the dead person, and a greater story — often the Christian story — into which to place that person’s life.
Lynch told Calvin seminarians they have the chance to help make a good funeral happen. They can speak to the significance of death in light of a person being a child of God, he said.
As an undertaker, he has seen this happen. “You show up with more than your faith. You stand between the living and dead,” said Lynch. “If you lead boldly, people will follow you.”