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Symposium presenters call for return of power and meaning to Christian funerals

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN – As he welcomed participants to Bethel College, Dale Schrag admitted there had been “some puzzled looks” about a symposium on death, dying and the Christian funeral.

“Let me hasten to add,” he said, “that pastors never looked puzzled – lay persons sometimes seemed confused. I had phone calls from Washington to Ohio expressing appreciation for this [topic].”

The seeds of Bethel’s second Worship and the Arts Symposium began sprouting soon after the first one, in 2011. At the inaugural event, presenters Thomas Long of Candler School of Theology and John Ferguson of St. Olaf College “were so universally well received we decided they should come back one more time,” said Schrag, the chair of the planning committee.

Long’s latest book at the time was Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. Ferguson’s enthusiastic affirmation for making that the topic sealed the decision.

Long opened the symposium with a plenary address he titled “Re-claiming the Christian funeral.”

“I’m absolutely convinced it’s not a dark or down topic,” he said. “Hope in the gospel reverberates in our death practices. In an incarnational faith, those who learn how to care tenderly for the dying and dead can do so for the living.”

He began writing Accompany Them with Singing almost 20 years ago when he taught a basic class on preaching and discovered “there was lots of good material for everything except funerals. So I decided to take a sabbatical and write the book I needed for my syllabus. It took me 15 years.

“It took me so long because I was converted by my own data. I became convinced that well-meaning pastors, in the name of pastoral care, have been systematically dismantling – with help from the dominant culture, of course – the power and meaning of the Christian funeral.”

Long recounted a story about Pope John XXIII as he was dying of cancer in his papal apartment in Rome, surrounded by physicians and attendants.

“Our lives and deaths as Christians are encapsulated in the words the pope said to his secretary, right before he died: ‘Do not feel badly, I am ready. I am a bishop, and I must die as a bishop, with simplicity and with majesty, and you must help me.’

“The entire Christian life is a preparation for death,” Long said. “Our baptisms start when we participate in the death of Christ.”

To die “with majesty” might seem to contradict “with simplicity,” Long said, but the pope “didn’t mean ostentation, he meant Christian identity. Every Christian, every human being, deserves a royal funeral, in the sense that this is a child of the heavenly king whose ceremony we are observing.

“The great heresy in the Christian faith is that we do this or anything by ourselves, as if Christianity were an interior thing, to be held privately but not publicly. These great rites of passage require the whole community around us.”

Long went on to outline how Christian funeral practices developed out of the Jewish and Roman ones that the first Christians knew. These remained essentially unchanged into the 19th century when, he said, they became “about grief management and about how much comfort the funeral or memorial services gave to the mourners rather than how much recognition they gave to the departed one.

“How could we have lost this beautiful reenactment of the heart of the gospel?”

The essential components of the funeral, he said, are “a sacred person – a saint; a sacred community that will carry her from ‘here’ to ‘there’ with meaning; a sacred story we’re telling when we do this; and a sacred land we’re crossing. We’re losing these things.”

The second plenary session opened with Ferguson’s response to Long’s book and his address.

“My basic question is, What does this have to do with the arts, especially music? Are we [church musicians] background music? Is the musician reduced to being an organ grinder, grinding out what we’re told to play? Am I a musician who plays in churches, or am I a church musician who is a theological resource?”

“A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be – and the music accompanies us,” Long said. “Music serves as a stabilizing, anchoring influence. Sometimes we are so fragmented theologically that only music can hold things together.”

More practically, Long said, church musicians as well as pastors can offer “some gentle pastoral guidance. You can say, ‘Yes, we can do this [element you want in the funeral] – but it might work better if we did this.’”

Added Ferguson, “Or perhaps: ‘That can happen, but that’s not what I’m able to do well, and I know you want me to do well by you.’ We need to help a family be realistic.”

Responding to a question from the audience about The Good Funeral, a book co-authored with Thomas Lynch that was published this past September, Long said, “The best teacher [for a congregation] is when a funeral is done well in a community – where the body is so well cared for when it’s taken to God that it’s counter-cultural.”

The second part of the symposium consisted of two sets of concurrent workshops – preceded by a 45-minute hymn sing from Hymnal: A Worship Book with Ferguson leading from the organ and piano in Bethel’s Administration Building chapel.

Four of the workshops were panels, with resource people from Newton and Wichita: two chaplains, a hospice nurse, a retired doctor who was also a medical school professor, a nurse who is now a college administrator, three people who teach at the undergraduate and graduate level, a funeral director and four pastors (three Mennonite, one Presbyterian).

Symposium participants could also join Ferguson for a discussion of the responsibilities of church musicians at what can be difficult times, particularly weddings and funerals.

In the workshop on “Anabaptist Responses,” two presenters gave some history of Mennonite funerals, starting with the 16th-century Anabaptists, while one talked about more current practices.

“The communal element matters,” said Ray Reimer, co-pastor of Zion Mennonite Church, Elbing, “and not just the family, the friends, but the community at large. We stand together, sing together, hold each other. And the part Tom didn’t talk about – the funeral lunch. We have to eat together.”

In a workshop on “Medical Ethics and the End of Life,” retired physician Bruce Woods noted “five barriers to a good death”: culture (which he called “death-denying”); doctors; clergy; your immediate and extended family; and yourself. He challenged attenders to ask the next person who tells them about “a death event”: “Was it a good death?”

“I’ve been impressed,” Woods said, “with how often that question has allowed people to talk about what went right and wrong as someone they cared about tried to die [well] within a death-denying culture. I believe many people would prefer a noble death to morally ambiguous survival. Thinking and believing must work together to resolve these difficult issues.”

The other workshops were “Bedside Liturgy: Rituals of Healing and Dying,” and “Telling Our Funeral Stories,” a panel of pastors and one undertaker.

In the third part of the symposium, Wichita artist Ann Resnick talked about her exhibit “Inconsolable,” currently in Bethel’s Fine Arts Center Gallery.

Several of Resnick’s recent installations – including two that are part of “Inconsolable” – consist of flowers made of circles cut from magazine pages. She spoke about symbolism of, and communication through, flowers.

The climax of the symposium was an evening worship service, open to the public, called “A Thousand Ages.” This was done in the “hymn festival” style for which Ferguson is widely known, and included congregational hymns chosen from Hymnal: A Worship Book as well as original work by Ferguson.

Hymns, choir pieces and Scripture told a story of time, from creation as depicted in Genesis and moving through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Long’s sermon, “Learning how to tell time,” was based on the first part of the story in John 11 of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

He ended his text with Martha confronting Jesus about why he had not come “in time” to save her brother, Long said, to make the point that Jesus tends to show up precisely when we think we have “run out of time.”

But, in fact, “Jesus is the Lord of time,” Long said. “It’s despair, not hope, that’s running out of time.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.