Today’s post from Craig Mueller, pastor at Holy Trinity in Chicago, IL.
With cremation growing more common, so are memorial services. For many people today, having a body present for a funeral is considered unnecessary. Families may want some time with the body of the deceased immediately after death, but then they want the body taken away so they don’t have to deal with it anymore.
Most people today feel that the “soul” is the essence of a person, making the body of no significance after death. Yet the bodies of the faithful are washed in baptism. Bodies receive the laying on of hands at confirmation and anointing with oil in rites of healing. And most importantly, the eucharist is a meal which involves bodily eating and drinking.
I sense an absence when at a memorial liturgy that has neither the body or the ashes of the deceased present. To say the words of commendation—“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Jane”—to the air suggests that it is a soul, not an embodied person that we are commending to God.
I would highly recommend a significant book on funeral practices by Thomas Long: Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Long acknowledges there are plenty of situations in which a body, coffin, or ashes cannot be present for a memorial liturgy and that Christians can certainly “raise the resurrection song,” but questions this as the new norm. Despite a biblical anthropology that does not divide body and soul, Long wonders whether a body seems of lesser importance at a funeral because “we esteem the spirituality of the mind over the materialism of the body.”
Even though we talk about the body as a “shell,” we go to great lengths to recover a body or even some of the remains when someone is lost at sea or crushed in the World Trade Center disaster, for example. By paying attention to these deep human responses to death we might rethink why the presence of a body, or at least the ashes from cremation, should be present at a Christian funeral or memorial service (Long, pp. 33-44).
Though a pastoral case for the presence of the body at worship is going against the grain of societal practice, I urge religious leaders to have these important conversations: not necessarily when a family has already decided what they want to do following the death of a loved one, but in less anxious contexts such as sermons, classes, and other congregational settings. For example, I would encourage a family to have the ashes of the deceased present at a funeral—perhaps along with photographs—to emphasize the importance of the body of their loved one.
Pastor Mueller’s recently released book, Any Body There? Worship and Being Human in a Digital Age, includes further reflection on the importance of the body in worship. For further resources on funeral planning, see the newly released In Sure and Certain Hope: A Funeral Sourcebook.