New Trends in Funerals

I was in Denver this week for two funerals. On Monday morning I had the honor to officiate over the funeral of my 94-year-old grandfather, Roy Mayberry. Then on Tuesday morning I eulogized and prayed at a service for my Aunt Judy’s significant other, Lyle Bittner. It was a time filled with much grief and gratitude for the blessings of these two men and the lives they had touched.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me in sympathy and care. It really does help. Thanks, too, for all who helped out in the church this week, particularly the members of the Trustees and Council in the meetings I missed.

While in Denver I relearned that there are indeed cultural differences between the Eastern and Western parts of our country. These can be much more significant than the obvious drinking soda or pop, standing in line or on line, and having coffee black or with milk. This trip I was astonished at the development of funeral practices out west.

The most obvious change from what I had known was evident in the presence of a large video screen hanging over my grandfather’s casket in the funeral home. And there were three large screens in the store-front evangelical church/coffee house of Lyle’s memorial service. Each of the services featured a ten minute slide show of the deceased accompanied by their favorite music (mostly country western love ballads for these two). Talking with the funeral director and a minister friend I found that this is stand procedure for services in their area. Each said they have been showing videos for every service, in the church or funeral home, for at least five years.

Personally, I found the slide shows emotionally touching, but liturgically inappropriate. I can understand such a presentation during the wake or reception, but it distracts me from the task of mourning and finding hope in God’s promised future when my attention is so focused on the history of the deceased’s life.

The slide show is, though, just one symptom of a troubling movement in funeral services. The trend to personalize services, in which I have been an eager participant for the past twenty years, now seems to going to a disconcerting extreme. As ministers become optional in services, and families stretch to show their love by highlighting every seemingly significant detail of their loved one’s life, the memorial service risks becoming only that—a scrapbook of memories with no inspiration for the new life that may be known through grief.

Funeral director Thomas Lynch, writing in the recent issue of The Christian Century, criticizes the new trends in memorial services, “In the place of funerals—the full-bodied, full gospel, faith-fit-for-the-long-haul and heavy lifting of grief events our elders were accustomed to—what has evolved, especially among white suburban Protestants, is a downsized, ‘personalized,’ user-friendly, Hallmarky soiree: the customized, emotively neutral and religiously ambiguous memorial service to which everyone is invited but the one who has died.”

I’m not that critical of current memorial services, and I surely don’t want to go back to formal liturgies with no mention of the deceased, but this is an issue that deserves some careful thought. I plan to do some reading on this over the summer and if you are in church you will hear a sermon or two about it in the fall. In the meantime, if you have any stories to share of memorial services you have attended, please leave a comment or drop me an email. I would like to know what you think about the new trends, if you have even seen any changes.

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