We get a completely new set of people

Thomas Long, writing in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, imagines a funeral for a wife and mother named Annette. The funeral he imagines is, like so many others, “sweet and nostalgic”, featuring readings of Psalm 23 and Proverbs 31, and celebrating that she “was a good woman, a good Christian”. He continues:
“we go to the grave where Annette now lies next to her husband and her parents in the family plot in the cemetery, and it will forever be this way. ‘We will always remember her,’ we say.
But of course it’s a white lie; we won’t remember her always. All of the pieces of Annette’s funeral were fine as far as they went, but the fact is, they were built on the illusion that this land is our permanent home. We get a completely new set of people every 100 years, and it will not be too many generations before no one living much remembers Annette at all. If history rolls on long enough, her church will disappear, the building will disintegrate, the congregation will be scattered, and the cemetery will be covered by the dust, the tombstones long disintegrated.
This is exactly the perspective on life and mortality that is so common in Scripture, and so uncommon today. Rather humbling, in fact, and sobering. And a perspective that even at a funeral is hard to get people to face. But that is precisely why a Christian funeral should not be simply nostalgic and sweet, but built on a more clear-eyed view not only of the reality of death, but also a firm proclamation of Christian hope. For:
“if Annette will be forgotten to history, she will be remembered by God, and she worships now in a building not made with hands. The funeral, then, should honor this land – the person Annette has been, the things she has done, the relationships she formed – but the funeral should not be consumed with nostalgia for Annette’s past nor ours, because our hope does not lie in this land alone, but in the city whose architect and builder is God.”
Advertisements

the art of a good death

Thomas Long, in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, takes on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic On Death and Dying.

One objection: “the implication in Kubler-Ross’s work that knowledge of impending death somehow drives people rapidly up the stairway of emotional and ethical development is a fiction of the therapeutic culture.”

“The fact is that people die pretty much as they have lived. If someone has been enraged throughout life, we can expect rage at the end. A person who tries to bargain with life, family, physicians, and God on death’s door has probably tried to cut a few deals before. A person who blesses the world at death has not learned this in the last few hours of life but has been shaped to live a life of blessing. As one rabbi said, ‘A Jew is expected to die, as he has lived, with the name of God on his lips.’

The best preparation for dying a Christian death, then, is living a Christian life.”

Long notes that in the past, Christians have developed resources to prepare for death, and specifically for confronting death well and as a Christian. The prime example he gives is the 15th century Ars Moriendi tradition. Ars Moriendi is latin for “The Art of Dying”, and was the name of a pair of latin texts developed in response to the “Black Death” which was currently ravaging Europe.

The texts help the Christian to prepare for death by running through a dress rehearsal of their final moments, and of the kinds of temptations to despair that may assail them at that time. Long notes one dialogue from the Ars Moriendi in which Satan approaches a Christian dying alone:

Satan: You’re frightened, aren’t you?

Dying person: Yes, I am frightened, but I am trusting my Savior who calms my fears.

Satan: Oh really? You think you are going to be rewarded by this Jesus, don’t you? You who have no righteousness.

Dying person: Christ is my righteousness.

Satan: Oh ho, Christ is your righteousness? You think Christ will welcome you to the company of Peter and Paul and the apostles? You who have sinned over and over again?

Dying person: No, I am not going into the company of Peter and Paul. I am going into the company of the thief on the cross, who heard the promise, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.'”

It is striking that this comes from the 15th century (pre-reformation), and was a popular and much used devotional tool. It was also, of course, extremely practical.

Long writes, that having been versed in the Ars Moriendi, “When Christians got to their deathbeds and felt the fear and anxiety and unworthiness that almost every dying person feels, they had been there before. They possessed the language to describe the experience and to speak faithfully in the midst of it.”