An article in The New York Times today raises some interesting questions for the church. Quite a few people have told me that I am not the only one who objects to calling a funeral (or, increasingly, a memorial service) “A Celebration of the Life of….” This custom arose about thirty years ago. In the Episcopal Church, it is widely observed, in spite of the Prayer Book which calls the service The Burial of the Dead. People now say earnestly, “We are going to celebrate his/her life on (date)” instead of what we all used to say–“the funeral will be on (date).” It would be interesting to trace the origin of this new practice. I can’t believe that it arose from serious liturgical reform. It is hard not to see in it the evidence of cultural denial in the form of “positive thinking,”
There is, absolutely, an element of joy and celebration in the Christian faith at the time of death.The service should indeed be a liturgy of the Resurrection. But resurrection from what? Death barely makes an appearance at today’s services. In spite of (rather glib-sounding) assurances that grief is OK (from the introduction to the service in the 1979 Prayer Book), there is very little space for real mourning in the upbeat form of the service as it presently stands.
From the perspective of the traditional Christian understanding of Death and burial, there are at least two things wrong with “A Celebration of the Life of ….”
1) It passes over the universal Christian teaching that we are all equal in death, each of us as sinners in the eyes of God. I have written previously about the Capuchin rite which was used in Vienna for the last Hapsburg empress. The ritual requires a designated person accompanying the coffin to knock and when asked “Who comes there?” to say “Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary” and her various titles. The answer comes, “We do not know her.” A second knock with the same question is answered with yet more titles, and the refusal comes again. The third time, the answer is “Zita, a sinful mortal.” The door swings open wide.
2) The designation of the rite at time of death as” a celebration of the life of…” is a refusal to look at the hard facts about Sin and Death, which ought to be but aren’t on everyone’s mind because of the strenuous effort we make to suppress them. The liturgy at time of death, properly understood, offers a powerful opportunity to preach and celebrate the sacrificial death and risen life of Jesus Christ, rather than spending most of the available time celebrating the life of the deceased.
Therefore this article seems to me to present an argument for a corrective: