by Bil Aulenbach

The Changing Face of Death

The other day, I officiated at a funeral, though we don’t use that word much anymore. Calling such events celebrations of a life is much more popular. The word funeral reeks of morbidity.

However, I had a difficult time associating the word celebration with this woman’s life. Her life was not easy. She was a single mom with a minimum-wage job and a two-hour commute. Her finances compelled her to live with her mother and daughter in a small, two-bedroom house. She was only fifty-five when she died, and her last month was a hell on earth filled with excruciating pain. She had other troubles that I won’t discuss here.

So what to call her service? Memorial service didn’t fit, so I ended up calling it a service honoring her. Forty years ago, I would’ve just called it a funeral.

Today, people speak much more freely about death. When I was growing up, it was like sex and religion—something not discussed in public, if at all. Now, people openly discuss estate planning, last wills and testaments, and advance directives, and talking about death is no longer verboten. This is much healthier than pretending death doesn’t exist.

As a child, I remember seeing men taking off their hats and people bowing their heads as a sign of honoring the dead when a hearse drove by. I suspect most children today would have no idea what a hearse is, much less understand the significance of taking off hats and bowing heads.

Unfortunately, with frequent mass killings by terrorists all over the world and school massacres here at home, children are no longer sheltered from death. This is a reality to be confronted, not ignored.

At the funerals of decades past, everyone wore black, the music and hymns were gloomy, and at least one person sobbed loudly. The casket was usually open, and occasionally some crazy person would try to crawl into it. The whole event was a downer. The idea of celebrating the deceased’s life and skipping the casket is much healthier.

In the early days of my ministry, laypeople didn’t give eulogies. That was the pastor’s job. Now, the deceased’s family and friends provide more personal eulogies. This is a good change.

Funeral sermons used to be full of judgment, heaven, hell, sin, and repentance. Some clergypeople used the funeral service as a marketing tool and threatened everyone with eternal damnation if they didn’t come to church. Fortunately, nowadays we know that the cosmos is filled with two to four trillion galaxies, and heaven, hell, judgment, and the pearly gates have become bad ideas from the past. Today’s eulogies can be full of humor and fun stories.

In the early days of my ministry, everyone was buried in the ground with expensive caskets. Cremation was a dirty word, and suicide was a mortal sin. Today, most folks opt to be cremated and have their ashes spread. (Sorry, mortuaries!)

My wife and I will donate our bodies to science. Our brains will go to the University of California, Irvine; any of our usable organs will be harvested; and then medical students will have a chance to practice their skills on old Bil’s body and bones.

I love the idea that my skeleton will hang in some medical school for years, and generations of students will learn from me, a dead man. I think that is as close to eternal life as it ever gets!

California, along with five other states, now allows assisted suicide so when our quality of life deteriorates, we can end our lives. Then our children can receive their inheritances rather than our astronomical medical bills.

What’s next? Maybe our bodies will be cryogenically frozen so our great-great-great-grandchildren can meet their grandparents.

 

Image courtesy of cezzie901 (CC BY 2.0)

2 Responses to The Changing Face of Death

  • In my family, we celebrate lives at memorial services. Family members tell stories about the deceased person being honored and we pass around microphones so audience members can tell their about their adventures with the deceased. My father was very in to classical music, so we gave him a memorial concert, both with organ music, and with strings playing Vivaldi and Stravinsky favorites of his.

    At my youngest son’s memorial service (when he was 19) we had guitar music. I learned a lot about his life with peers from the audience participation.

    We also hand out flowers to everyone attending.

  • We had a celebration of Life for my husband, who died in 2010. He wanted to be cremated and wanted his ashes spread over our church’s campgrounds where he had many happy weeks in the summertime. The church was filled with friends. I presided over the service and our three grown children spoke of their dad and his wonderful life of service and what a great father he was. The audience participated too in sharing their experiences about him.

    Afterward, we shared cake and had a helium balloon release outside. Participants put personal notes in their balloons and we had a mass release of them. It was truly a celebration.

    I want to be cremated too. I have three family plots at the cemetery but do not intend to use them. My brother-in-law had graveside services for my sister and I did the service, of course, at no charge. It still cost $12,000. I really consider funeral homes a racket. I spent under a $1,000 for Bob’s cremation and we all had a great celebration..

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