The dead, where they need to go

Reminiscing over 15 years with the congregation I recently served, I recalled the time in 2001 when, excavating to build what is now the John Labatt’s Centre, workers unearthed the remains of a small child.

“A good funeral is one that gets the dead where thy need to go and the living where they need to be.”

— Thomas Lynch (American poet and undertaker)

Reminiscing over 15 years with the congregation I recently served, I recalled the time in 2001 when, excavating to build what is now the John Labatt’s Centre, workers unearthed the remains of a small child.

Historians, anthropologists, geneticists, and government officials all agreed that the child, having been buried facing east as is Christian tradition, was likely one of the Methodists who had settled near the fork of the Thames River here in London.

I became the child’s representative.

Former British Prime Minister William Gladstone once said, “Show me the manner in which a nation or community cares for its dead and I will measure, with mathematical exactness, the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”

We treated tiny bones with such tenderness and reburied the tot in a beautiful oak coffin draped with flowers to continue his or her eastward rest.

A couple of days later, we held a grand funeral service in the sanctuary.

I was never prouder of our city and our church back then.

As Gladstone suggested, a healthy society cares for its corpses.

Today, I’m not sure we know what to do with the dead.

A secular society armed with the latest technology has birthed new death rituals. Some are driven by economics. Tired or cynical of the hearse and limousine procession, consumers/mourners are looking for less costly roads to the grave.

Other innovations such as the drive-by visitation or online condolences cater to convenience.

The dead don’t even have to attend the funeral lest the corpse cast a pall over the celebration of life with the truth about death.

No need to settle for a lone organist with a repertoire of How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace.

You can send your loved one to the Great Beyond accompanied by the sound of Sinatra’s My Way or Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings or Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On.

What troubles me most are not the eulogies which have devolved into open-mike opportunities for those not gifted in language or public speaking to regale the assembled with chuckles over the misfortunes and foibles of the departed and then suggest that they will live in our memories or at least on their Facebook profile.

Neither am I distressed by the plethora of mortuary merchandise such as coffins with sports logos or urns shaped like bowling pins.

I welcome the display of photos and iconic memorabilia strewn around the viewing room.

What troubles me most is the shift away from the basic ritual of death which is, as Thomas Lynch suggests, to take the deceased to where they need to go.

Cold and wet at the graveside? So what? We’re not just disposing of the dead but accompanying them on the last step of their journey to either their final rest — or the place your faith leads you to believe in.

When you hoist and heave a heavy coffin you are reminded that we are all embodied creatures and that our loved one had weight and substance.

Death is the ultimate exit and there are many exit strategies to choose from.

Standing at the graveside should not be an option.

Bob Ripley is a United church minister and syndicated columnist.

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