Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch
Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, hardcover, 252 pp., $20.60
One of the most common events in the life of many churches is the funeral. Depending on the size and age of the congregation, pastors can spend a significant amount of time ministering to families in times of grief and planning and leading the funeral service. In The Good Funeral, a pair of writers—one a preacher and the other a funeral director—draw on years of knowledge and experience to guide pastors toward more effective ministry in this sensitive time in the life of a family and a church.
Long teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and is a popular preacher and writer, while Lynch is a funeral director who is also the author of several books of essays, poetry and short stories. (Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a foreword, as did Lynch’s brother.) With each offering his own perspective on the topic, the authors begin with an extended discussion of their own backgrounds and how they came to care about this discussion. There are helpful chapters on the way we view death, including the significant cultural shifts taking place in how death is understood and avoided, as well as how we regard the body, including the trend toward not having the body present at the funeral or memorial service.
At the core of the book, Lynch talks about the funeral industry as “Our Own Worst Enemies” as he discusses the marketing and merchandising of funerals in recent years. He emphasizes that the most important thing funeral directors have to offer is authentic care for grieving families.
“If we are ever to redeem the funeral from the vacuous and fatuous end it is working its way to,” says Lynch, “we must first admit our part in its devolution. Funeral directors who mistake merchandise for real value, prepayment for a job well done, and accessories for essential elements have sold the consumer and themselves a bill of goods.”
In the following chapter, Long talks about the important role played by the funeral director and relationship of clergy with these professionals. In a section on The Funeral, Lynch discusses the idea and practice of cremation, while Long talks about the value of a “good funeral” and offers counsel about how such an event is possible.
In the final section of the book, The Grieving, Long takes on the “stages of death” popularized by Kubler-Ross. He observes: “The notion that people sail across the Stygian stream toward some tranquil stage of acceptance is neither an empirical observation nor a matter of common sense. It is, instead, just plain bad theology, a product of Kubler-Ross’s smuggled Neoplatonism, which views death as the freeing escape of the soul from the ‘bag of dung’ that is the human body.
“In Christian theology, however, Death is no friend, not capital D Death anyway. Small d death, which is biological death, can sometimes come as a friend, a relief from intense suffering. But capital D Death is a power pitted against all life, is in fact the destroyer of life, the breaker of promises, the slayer of love and communion. Death is not to be welcomed with an embrace but resisted and fought against as the final enemy. Beyond this, the larger notion that grief moves through some kind of staged process toward resolution probably owes more of a debt to American optimism than to religious hope.”
The Good Funeral is not a handbook for performing funerals; rather, it is a collection of insightful observations about how we can best minister to those who grieve, and in the process retrieve a more theologically sound understanding of our responsibility to the dead and to one another. It is certainly a book that pastors will find most helpful.