If an unsettling began when I watched the documentary Dying Green for my Pastoral Ministry class, then complete disruption happened when I read the first couple chapters in Grave Matters, by environmentalist, Mark Harris. Harris walks readers through the historical terrain of how American’s care for their dead, from the most toxic to the most natural. While the spectrum shared focuses on the ecological aspects of burials, it also reveals the underbelly of the professionalized and industrialized death care industry.
Until I read his first chapter, titled “The Embalming of Jenny Johnson,” I had never really considered how the dead were cared for. Sure, I had seen dead people at various funeral services, and I had personally experienced the sting of loss through the death of friends and loved ones, but their postmortem care never crossed my mind.
Reading the extremely detailed account of how a body is “processed” after death, so as to produce “a pleasing illusion of a loved one who has simply slipped off to sleep”triggered nightmares during my sleep. It wasn’t that since the Civil War dead in America were cared for that way which bothered me. Rather it was all my grandparents were cared for that way. That odd, peaceful look upon their face was purposefully orchestrated by a professional embalmer who spent hours manipulating, stuffing, gluing, poking, prodding, and suctioning my beloved grandparents so that those who survived them could view the remains and “begin the necessary grieving and healing process.”
These invasive practices combined with a staggering amount of resources needed to conduct a traditional burial, forced me to wonder what these practices communicate about our Christian beliefs regarding reconciliation and death. What do we truly believe about God and ourselves when we (in the church) conform to cultural norms in dying and death rituals? How are we honoring our loved ones or the land in end of life practices? Does an opportunity exist for us to do better?
Innovative efforts to better care for our dead are emerging. Changes in policy and practice are happening as environmental groups seek to preserve the land in which we live. Other efforts have sought to overhaul the funeral industry that capitalizes on surviving family members’ grief and lack of knowledge, by increasing the amenities and price tags associated with a loved one’s burial. Awareness around death care practices is also increasing through community conversations at Death Cafes. Still other pockets of society long to see a revival in familial death care practices, to include the use of death-care midwives, and living and home funerals. While all these initiatives are helpful, little to no conversations are happening within the walls of our evangelical churches.
In “Leading Change,” Marshall Ganz notes that “Social movements emerge as a result of the efforts of purposeful actors to assert new public values, form new relationships rooted in those values, and mobilize the political, economic, and cultural power to translate these values into action. (They don’t just focus) on winning the game, but also changing the rules.” In order to move this conversation from the cultural community into our faith communities, a social and sacred movement is needed. This happens as interpersonal relationships are leveraged, networks are connected, and organizations with a common purpose are linked. The economy of such a movement depends on “social capital: a relational capacity that can facilitate collaborative action of all kinds.” While recruitment, training, and coaching are necessary to maintain momentum of the movement, these cannot be achieved without first tapping into the moral and emotional collective of a group.The implementation of this strategy is evident in the various secular groups working to initiate change in the death care industry. But how can this happen within our communities of faith? What questions must we ask to reveal our motivations and values in current practices? What role does emotion play in our willingness to enter into conversation of this most uncomfortable reality of life?
For decades, while “inertia, or the security of habitual routine, (has blinded) us to the need for action, urgency and anger get our attention. Hope inspires us, and in concert with self-efficacy and solidarity, can move us to act.”So what will propel communities of faith to move from apathetic inaction, into catalyzing lasting change?
William Gladstone, British Prime Minister, 1809–1898 said, “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”It is clear that our Nation continues to spiral downward into an abyss of merciless lawlessness. Leaders from all areas of culture continue to live in ways that neglect human decency and care. Basic needs of individuals are disregarded on our borders, in our courtrooms, in government halls, and on our streets. Respect for the “laws of the land and loyalty to high ideals” seems to be at an all-time low.
But what if this isn’t just a moral issue? What if this is actually a cultural and spiritual issue that has progressively deteriorated over decades, spurred on by the institutionalized and professionalized care of our dead and complete disregard for our land? What could happen if the hope we have in Christ compelled us to take action, to dig deep into theological and cultural beliefs, and to make changes so our orthodoxy and orthopraxy became congruent? How would our treatment of the living change if we first change how we treat our dead?
Ganz remarks that the best way to initiate action is through story.As Christians, we embody the best story ever told. Like generations before us, figuring out how to tell that life-transforming story in such a way that change happens will forever be our charge and challenge. May we be faithful to the call and fruitful in our actions.
Mark Harris. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial(New York, NY: Scribner, 2007) 18.
Marshall Ganz, “Leading Change: Leadership, Organization, and Social Movements,” in The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, ed. Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 527.