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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Disruption to Decisive Action

Written by: on October 20, 2019

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]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.”[5]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.”[6]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.[7]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.

 

Photo by Simeon Muller on Unsplash

[1]Mark Harris. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial(New York, NY: Scribner, 2007) 18.

[2]Harris, 18.

[3]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.

[4]Ganz, 532-534.

[5]Ganz, 536.

[6]http://www.peacefulreturn.com/quotes.shtml

[7]Ganz, 537.

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

15 responses to “Disruption to Decisive Action”

  1. mm Joe Castillo says:

    Hi Darcy, I am intrigued by the whole idea of the death cafe. Is that really happening? Do you know of a place like that? The fear of death haunts us like nothing else. And it makes sense. All other fears such as public speaking, centipedes, and heights pale in comparison. So we don’t really talk about it. Providing innovative leadership is a big deal.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Joe,
      Yes, Death Cafes exist all over the world. They began in England in 2011. Here’s a link to check it out: https://deathcafe.com/what/
      If you scroll down on the linked page, there’s a video that is informative about the “why.”

      Pray God helps me provide innovative leadership in this very taboo, yet inevitable reality of life.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    There’s a lot of interesting insights here, Darcy. I can’t say that I’ve thought a lot about how we treat our dead (I know that it’s been a big debate throughout Christian history though, particularly in terms of cremation and the resurrection of the body). Here in Hong Kong, the burial and funeral practices are much different than in the US. We had someone come speak at a career day last year who was a mortician (it was conducted in Cantonese, but my colleague was translating things here and there for me). In Hong Kong, apparently morticians can make HUGE sums of money because no one wants to do it for fear of ghosts and bad luck. Because space is such an issue, many are cremated here. What’s more is that I’ve heard of the actual funeral for someone taking place over a month after they died because of lack of space and having to book appointments for it. This inevitably draws out the mourning process.

    I would be interested to know what you’ve found in your research so far about the story Christians tell through their burial practices. What does death mean in relation to the Christian story? How can we as a culture redeem our burial practices?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Dylan,
      My previous research didn’t do a full sweep of historical burial practices for Christians. I do know that early in the US, before the Civil War, Christians were against embalming because it was considered pagan. Embalming didn’t catch on until the Civil War when deceased soldiers needed to be shipped home from the battle fields. To prevent them from looking like “negros” and help slow the decomposition process, embalming was accepted. Then when Lincoln died, he was embalmed and transported via train to his final resting place. Thousands saw his embalmed, peaceful looking remains as his body crossed the country. That event sealed the deal for the acceptance of embalming of our dead and became the cultural norm (often regardless of religious beliefs…with exception of Jewish and Muslim traditions, which are very hands on in caring for their dead). Cremation was also rejected for many years. This who couldn’t afford a traditional burial opted for cremation simply because the cost is significantly less. Then the green movement hopped on and suggested it was less damaging for the environment. Christians didn’t join the bandwagon until the Catholic Church approved cremation. If I remember correctly, almost 1/2 of those who die now opt for cremation.

      I don’t have all the answers to your questions, so I’ve added them to my research file for further exploration. There’s definitely lots of room for growth and redemption in our burial practices. I think there’s enough momentum within the greater culture that a shift within the churches can happen, too. But rather than just switching because everyone else is switching, I hope to provide solid theological and formational frameworks so we actually understand why we do what we do, what that says about who we are, and how this understanding impacts how we live.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy,
    Your article took me back to a Death and Dying course I took in High School. One of the field trips we took was to the morgue. It was during that time that I realized how we deal with those that have passed on. Over many years I have attended many funerals and am amazed at the many differences of perspective and attitudes that we have within the church. I appreciate your input.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Darcy,
    The power of story permeates a lot of my reading, and it looks consistent with what you’re finding. From a reformed perspective, I commend James K. A. Smith’s “Imagining the Kingdom” to you. He explores the connectedness between embodiment, imagination and story. One teaser for you: “We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us.” He goes on to coin a term, knowing what we most need is a “restor(y)ing” of our imagination.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      You have mentioned Smith’s work more than once to me. I just ordered the book and look forward to exploring the connection between story and social change. I also think imagination is a huge part of the equation. Its difficult to think differently unless we are willing to explore and imagine new possibilities. Thanks for the suggestion!

  5. mm Steve Wingate says:

    You wrote, “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.”

    I was challenged this week by a dismantling of a dream because of some limiting factors in my mind. I am guessing those who will need the “good” fruit from our lives will need to know how that got there! I want to share with you what turned my mind upwards in my inverted bell curve. It started by coming across Romans 8:11. “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” It is God the Spirit that truly does the transforming and develops good fruit.

  6. mm John McLarty says:

    Fascinating post. I’ve not had this come up for me yet, but as a Christian leader, what are your thoughts on those who express interest in being buried in seed pods or with sapling trees? I thought I read somewhere where this is actually harmful for the trees, but my bigger question is what is behind that? Is it the desire to be attached to something living, even after death? But won’t the tree die eventually anyway? Is the attachment they might have in the “communion of saints” not enough?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      John,
      I have heard the ashes of deceased people are actually harmful for vegetation, because the pH is less than optimal. Those are great questions, and I suppose it would depend on the beliefs behind the decision. A few questions to consider are what faith tradition or religious construct are they part of? What theological understanding or lack there of are they exhibiting in such a request? I’ll add your questions to my growing list though. Thanks for asking and considering with me.

  7. mm Chris Pollock says:

    William Gladstone’s quote is so cool. Thanks for sharing it. Wondering now about the dead. I saw some pictures today of the Holocaust in a book called “The World Must Know”. Some of the pictures portrayed the way in which those who had died were handled. Heart-wrenching. The pictures I viewed certainly depicted the atrocities of the times and relative apathy. Disconnection.

    Something is missing.

    Darcy, I totally appreciated the movement through your post too. Even that was thought-provoking, deeply creative threading 🙂

    Love the thought of us embodying the best story ever told, one of resurrection out of a gnarly death experience. Praise God. Now, I’m thinking of adjusting the Halloween theme on the front lawn to something a little more lively!

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