Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Distancing Ourselves From Death

As I made mention the other day, I have accepted a Senior Pastor position, and will be starting within the next month. This of course means great transitions in life, but it also means many new opportunities and experiences on the professional side.

One thing that has been on my mind is funerals. Strange, huh? I have been thinking about how being a senior pastor will require of me at some point to perform funerals, as well as care and counseling for those who are grieving. This has been spurring a set of thoughts that was randomly clarified by an episode of "Little House on the Prairie". I was flipping through stations while cleaning my office this afternoon, and caught a short segment. I can't say I've ever watched a whole episode, but this moment in the show was good. A man had come from "back East" to tell his daughter her mother had died. A month ago. He didn't feel that sending a letter was the proper thing. I turned the TV off to contemplate this further.

Our culture has become greatly distanced from death. We do everything we can to avoid it, both personally as well as corporately. We try all sorts of things to add years to our lives. If I told you that the bark from a young oak sapling was a great source of anti-oxidants (which help reduce the rate of cancer, helping you live longer), someone would try to make it commercially available. This plays out in many ways. Plastic surgery would be another great example.

When someone dies, we hire someone to take the body and prepare it for burial. We pay someone else to clean up any mess from the death. We've created an elaborate (and expensive) system all around our avoidance of death.

Back in the 1870's (Little House time), and in other regions in our world, death was a different experience. It was far more "real" to those people I think. The cow you are eating for dinner was the same one standing in your field a day ago. Medicine was rudimentary at best, and things we take for granted today killed thousands in localized outbreaks.

We have become experts at suppressing, delaying and avoiding grief.

So you might be saying to yourself at this point, alright, get to the conclusion already. I'm not sure I have a conclusion at this stage. Some of this is our microwave culture - instant gratification. But I think there is more there to be unearthed. We as a culture are changing the way we grieve, but I wonder if that is for the good. We still have the same needs to address, the tug of the grave never changes. As for me, I'll continue thinking about this, but I suspect the reality won't fully set in until I am elbows deep in ministering to someone in their time of need. I pray for the wisdom and ability to grieve with them.

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Anonymous said...

when i was in college, the head of the sociology department hired me as his TA. he knew i wanted to go into Christian Counseling, and he taught the Death and Dying Course. i didn't do anything as his TA but sit through two years of that course. 4 repetitive semesters.

but it took the edge off of all-things-morbid... now,i'm glad i sat through those classes.

i think you have a point - we don't know how to deal with death - the inevitable.

Milton Stanley said...

Glad to hear you found work, Chris. I don't know much at all about Congregational churches, but I pray you will preach the Gospel faithfully and boldly to them.

You're on-target about the pathological avoidance of death in our culture. Are you aware, for example, of the origins of the word, "living room." As I recall, the term was coined in 1912 by the editor of a women's magazine who wanted to ban the term "parlor" from his magazine. The parlor was, of course, the room where dead bodies were placed for a funeral wake. The term caught on and has pretty much supplanted the word parlor (now used almost exclusively for funeral buildings). This modern death-denial, by the way, has pretty much tracked the popular loss of faith in what awaits us after death. Whether they are theologically right or wrong, a society that tries to deny death is a very unwell society.

On the bright side (so to speak), death shatters the illusion so that non- and nominal-Christians are forced to face up to death. There may be no more opportune time for Christians (including, especially, vocational ministers) to talk about what matters most than at funeral times. In the face of death, family members may actually stop talking about sports, politics, cars, clothes, and money long enough to actually face up to their desperate need for a Savior.