Monday, November 10, 2008

Guest Column

Todd Ferguson is one of the Associate Pastors at Willow Meadows Baptist, where I serve as Pastor.  Todd handled the graveside portion of a funeral recently and wrote this great piece about the funeral industry.  Thanks, Todd, for sharing.  You may direct comments to him by posting here.

The Factory


The art on the wall was mass-produced, and the ficus was definitely fake.  The carpet was supple and industrial and dark forest green to make sure no stains would show.  There was even a coffee station.  The woman with the name badge looked at me with a genuine but well-rehearsed smile.  I told her who I was, and she replied, “Yes- You are in Grand Room 3.”  I graciously smiled back, but internally, I sighed deeply as I walked passed other rooms with fake ficus trees and fake art.

I sighed because I was not walking to any ballroom at any national hotel in America.  Sure, places like Holiday Inn or Double Tree are known for their Hobby Lobby-esque art, their industrial carpet, and their coffee stations.  I sighed because I was at a funeral home.

“Funeral Home” is such an ironic term for what I experienced today.  The word “home” implies a place of familiarity, of comfort, and of knowing.  The family that I saw today was not familiar with the couch on which they were sitting.  There was no dip in its springs from years of watching TV with the rest of the family, no Dr. Pepper stain from a Friday night 3 years ago.  Instead, this family- in the midst of their grief- was removed from all comfort and familiarity and placed in a foreign “home” so that they could mourn.

However, they couldn’t mourn too long because the genuine-but-rehearsed woman with the name badge guided us to the actual gravesite (while another family moved into Grand Room 3).   As we drove to the site, we passed thousands and thousands of other graves.  They were testaments to the thousands of other families who sat on that same couch back in Grand Room 3 looking at the same fake ficus tree through their weary eyes.

I could go on and on to describe the experience, but I’ll stop.  This funeral home, which is a franchised chain of thousands of funeral homes, did the best they could.  I am not blaming them.  The woman with the name badge was pleasant, respectful, and extremely helpful in facilitating a funeral.  I think, however, that the funeral home is a product of our culture.

Since the 1780’s, our culture has been creating factories because the factory system can accomplish things more quickly, efficiently, and cheaply.  It’s easier to build watches if all parts are made in one location with one streamlined method with one series of interchangeable parts.  That’s the factory system.  Before this process became popular, each watch piece had to be handcrafted at the watchmaker’s shop. 

Today, I experienced a funeral factory.  In this location, there was a streamlined method for how to take care of a loved one’s death.  Chapel, Grand Rooms, gravesites- they were all there at this one place, and it was efficient.  We celebrated this beautiful woman’s rich and full life in under 30 minutes.

            My question is this: “Is this the best place to honor Grandmother’s life and to lay her body to rest?”  A funeral and a gravesite are places where a person’s life is both celebrated and remembered.  But at these funeral factories, life can not be celebrated because life was not lived there.  This beloved Grandmother did not worship week in and week out in that chapel.  She did not get up and make coffee every morning at that coffee station, and she did not take a long nap every Sunday afternoon on that couch.  This place is not known.  And because it is not known, it is not a “thin place” where the holy meets the mundane.

Instead, the funeral “home” is a location that removes death from everyday life. It keeps the sacred apart from the profane.  This funeral factory contained acres and acres of thousands of graves, separated from actual daily living that continues after the funeral is over.  Having death so far removed from our society keeps us arrogantly unaware that we, too, are mortal, and we will die.

Many people, especially Christians, are realizing the factory-like nature of funeral  homes.  They are wanting to hold together the sacredness of death and the holiness of everyday life.  One way many churches fuse these two is by building columbaria within their garden walls.  These places allow a loved one to rest in piece in the space where they worshiped God each week; it is a familiar place.  And because it is familiar, it is known, which is the perfect “thin place” for God to meet us.

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