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Good Grief

| 23.7.03
'Good Grief: An Undertaker's Reflections,' by Thomas Lynch

I have found that my notion of what existence after death must be like has been greatly affected by what seems most desirable or unattainable in the present. When I was in college and seeking estatic religious experiences (attending a charasmatic church) I envisioned heaven to be one eternal "praise and worship" session. Later, as I became interested in more contemplative approaches to spirituality, I became attracted to the notion that my individual ego would dissapate and peacefully dissolve into the Divine. I still like that image. Most recently --perhaps over-tired from chasing after a two-year-old-- the biblical image of sleeping in the grave until the end of the age (see 1 Corinthans 15:51) sounds very inviting.

Interestingly enough, all of these visions of the afterdeath (except perhaps for the last one) care little about the physical body. It's seen as merely a shell, unimportant to both the deceased and to those left behind. Often it seems unsightly, embarrassing, and even a little uncomfortabe to come face-to-face with a corpse. When is the last time you've been to an open-casket funeral? With cremation and other creative options becoming ever more popular, often the "memorial service" won't feature the deceased at all.

It is precisely this "shell game" that Thomas Lynch, funeral director and author of The Undertaking: Bodies in Motion and Still Life in Milford argues passionately against in 'Good Grief: An Undertaker's Reflections.' Lynch's thesis --cogently backed up by Christian tradition and scripture-- is that how we treat the dead is part of the social fabric of our dealings with the living. If St. Paul could write so eloquently of our spirts, and call our bodies a "temple of God," should we not treat the corpse with respect also?

Perhaps most provocative is Lynch's view that funerals are better when the corpse is present, because it helps the mourners come to terms with both the physical separation of death as well as the spiritual questions death raises. "The funeral --that ritual wheel that works the space between the living and the dead-- must deal with our humanity and our Christianity, our spiritual and natural realities, our flesh, our fears, and our faith and hopes, our bodies and our souls." (p. 22)

Of course, like many I'm highly interested in what medical science can do to extend the human lifespan --maybe I'll live to be 100! Even if near immortality is achieved, however, accidents will still happen and everyone will die sooner or later. Lynch's critique of contemporary atittudes towards death and dying raises important questions about how to die a "good death."

PUBLISHER: The Christian Century, pp 20-23. July 26, 2003 issue. ISSN: 0009-5281
LINKS: http://www.christiancentury.org

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