Ministry in Context

The undertaking

by Ingrid Arneson Rasmussen

“A good funeral gets the dead to where they are going, and the living to where they need to be.” –Thomas Lynch

During theology school, I took a preaching course on death and dying with Tom Long. Long assigned Thomas Lynch’s book entitled The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch, a poet and a funeral director in Michigan, shares Long’s abiding interest in the way that the living treat the dead.

Unless your internship congregation defies the odds, most of you are likely to witness a funeral this year. Some of you may even lead families, friends, and the occasional funeral crasher through the liturgy for Christian burial. (At my first graveside service, a woman with no connection to the deceased stood up in a pink brassiere and an oversized sport coat and announced that she had brought treats: boiled eggs, yogurt, and Diet Cokes.) Whether we’re watching or whether we’re leading or whether we’re crashing, we’re all performing, Lynch would say. And our performance matters.

It’s easy to forget this. Of course, we all remember the first time that we stood with a grieving family as the casket was closed and locked. And years from now we’ll be able to recall what it felt like to carry the casket up the stairs to the sanctuary that day when the undertaker needed an extra hand. As with most things, though, time and repetition cause the movements to become routine. Some in the church would say it’s an act of self-preservation; those of us in the ‘business of death’ can’t grieve the loss of each beloved elder or pause for more than a few moments to remember each saint gone before us.

Lynch would argue that by distancing ourselves from the dead, however, we also distance ourselves from the living. I dare say that he is onto something. I am evermore convinced that our congregations are filled with grieving people—people who are mourning the loss of a job, an irreparable relationship, the end of a childhood dream, the news from the fertility clinic, or the overwhelming feelings of loneliness in the midst of over-programmed lives. Time and time again, Jesus met his friends in their grief; it’s time that Jesus’ followers follow suit. Lynch, in his honest and cheeky way, helps us imagine how we might do just that.

Feeling ambitious? Read Thomas G. Long’s Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral too.

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