For centuries, religious believers have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that, in some cultures, could get lively.
The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people didn't confuse their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted author Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known online as a poet and hymn composer. But something strange happened in American culture the past decade or so: People started planning fun funerals.
"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems the goal is for people to be able to keep their heads in the sand and not have to face what has happened," said Bird in a telephone interview.
Thus, when it comes time to plan funerals, many people in the modern age -- including many religious believers -- have "lost that sense of the reality, the gravity of death itself," he added. "The problem is that if death is denied, then it's hard to understand the true meaning of life and our hope for the life to come."
Instead of funerals, we have events defined by the comfortable label, "A Celebration of Life." These services tend to focus on good times in the past, rather than on faith, grief and hope in the present.
To illustrate what this trend looks like in practice, Bird recently wrote an online meditation in which -- speaking as a traditional Christian -- he listed some phrases that he wants banned from the eulogy at his own funeral. For example:
-- "He was a good man." That's out of line, he said, because "even if I were the moral equivalent of Mother Teresa," funerals are not supposed to celebrate someone's "moral resume." In Christian theology, the goal is to remember God's love for sinners -- including the one in the coffin.
-- "We are not here to mourn Chad's death, but to celebrate his life." This is a false note, argued Bird, because the "gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause."
-- "What's in that coffin is just the shell of Chad." Actually, he said, "My body is God's creation, an essential part of my identity. It is not a shell. It is God's gift to me."
Want to end your "Celebration of Life" with your college fight song or a Beatles classic, like "The End"? The spirit of the age says, "Just do it."
The bigger question, said Bird, is why clergy and believers who embrace their own faith traditions would want to join in this trend.
"The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith," he noted. "If you pass up the chance to do that, then you really haven't honored anyone. ...
"This is serious, because liturgical scholars say that when our liturgies -- including our funerals -- have changed to fit the culture, then that change is real. I don't see this as a passing fad."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.