Dead Thoughts, Part 3

Arlington Cemetery

I understand the tradition of having the body at the funeral. I also understand how an “open casket” that cradles that body might help in the grieving process.

However, I personally don’t want mine there (not that I’ll have a vote when the final decision is made). As a professional minister, I would also never encourage anyone to include the body.

Several years ago, I asked Facebook friends about whether or not the deceased’s body should “attend” the funeral. Joy Wheland Cole (whose husband was a pastor) responded with,

After kissing my cold, embalmed parents and realizing they weren’t there, I decided cremation was much more helpful in realizing the finality of the death. My husband was cremated and I truly found more comfort in seeing the urn than seeing my parents’ embalmed bodies!!

Cole’s response invites a key question: what will bring the living comfort? I would add:

  • What were the wishes of the deceased?
  • Do any religious or family traditions influence the decision?
  • If a family has conflicts about having/not having the body present, are they avoiding other issues? For example, what if tension between the deceased’s second spouse and the stepchildren isn’t about the body (safer to debate) but about old hurts or a new inheritance (things complicated to be honest about)?

Whatever the living decide about the dead, it’s far better if there were open discussions about dying and death beforehand. That’s easier to suggest than accomplish. Many avoid talking about death, treating it like the plague, an embarrassment, an inconvenience, or only happening to others. Even we modern remain strangely superstitious about mortality. If we mention death, won’t death happen? Or if I encourage discussion about having or not having the beloved’s body present, will my family dismiss me as morbid or inappropriate?

But here’s an unavoidable fact: will all of you reading this please raise your hands if you think you will die?

I’ll wait . . .

Oops, look, everybody has a hand in the air.

Now put your hands down and talk about what you want with the people who need to know. And if you change your mind about what you want, don’t assume your adorable or cranky loved ones will be able to read your mind. (My father was once adamant about his body being buried in the ground. Early in his life, he was influenced by the Book of Revelation’s passages about the dead rising from their graves. But he and Mom continued pondering the “best” choices. He was cremated, because Mom knew what he wanted.)

What are the choices?

Funeral: typically done soon* after the death, this is considered the most formal service. Most religious groups have suggested orders of worship for a funeral. It will typically be indoors at a place of worship or funeral home. The body is present. The casket/coffin** may or may not be closed. There may be a graveside service before or after the funeral.

Memorial Service: there is no body, and the “cremains” may or may not be present. This service, where the focus is on remembering the one who has died, may occur quickly or weeks/months later. Perhaps words from a traditional funeral are used along with unique input from the clergy or family. The location can vary, including sanctuaries, funeral homes, or a person’s home. A memorial, like the funeral, would probably be more somber.

Graveside Service: in the second half of my active ministry (I formally retired in 2018), a higher percentage of the services I did for church folk and non-church folk started and concluded at the graveside. They were simple. Frankly, they were often “cheaper.” If the deceased was a veteran, a graveside service may include a military “salute.” Sometimes, though not always, there might be a meal afterwards with family and close friends joining together.

Celebration of Life: From days to months after the death (burial or cremation), this is often less about conforming to religious traditions and more honoring a well-lived life. With or without a clergyperson, the family organizes a service to highlight positive memories of the deceased. Pictures and story-telling will likely be essential. Some Celebrations may be in a sanctuary, but might also occur in someone’s backyard or favorite restaurant.

A gathering: a generic word I use to describe the living doing something to remember the deceased. Often, whether or not the family is “religious,” no clergy are involved in the planning. Maybe ashes are scattered in a particular place and then it’s off to a restaurant. Maybe it’s a picnic in the backyard or park, with the deceased’s favorite drink hoisted in honor of him or her. It’s casual. Any form of a “gathering” is more formless than formal, based on wanting people to share stories and have a specific time together.

Green burial: And let’s not forget the recent options for formal funerals or informal gatherings. The Green Burial Council (a non-profit) offers a good definition: it’s a “way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.” Check out their webpage or other sites you might find online. Though I haven’t had any contact with the Green Burial Council, they seem to be reputable starting point for information.

I’ve left lots of stuff out: visitations, viewings, wakes, and more. I am at best an amateur on all the ways various faith traditions honor the deceased. For example, my understanding is that Mormons don’t mandate burial, but prefer it over cremation; Quakers don’t mandate cremation, but likely prefer it over burial. (And a religion or funeral expert might read my examples and roll their eyes because I am so, so wrong . . .)

I’ve made my decision. (Have you?) Cremation please. I have no insider facts about what happens after death. I faithfully believe God’s love is forever, but that doesn’t lead me to anticipate walking through heaven’s pearly gates or strumming a harp at the crest of a cumulus cloud. However, I know I don’t like the notion of embalming and have zero interest in a kind, sensitive funeral director dabbing rouge on my cold cheeks or carefully arranging my lifeless hands. But that’s me; I have no idea about you. I simply and firmly believe only two things:

  1. You and I will die from an accident, mayhem, illness, or old age. I guarantee it.
  2. You might as well let people know what you

If you’re not sure what you want, then talk enough with the people that matter to figure it out. Another guarantee: discussing death won’t kill you. Sure, expressing the words may be hard. And for some, it’ll feel weird. Then again, what if talking about your wishes ends up as one of the finest conversations you’ve ever had with your loved ones? You never know until you open your mouth.

In my prior postings about this topic, I said that the body at the funeral may help people be more forthright with their grief. But, to be blunt, the corpse shouldn’t be the spark to get the conversation underway.

Please, consider openly sharing now about your preferences.

The healthy and honest sharing done before death means the time of grief after will more likely also be healthier and more honest for the living.


*Soon will be different for each tradition for various religions. Jews and Muslims usually have burial within a day. When I was a pastor in rural Wisconsin twenty-five years ago, most of the Christians I served wanted the funeral within three or so days. Though nothing was written down, there seemed an expectation for “soon” and “quick.”

coffin vs. casket**There are differences. Coffins are tapered at the head, caskets are rectangular. In general, the casket uses higher quality material and is likely more expensive than a coffin. (This is probably information you were never interested in . . .)

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image at top: C.J. Linn, Stars and Stripes

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  1. While receiving her outpatient hospice care, my mother had me promise two things: that she would be cremated, and I would scatter her ashes among the red rock in Utah. We had already prearranged her cremation, and I was the designated to receive her ashes.

    Through some online research, I learned that it is legal to scatter cremains in our National Parks. To do it by the book, there is a permit process. There are rules (of course) such as one cannot dump the ashes in a parking lot. Seriously. Just the thought of lowering the car window and pouring out the ashes made me laugh out loud.

    We selected Bryce Canyon and being a govt. bureaucrat, I had my permit. Their designated area was a beautiful overlook. I prayed, and we honored her wishes. (We also scattered her many dogs’ ashes with her, however, that is another story). It was the final gift, I could give her, and it brought me tremendous peace.

    Side note: We drove. If one is going to travel by air, there are FAA regulations that must be followed. One needs to have a certification document from the funeral service stating you are the authorize recipient of the cremains.

    Thank you for all you do for Hinds and for the rest of us.

    • Jennifer:

      Spreading the ashes legally!! Good for you!

      Thanks for sharing about this part of the journey with your mother.

  2. I attended a funeral for a young man where there was not only an open casket, with the body propped so the head was higher than the feet and visible throughout the service, but where you young Mother insisted that their three children – all under age seven kiss Daddy good by.

    • Elisabeth:

      Thanks for sharing this. I wonder who was supporting and talking with those children, before, during, and after the funeral?

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