Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Death Our Future

The two books below help clergy and laity deal with a wide-variety of issues with respect to the practice of funeral and end of life care.

This review will appear shortly in Reviews in Religion & Theology.

Death Our Future: Christian Theology and Funeral Practice, Peter C. Jupp (ed.), Methodist Church House: Epworth, 2008 (ISBN 978-0-7162-0638-5), xxiii + 272 pp.

Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian Practices for End-of-Life Care, John Swinton and Richard Payne (eds.), Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009 (ISBN 978-0-8028-6339-3), xxiv + 287 pp.

The scene has become familiar: I was asked to lead the graveside service of a person I did not know. The funeral director instructed me upon arriving at the cemetery that a twenty-one gun salute would precede the ceremony. This would be followed by a family member reading a poem about the afterlife. Another family member would sing two stanzas of Amazing Grace, and somewhere in the mix I would share scripture, prayer, and words of commendation. Hopefully, I would have the chance offer the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection and provide a modicum of care!

At the intersection of above situation lie several collisions of narratives: military honor guard and rites, belief in an afterlife, mix of folk religion with working class mores, grief work and pastoral care, local funeral customs, and a pastor charged with preaching the gospel! A whole network of experiences and practices come together to shed light on what persons who offer care at the end of life may encounter as they ‘practice the presence of God.’ It is the occasion for a great deal of theological reflection.

Two books about Christian practice at the end of life call attention to the challenges pastors and caregivers may face when dealing death and dying. Both are works in the area of practical theology, and both attempt to set death within the larger narrative of God’s abundant love in Christ. Both offer insight into the tensions with which pastoral practitioners contend when confronting the reality of suffering and death and the communication of the gospel in late modern culture. Both supply resources to those who share the hope of the kingdom and the promise of life eternal.

In Death Our Future, Peter Jupp assembles a wide-variety of voices to discuss changes in funeral practices in Great Britain over the last ten years. Responding to the Princess Diana phenomena the book sets ‘the funeral in the changing context of death, bereavement and funeral organization,’ exploring critical aspects of death in five key sections: modern death and bereavement, theologies of death and the afterlife, the disposal of the dead, funeral liturgies, and regional cultures (p. x). Though addressed to caregivers in Britain the book serves as a vital contribution to persons who are ‘dealing with the challenges mortality poses for all societies’ (p. xv). The ecumenical nature of the material makes it a helpful tool for ongoing theological reflection. It is by no means a ‘how-to’ book. Caregivers who are dealing with cremation, for examples, will want to think through the essays in the section on the disposal of the dead (p. 141); others concerned with issues pertaining to the environment will want to consider the ways in which funerals are becoming ‘green’ (p. 148). Western culture’s fascination with the afterlife also figures prominently throughout the work, along with the need to comprehend the importance of context for the practice of ritual (p. 212). In bringing together these essays, Jupp provides helpful yet additional work to the growing field of practical theology and the church’s ministry of contending with the ‘commercialization of death’ in the West (p. 12). There is much in this book that forges a truly Christian theology of death in a highly secular culture.

Living Well and Dying Faithfully also explores how Christian practices contribute to our understanding of death and dying. Though not focused on funeral practices as such, the work extends the conversation Cupp and others carry on with respect to the importance of practices in the Christian life and the continuing debate on appropriate end-of-life care, especially as that care pertains to theology and medicine (p. xvii). In fact, the essays collected in this volume make a critical contribution to the way we imagine care at the end of life and in the face of suffering (p. xvi). Indeed, throughout, there is the foundational argument that ‘there is another way in which we might approach death and dying, a way that is rooted in the Christian tradition and that offers transformed understandings and practices that can work alongside current knowledge to bring healing and hope’ (p. xvi). In other words, as Swinton and Payne ask in the Introduction, why is our first response to death and dying medicine and not theology (p. xvi)? It is important to remember ‘not simply what medicine does but where it does what it does – within creation’ (p. xvii). Key to reframing issues of death and dying is to consider that ‘we do medicine in a theological context rather than doing theology in a medical context’(p. xviii).

Living Well and Dying Faithfully is a concentrated effort by persons in theology and medicine to supply an imaginative theological response to the ‘techno-medicine’ narrative which has come to define much of Western approaches to death and dying in modernity (p. xv). The three primary sections of the work elucidate this theme and explore how practices such as compassion, prayer, lament, healing, and hope, to name a few, help us to attend to God and life’s ultimate purpose both during and at the end of life. As a work in practical theology, the book offers the kind of wisdom that can assist with understanding that end of life care begins not only at the graveside but with our worship of God throughout life (p. xiii).

Both of these works offer worthwhile reflection on Christian practices in the face of death and dying in Western culture. Throughout, there is an intentional effort to counter the narratives of late modernity with the wisdom of the Christian tradition. As Swinton and Payne suggest in their Conclusion, utilizing insights from Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas, there is a strong need to ‘re-fund’ the Christian imagination with respect to end-of-life care: that is, to envision care in the face of death and dying imbued with God’s abundant grace, and, in doing so, to ‘remind those who work within the field of care that the primary task of care giving is to enable people to love God in all things and at all times’ (p. 275). There is a need to re-examine the assumptions out which the church has dealt with death and dying and to challenge the dominant medical model of care and knowledge that has preoccupied the modern era, all the while acknowledging medicine’s contributions to life and well-being. How to re-imagine end-of-life care by listening to what both medicine and theology mutually bring to the table is what makes their volume of essays compelling. Likewise, Cupp’s set of essays lifts up the unique ‘vocabularies and rituals in the Christian armory’ that give personal support to individuals and communities in their specific needs (p. xv). As a work in practical theology, it encourages the kind of ‘reflective dialogue’ that continues the conversation on the church’s mission in Western culture.

Both of these works address numerous issues regarding end of life care and the practice of ministry: the rise of different funeral liturgies (both secular and sacred), the rise of green funeral practices, the traditional debate of the resurrection of the body versus the immortality of the soul, the role of grief and mourning, the growing commercialization of death coupled with the increasing consumerism of the funeral industry, to name a few. All of these aspects of death and dying and care at the end of life impinge upon ministerial practice and theological reflection; and all call for the kind of deep and abiding wisdom the Christian faith offers with respect to how we rethink and re-imagine what it means to live and die well.

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