The Rev. Art Kimber believes the church must play a far greater role in explaining Christian belief about death and its rituals and in helping people plan their final arrangements than it does at present.
The longtime Episcopal priest and hospice chaplain is not alone in his concern.
"We are afraid of death," says the Rev. Vienna Cobb Anderson. "We don't know what to do. We don't know what to say. We need to learn that we don't need to know, we just need to love."
Anderson has been talking about death, thinking about death and caring for those for whom death is near for more than 25 years through a hospice, the St. Francis Center and several parish ministries. She, too, feels the church needs to be more aggressive and imaginative, both pastorally and liturgically.
"Clergy should be encouraging people to make decisions about what they want ... encouraging preplanning," says Kimber, who serves as president of the Memorial Society of Cape Cod, Mass., and conducts advance-directives workshops.
"They should be providing their people with grounding from a theological perspective, from the church's belief perspective. ... People in the congregation ought to be prepared in advance for the inevitability of death and what we as Christians believe about that and about the body."
Kimber wants to know that when a person dies, "adequate preplanning is done so that the family knows what they are going to do." Then he wants to see "the community come together in caring and support of those who are remaining ... and, through the pastor or other key lay people, provide pastoral support to the survivors, help them through those first hours and days."
Anderson, now associate rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Richmond, Va., has come up with a practical way to assure the grounding Kimber talks of. Over the course of several pastorates, Anderson has created an extensive resource to help families prepare for death, a 61-page, spiral-ring "Caring Packet" which provides both information and opportunity.
The packet describes wills, living wills, organ donation, bequests, the duties of an executor and just how to write a confidential letter of intent. It provides fill-in forms for an advance medical directive, locator lists for "important documents," for assets and debts, friends and people to contact. It offers teachings on Christian burial, on health insurance, choosing a nursing home, home health care and hospice programs. Anderson even includes her own insights and encouragement about visiting the sick and the dying.
There's an outline for writing an obituary, a checklist of things to be done at the time of death and all necessary helps for planning a sensitive and liturgically correct funeral service. "It gives you information about what is Christian burial, is cremation acceptable, what's the difference between a memorial service and a funeral service," says Anderson. "We encourage people to [photocopy] it. Give a copy to a family member ... to their doctor, a copy to their lawyer, a copy to their priest."
Anderson's "Caring Packet" is one of several aids published within the Episcopal Church. All can be ordered from their publishers. See "Who can help you" below.
Belief and ritual
Planning for the final arrangements is, however, only a part of what the church could be offering and teaching. In her best-selling book, "The American Way of Death," Jessica Mitford posed questions she thought clergy should be answering with their congregations. Primary were questions about "the actual requirements of the ritual" and "the status of the dead body" and what should be done with it in the church's thinking and theology.
"There is no requirement that a body be present" for a service in the church, says Kimber. "The only requirement is that people be present to worship." "The status of the dead body is that it is laid to rest for the time of the resurrection. There is a great theological debate as to whether the soul leaves the body and goes to a place of eternal bliss or whether everything waits until a general resurrection on the last day," says Kimber. "What I say is the person is safe in God's love and presence and it is God's gift that gave them life in the first place. It will be God's gift of new life in God's time."
Kimber believes, "It makes no difference whether the body is cremated, whether it's buried in the ground or disposed of at sea. The end result is the same. It is a process of oxidation, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
The Episcopal Church does not take a stand on willing a body for medical research, says Kimber, "but that is a wonderful gift."
About the actual committal ceremony, Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, an organization of Episcopal clergy and laity, does take a strong stand. "The committal is the last rite, and its central and memorable ceremony is the casting of earth upon the coffin, urn or any other final receptacle," says Associated Parishes in its "The Burial of the Dead: A Commentary." "This brief liturgy should take place with stark simplicity. The hole should be visible, not covered with flowers. The bare earth should be visible, not covered with fake grass. The coffin should be lowered into the grave or pushed into the vault, not held back until the mourners have departed."
Associated Parishes holds a definite position on treatment of the body, also. "Cosmetic treatment of the body serves no Christian purpose," according to the "Commentary." "The body should be dressed simply in its own clothes ... the coffin should be plain and inexpensive ... an open coffin, rather than facilitating grief, usually blocks the process by exciting the curiosity of "viewers" at the wake."
Like Associated Parishes, Anderson believes the church is the best place for all rituals, including wakes. "We have a theological reason for that," she says. "We come and gather in community ... in a holy place. You were baptized there and celebrated your gift of eternal life there, so that is the place to return to enter into this new life."
During her years as rector of St. Margaret's Church in Washington, D.C., Anderson encouraged families to bring the body to the church the night before the funeral for a wake. "We would put four tall, wonderful funereal candles at each corner of the coffin and light them. Then we would gather and people would tell stories about the person who had died. We would pray ... then we would close the coffin and have a final prayer and benediction. People would then go into the parish hall to have something to eat. ... It seemed to us important, as a community, to nurture the individual."
At Epiphany Episcopal Church, Wilbraham, Mass., the congregation frequently holds a vigil through the night before a burial. People sign up to sit with the body until the funeral the next morning. "I feel it's really important that we spend time with the body," says parishioner Joyce Lewis. "We pray for that person and their family until we are ready to have the Eucharist and celebrate that passing on into the next life."
A need for the holy
Anderson understands. "People need the holy. They need the raw edge of holiness. They need to know that God is there in that rawness with them. They need to feel free to cry."
"We put Kleenex in every pew," says Anderson, "every single pew, to remind people that it is OK to cry. I let myself cry."
"It is when you let yourself be touched personally that you are able to really be moved, and to be moving and enable others to grieve ... and at the same time rejoice."
Anderson encourages clergy to spend plenty of time before a funeral with the family. "You need to talk. You need to encourage them to talk. You need to hear the life of the person. You need to let the emotions, the feelings, the relationships get inside you."
Many clergy don't deal with funerals very well, Anderson says, and she believes it is because they, like many of their parishioners, are afraid of death. She discovered this during her four years working as a hospice chaplain when she had trouble convincing pastors or priests to come visit.
"We've got to break that down and learn to let the pain in ... [learn] how to live life in the midst of pain instead of putting on this fake bravado that keeps death at a distance and therefore keeps grief at a distance and isolates.
"The more we are invited and encouraged to touch our vulnerability, the deeper we touch the holiness inside of ourselves. The greater we understand our humanity and our lives, the more richly we understand God's presence in that."