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For a short time, I worked for a funeral company in Knoxville, TN. It was short for one reason. I can handle dead bodies and truly find it meaningful to comfort the bereaved in Christ, but I could not stomach the business.
Of course, the company and those who worked for it are not here to defend themselves. There were good things about the company, and many good people worked for it. What I could not stand was what I saw as pretense and money grubbing.
In the back-room with staff and sales people there were often conversations about how much money could be made in the funeral business, and how to go about making it. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful in a job or business. Businesses may have mottos which say, “You are our number one priority” but we know it is often slogan. People who come to bury their dead are in a more vulnerable place than those shopping for a dishwasher or pair of socks.
In the funeral business we met people in shock, numb with pain, afraid for their future, feeling like orphans, lonely and unsure, in an environment and place of decision-making they had never been in before. And there is no leisure for making decisions. Choices need to be made immediately. I was grieved and sicken by the subtle pressure on the survivor to “properly” care for and “honor” the memory of their loved one.
“This will be your last great chance to honor your Dad. I’m sure you loved him deeply. How would you like to show your appreciation for him – the way he cared for you, the fun times you had, all the things you owe him? He certainly was a valuable person to you. How would you like to show how you valued him?”
Today most people who bury their loved-one embalm the body so it will last 4,000 years, put it in a water-tight casket, and put the casket in a concrete box buried underground. There are other little things like the flowers, obituary notices, a cleric to conduct a service, the meeting room, piped in music, and such. The average funeral cost $7500. Of course, that is only if you love the deceased in an average way. “I’m sure you’ll want to go all out and buy the bronze casket with ‘the lifetime-warranted pillow.’”
Most people who came to the funeral home were not rolling in cash. Today the “bare bones” cremation is about $1000. The price is typically considerably higher. It seems most who cremate are seeking economy.
“You don’t need to worry. We do accept credit cards. Every time you make a payment you can remember your dear old Dad and how much you own him.” I lasted about two months in this atmosphere. My conclusion, “Let the dead bury their dead.”
I visited Mount Angel Abby in Oregon in my college days. When a brother in the monastery died, the others would dig the grave, wrapped him in burlap, and pour the dirt back on him. I’m confident this cost less than $7500. This seemed so faith-filled and authentic. It lacked a lot of the outward forms of most funerals but seemed to have plenty of heaven’s content. I wonder why more people don’t follow this practice.
In former days families would invite loved ones to come see the deceased laying in the bed or on the kitchen table to say their goodbyes. Someone in the family might build a box. Friends would dig the hole, lower the body and cover it up. This was done without paying for cosmetics. They might cover the grave with stones or place a wooden cross at the head.
Did you know that in most state you can bury a loved one in your pasture or back yard? You must wait for the coroner to show up and submit the death certificate but then you can handle the body according to your wishes. If you consider doing this check your state laws. The funeral industry has made this practice harder in some places. If you sell the property you must inform the new owner of the burial.
I’ve often thought I’d like to buy a pasture for goats and sheep and let people bury their dead there. I’d call it “Potter’s hill.” Perhaps I’d charge $100 if the family was not able to dig the hole themselves. That would be one way to get rich.
I’ve conducted many funerals and memorials. It is impossible for us to prevent the truth, “Dust you are, to dust you shall return.” We Christians don’t look at visible things which are destined to perish but to invisible realities which never end. How grateful we are to the One named, “The Resurrection and The Life!” When it is time to bury our dead may we do so with Heaven’s perspective and peace.
Steven C Johnson