Funerals should celebrate life, but they should also retell the Gospel story

by Bill Tammeus

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As I sat in the sanctuary of Visitation Catholic Church in Kansas City, Mo., one recent Sunday evening to attend a prayer service commemorating the death of my friend Fr. Norman Rotert, I was made glad again to see a Catholic affirmation of the harsh reality of death.

In front of us was Norm's casket, left open throughout the service.

We could look on the face of this fabulous priest and see with painful bluntness that earthly life was over for him. We weren't left to imagine the toll that illness and death had exacted.

All we could do was celebrate him, as I did a few days later on my daily "Faith Matters" blog, and reaffirm our Christian belief that God in Christ has conquered death.

For some decades now, we Protestants have been doing a stupid, destructive thing. We've been moving from a practice of having bodies present at funerals to conducting disembodied memorial services. Thomas G. Long in his excellent 2009 book, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, rails against this denial of death's piercing edge:

"To put it bluntly, a society that has forgotten how to honor the bodies of those who have departed is more inclined to neglect, even torture, the bodies of those still living. A society that has no firm hope for where the dead are going is also unsure how to take the hands of its children and lead them toward a hopeful future."

But, as Long notes, our religious leaders (much more Protestant than Catholic) have helped to lead us down this path: "The hard truth is that the Christian funeral has been damaged the most, not by its commercial rivals or even by its enemies, but by its theological friends."

Many Protestant funerals today take place not in church sanctuaries, but in the eerily tranquil chapels of funeral homes -- rooms with no connection whatsoever to the life to the deceased. Piped-in music butters the air, and either a closed casket or no casket at all but a photo of the person who died sits up front.

The service is called not a witness to the resurrection, but a celebration of life.

Should we celebrate a life at the time of death? Absolutely. But a Christian funeral also should retell the Gospel story, should affirm that we died with Christ in our baptism and will be raised with Christ.

That's what Father Norm's prayer service was leading up to the next day at his funeral, which I was unable to attend. And as the service did that, it said to those of us who loved this remarkable, gentle man that he never again personally would lead us against the forces of darkness in our city, never pray with us, never challenge us to be the body of Christ for others, especially those in need.

There he lay, his fragile, veined hands folded over one another.

It was a call to the rest of us to take up the work of those hands -- a call that we would not have heard at all or would have heard only dimly had his body not been present.

Back in the 1970s, a teenage boy attacked Norm near his home and slashed his face with a broken pop bottle. I visited Norm in the hospital then and could tell he was befuddled by the event. He couldn't sort out why someone from the very neighborhood he was committed to being part of and helping would do that to him.

But he took a deep breath and, scarred physically and emotionally, recommitted himself to ministry.

It was that idea of staying the course, of not letting adversity prevent us from reaching out to a wounded world that was most palpable when we looked at Norm's casketed body. So praise for his life and, in grateful awe, for his death.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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