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A funeral director says many churches (unknowingly) promote a ‘death negative’ narrative

What do you think about when you think about funerals?

Most of us probably think about death, grief, mourning, tears, and the well-dressed corpses of lost loved ones. But Caleb Wilde, a longtime funeral director, says that working funerals has taught him about joy, community, faith, and the beauty of a life well-lived. His new book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life,” is both a fascinating look into the funeral industry and a compelling reflection on what it means to be a living, breathing human.

Here, Wilde discusses how the church has promoted a “death negative” narrative and what his line of work can do to reverse that.

Image courtesy of HarperOne

RNS: Let’s start with a selfish question. What are some of the weirdest things you’ve seen in the funeral business?

CW: The weirdest things are “R-rated” in nature, but this story might interest your readership. And I should preface this story by saying that all grief expressions are valid, but not all are healthy.

A couple years ago, we served the family of a 50-year-old man who died from a sudden heart attack. He and his wife were members of a Pentecostal church that believed with enough prayer, enough faith, and a dash of anointing oil, God would happily raise the dead. The day before the funeral, the wife, a couple pastors and a few elders came to the funeral home and prayed for the deceased’s resurrection. After about five hours of prayer and a couple ounces of oil, they left and gave us these instructions; “Don’t close the lid of the casket in case he revives during the night.”

The next day came, and the man was still dead. To make this worse, as we put the casket in the cemetery vault, the wife was utterly despondent. She was afraid her husband would resurrect in the grave and, unable to get out, would suffer death all over again.

RNS: The subtitle of your book is, “How the business of death saved my life.” How so?

CW: Death has a way of ripping off the masks we wear in everyday life. If you don’t like someone, you generally keep it to yourself – but not so much when you’re grieving.  On the other hand, we tend to mute our affections in everyday life. But all the hugs, kisses, and I love you’s come pouring out when we’ve lost someone. So death creates this culture all its own, where everybody reveals a more honest version of themselves.  Death has often been personified as this dark and brooding figure, but it can be an expert teacher that leads us to a fuller humanity. I’ve found that teacher-version of death while working in death care. It’s revived my life, and you could even say that it saved it.

RNS: Most people don’t like to think about death. I don’t! What has your work taught you about how can the living can prepare for the inevitable experience of death?

CW: Living with an awareness of my mortality has become my source for spirituality, so I’m slightly unusual in regard to the contemplation of death. Spirituality is the air that fills up our chest and enlivens us, and sometimes that air is a mixture of darkness and light. There’s so much talk today about how to embrace our humanity, but most of that talk somehow overlooks the very thing that defines us as humans: our mortality.

This is who we are. We are mortals. We aren’t gods. Neither are we dirt. And finding that tension, finding light in the shadow of death, instead of ignoring or denying it, just might be the key to helping us fully live. This is my story: I’ve found a death spirituality that has drawn me closer to myself, closer to others, and closer to God.

RNS: You say that churches often promote a “death negative” narrative. What does that mean?

CW: The death negative narrative permeates all of Western culture, but many churches have an added theological layer that fortifies it.  The death negative narrative starts from a position that death, and our mortality, is at heart both shameful and has little to no redeeming value.

The narrative has a lot of sources but for me, my Christian upbringing also contributed to my negative perspective about death. Many Christians teach that death is the punishment — a curse — for the horrible act of sin. All of us are stained with mortality, it’s not a natural part of who we are, nor is it something that’s healthy for our species.  Death is to be fought in every case, just like our sin, or just abdicated to the professionals like me.

RNS: How can churches change this and develop a “death positive” narrative?

CW: The church has a long history of death positivity, of embracing mortality and death care. Cicely Saunders, a visionary for the modern day hospice movement, was informed by her Christian beliefs.  During the Black Plague, the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying), a widely used Christian instructional book on how to die a good death, allowed families to both physically and spiritually care for their dying and dead.  And taking its cue from the Jewish Chevra kadisha, the early church surrounded its dead with a group of men and women from within the church community.

Today, traditional churches have a great sense of the communion of the saints, with their use of icons and observance of holy days like All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  Yet, like most communities, the church has abdicated death care to the “professionals” because in a capitalist society it’s easier to pay someone to do the work than let love and volunteerism do the work of the dying and the dead.  If the church swings back into our traditions, it can help the church swing forward into the future of death care and death positivity.

RNS: How has dealing in the business of death taught you about what true community looks like?

CW: I tell a story in my book about two preschool-aged granddaughters who are cousins. I watched them while I was helping their parents close the lid of their grandfather’s casket. They were sitting in a church pew watching their parents say their last goodbyes at lid closed. Tears started rolling down the cheeks of the younger of the girls. The older one took notice, got up out her pew, grabbed some tissues and walked the tissues back to her cousin, wiping the cheeks of her cousin.

One of the most rewarding parts of my profession is seeing the sacred spaces that death creates. The basis of community is the basic recognition that we need each other. If we see ourselves as gods who can stand on our own or if we deny our mortality, we’ll never reach out to another. Death creates the cauldron for community. It’s that reminder of how much we just can’t do on our own. It’s the reminder of how much we need each other.

RNS: You say you’ve had a near-death experience. How has that changed your perspective on death and life?

CW: I have near death experiences every day I go to work! But I had an experience at the funeral home when I briefly lost consciousness after feeling a sharp pain in my head. As a funeral director who sees too much death, my mind quickly jumped to the worst possible conclusion after I regained consciousness.

In the back of an ambulance, on my way to the hospital, I had an honest moment of self-reflection that only the feeling of being close to death could have given me. At the time, I was at a crossroads at the funeral home. I was depressed and nearing burnout. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep working in the funeral business. But in that moment of clarity, I decided to stay and see if I could reframe the way I see death.

After a number of tests at the hospital, the doctor told me I was physically exhausted and needed rest, but those moments when I felt close to death allowed me to clarify my life and led me on a path that birthed the contents of my book.

 

 

FOR MORE, CHECK OUT CONFESSIONS OF A FUNERAL DIRECTOR BY CALEB WILDE

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

107 Comments

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  • We all die. Every one of us. Even god died, or so his press kits says.

    I don’t want to die. Who does, aside from my 98 year old aunt, who got very, very tired of being old and frail and weak? Or my friend Fern, who has lived to be 86, but is tired of itching over her whole body all all of the time?

    Even if we could live in eternal youth, health, and vigor, how interesting do you think that would be when you’re 150?

    Religion is a way of dealing with the fear of death. That’s it’s only real function. It tells you you won’t really die, just sort of die, everything will be effin’ lovely after you die. Instead of dying, you get to live for an eternity, which is a hell of a long time, so to speak. Of course, not a shred of proof for it, just a Truck load of wishful thinking.

    I don’t want to die, but I accept it as a part of life. And I have peace because of it. That’s what you get when you are a thoughtful atheist.

    The fear of death is really just the fear of life itself.

  • Religion is a way of dealing with the fear of death. That’s it’s only real function.

    Man, did the milk sour over night? You seem a little more cynical than usual for a Friday morning.😎

    Religion is what you make of it I would say. I’m not very fond of religion and don’t really consider myself religious. That said I am a particpaiting member of a church. It’s through that church that I’ll travel to Haiti not to soon to support and help with a heath fair. So my religion, if we want to call it that, is about improving the quality of life in the here and now also.

    Good morning, go get some fresh milk and post again.🥛

  • Death – for a Christian is a step into the afterlife with the Lord. We will finally get to meet Him and learn what he is really like. There is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus, and we will learn how the “works” we did fared – whether they were good or not.
    We will spend an eternity with the Lord loving, and praising the One who died for us, while basking in His love. What better could there be?

  • all generations change all the time if you could be a vampire think of all the change you could see in your life time if we were vampires

  • If church leaders actually taught the biblical truth about death, sin, resurrection, heaven and hell, there wouldn’t be so much fear, confusion, hopelessness and a damnation of people to a fiery place of torment.

    Saying that death originated because of sin is not “death negativity” it’s just a biblical truth. Just as the scripture in Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6 is – “But the dead know nothing at all, nor do they have any more reward, because all memory of them is forgotten. 6 Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished, and they no longer have any share in what is done under the sun.”

    There’s many more scriptures to tie in but that’s the biblical gist of it, until there’s a resurrection of the dead in God’s due time – not at the funeral parlor or cemetery on the spot. – Having a true bible hope for the future truly lessens the sting that death leaves behind.

    If a person doesn’t want to believe that, that’s their choice. I’m not taking that away from them. Whether we are religious or not, people hate it and have a hard time embracing it because it’s painful to see our loved ones die, no matter how prepared we might be for it. I’m sure it hurts to actually go through the dying process in most cases too, where death would only be relief.

    It’s really the falsehoods taught about death that keep people in mortal fear. I don’t consider death beautiful, I consider it like an enemy soon to be vanquished, but yet I respect death, it’s something that we can still learn to understand, take part in, and don’t have to cower from in the meanwhile.

  • There is every reason to fear, because the truth is your eternity hangs in the balance. Whether you will spend that eternity in heaven with Jesus Christ, enjoying the beatific vision, or if you will spend your eternity in hell, suffering the separation from God and in complete pain and emptiness. It is up to you, you have your choice to make, as we all do. It takes more energy to convince yourself of atheism than to look at all the evidence for God. But hey, I’m rather tired of trying to convince atheists. Believe what you want. At least do the decent thing, that most atheists don’t do, and leave believers alone. They too, have their right to their beliefs.

  • I feel genuinely sorry for the people in these responses whose religion has intentionally shut them off from learning more about themselves and their place in eternity by limiting them to 2000 year and more old information. What other field of interest is so severly constrained to using only ancient data?

  • No, your BELIEF is that eternity hangs in the balance. Looking at god for eternity? The worst re-runs EVER.

    It takes EXACTLY as much energy to be an atheist as your god takes to convince people he exists—i.e., NONE at all. Atheism is simply non-belief. The only difference between us is that I believe in one less god than you do, but for exactly the same reasons that you don’t believe in all of the other gods of men.

    When you HYPER BELIEVERS and TRUE BELIEVERS learn to leave everyone else, believer or liberal believer or atheist or agnostic or believer in another god entirely alone, then BELIEVE me, you will be mightily surprised at how little anyone cares what you believe.

    Your posting here is a perfect example, and I thank you for it. I didn’t attack your religion in particular, but you had to show up to tell me how your are right and I am wrong, how you’re going to go to heaven and I’m going to burn in hell forever because your god loves me so much.

    You can live your life in fear of your god, if you wish. I’m more in fear of you Than he/she/it/them.

  • The very fear that the interviewee describes as an example in the interview led to the practice in England of attaching a bell to the casket with a cord threaded through a hole so the interred could ring the bell in the event life remained subsequent to the burial. The practice was anomalous as well as a mere sop to the credulity of the bereaved and wholly impractical in any case; how could the bell ring when packed around with dirt, and who could hear it from 6 feet beneath the earth? Alternatively, if the cord was attached to a bell above the surface, how often might the bell ring from the effects of the wind? The fear of death is natural, though it ought not to be among Christians given the promises of the Lord. In my experience, Christians mourn the absence of a dearly loved friend and relative who will no longer partake in the community of life, and share its vicissitudes with us, but they then rejoice in the knowledge that a faithful adherent to the teachings of our Lord has gone home to glory with his Master.

  • As is usual, I differ with you on what lies ahead, however your observation that some people just get tired and welcome death in the end is a valid one. I think living endlessly in this present world would indeed become tiresome, but the scripture declares, ” Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man the things that the Lord has prepared for those that love Him.” This promise gives me great hope and excitement as to how interesting Eternity will be for the redeemed.

  • As I enquired of G.J.; Are you guys playing Abbott and Costello? I applaud the repartee, even as I deprecate the lightness of the tone.

  • If it was your job to sit all night in the cemetery to listen for the bell you were said to be working the graveyard shift. No joke.

  • No offense taken. I think the practice of religion can be mistaken for the practice of faith. By faith you invest in people and things with no guarantees. That’s different than faithfully going to church, much different.

  • Why is it important for you to believe that people other than yourself, whom you have judged and condemned, will burn in hell?

  • I posted the question why don’t you answer first? I’ll give you a choice. Why is it important for you to believe that people other than yourself are going to hell? How do you know how God is going to judge any person other than yourself?

  • His Word, Anton.
    John 3:3 – John 3:3English Standard Version (ESV)
    3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[a] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
    Can I help you with something else?

  • How do you know the text accurately elucidates Him? Did the people who wrote and translated it know the mind of God too?

  • You also judge yourself capable of knowing whether or not a person other than yourself has been “born again”.

  • So because you read the Bible you are certain that God is going to judge others and that you know how He is going to do it. I would not put my faith in any god that you or any other person is capable of understanding – too small for me.

  • It’s why I am an it-doesn’t-matterist. It will be whatever it will be. It doesn’t matter what I think it will be. I have no reason to believe it will be the Christian story. But I’ve had enough “experiences” in my life to be interested if I experience anything different than “Eternal” rest.

  • You have got that right. But I think people sometimes mistake faith in themselves – faith that they or others correctly know God’s will and His plan, for Faith in God – Faith that He has got this. He does not need our help. We need His. And the best thing we can do is try to get along and help one another address the problems we _can_ understand. Put your Faith in Him.

  • Since time immemorial, every single one of our ancestors successfully reproduced. The probability that we were born is near zero. How much more loved could a person possibly feel? It seems plain to me.

  • Of course I do. I also know that our parents could have produced upwards of 74 trillion different zygotes and yet here we are. Do you consider yourself fortunate to have been born, given the great probability that you would not?

  • I am more fortunate that Christ formed me in my mother’s womb and made me who I am, so that I can love, and worship Him.

  • How do you know I am not chosen already, are you judging again? I thought we agreed that would best be left to God.

  • Rather than accept the offer/ reject the offer, you fight. Several of your comments have suggested you are not a Christian. God bless.
    btw you stated: Anton Sandi Luckins • 5 hours ago
    I don’t want to know God’s plan. What good would it do?” (edited)

  • We were talking about whether God chooses people to be here and you changed the topic to whether or not I have chosen God. Then rather than admitting that you do not know me, let alone the mind of God, you judge me in His name. You need to stop doing that. How do you know that God did not choose me or any other person to be here?

  • Then I suggest you stop making comments contrary to Christ, if you really are a member of His family. Asking me, ‘What good would it do” in reference to knowing His plan is a fairly good indication that you do not belong to Him. Do you?
    I think you are looking for excuses to feel judged rather than at reality.

  • I propose Christ can take care of Himself. Surely He can handle my comments. So did God choose me to be here or did He just choose you?

  • You are the only one who can answer that question, but, we do know Christians by their fruit, and your fruit has not been Christ-like. I asked you a simple question and you’ve decided to play games.

  • Well, admitting you don’t know everything is a start. I’ll take that for today. Maybe tomorrow you can point out your Christ-like fruit in this thread.

  • Or perhaps you could have answered a simple question.
    Anton, I’m not trying to be rude. Is English your first language?

  • I am going to summarize what I learned from you here. You know God chose that you specifically would be formed in your Mother’s womb because you are confident that you have chosen Him. But you do not know if God chose me to be formed in my Mother’s womb because you do not know if I have chosen Him. Tell me if I have this wrong.

    I propose that God does know, that He makes the decisions and that what you think about Him or His choices changes nothing, except maybe the way you behave.

  • If you would have answered the question I posed in the first place (Why is it important that you believe people other than yourself will burn in hell?), it may not have come to this. Why is it important for you to know whether or not I have chosen God? He knows. What does it matter whether you know or not? Would it make you more or less rude?

  • To Evangeline and Ben-I am a believer but I can say one thing for sure. Both Christians and atheists are guilty of bad mouthing and shaming the other for their beliefs. Both are equally guilty.

  • I told you why when you asked. That question has been covered.
    Honey, if you think I’ve been rude, stay around a while.

  • I do agree that the practice of religion can be mistaken for the practice of faith…no end. As to attending church, I’ve heard it said that going to service no more guarantees your faith than going to your garage makes you a Chevrolet. However, I’m mindful of Paul’s admonition that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.

  • That brought out a belly laugh from me. The comedy on RNS is often quite good. But I don’t think that is their intent.

  • I do believe that the discussion between Sandi & Anton (elsewhere in the comments thread) may have proved the funeral director’s point about the death negative theology of some strands of Christianity. If someone is not a hook-line-and-sinker, biblical literalist who focuses on some aspects of the Gospel at the expense of its entirety or the contextuality of its writing, they (whether other sorts of Christians or agnostics or atheists) are left thinking negatively about death [— or all Christians!]. The “I’ll burn in hell” motif, the “cruel & judgemental God” motif, the “my good works won’t be enough to save me” motif. The God of my belief is merciful and loving. We have been redeemed by faith, not a litany of good works. My life as a disciple of Jesus is not a prescription for everyone, but a path I choose to emulate. My living inspired by Jesus’ life is not a crown to lord over others nor a club to beat others who think/act or believe differently than I do. I view this life as a gift, but also a responsibility to try and make my corner of it closer to a ‘heaven on earth.’ Death is a natural and an inevitable outcome of life. The mystery and suspense of what life after death might hold or might be like isn’t quite enough to make me want to race to open that door. 😉 Neither is it so frightening that the thought of having to walk through that door ruins the gift I am living right now.

  • When I was a young Baptist I always wondered why Christians did not have varying attitudes from non-Christians when it came to death. You would think someone who thought their death would lead to eternal radiant bliss would be more accepting of death than say an atheist. I have found this not to be the case.

    There is a biological factor to deal with….we are the result of millions of years of being the species that survived and did not die out. That builds up a strong preference to keep living and not to die. It is natural to fear death and do all we can to avoid it.

  • In order to demonstrate that this book is authored by a god it would be necessary to demonstrate such a god exists.

    It seems most plausible that the Bible is one religious text among many and may be inaccurate in many claims.

  • “I think living endlessly in this present world would indeed become tiresome”

    You;re not taking into account the possible invention of a warp-capable starship 🙂

  • I have n’t thought of it that way, but I definitely agree.

    Victor Frankl: “without our will we are born into the world, and against our will we leave it.” Carlos Castaneda, more or less: “always live your life as though every time you look over your shoulder, you see your death. And the. Don’t worry about it.”

  • While I don’t discount that eventuality given the present technologies that were once unimaginable, even the awesome qualities of our vast universe would eventually pale with the passage of time…unless and until humans become a more generous and selfless species. I find that unlikely in a material and merely temporal paradigm. As Fred Gwynn noted in the film version of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”…”Sometimes Death is better.”

  • Could be…..could be we develop technology that allows us to live in a Matrix and forget about our old lives and start over….or maybe it’s already HAPPENED!! (Key dramatic music)

  • Coming back to earth for a moment. It seems unlikely. But these questions are not new, speculations about what “IS” have confounded philosophers for ages. Plato and Aristotle and their differing views come to mind.

  • …agreed…many things that are possible are not plausible…

    Like it’s possible that an ancient Jewish teacher was god incarnate and rose from the dead..but based on what we observe in the real world…it seems implausible..to many.

  • How dare you have the audacity to think you know everything about God and his authority over every human being’s fate? So-called “Christians” like you make me sick. I’m a Christian and it is NOT your place to judge who is going to make it to heaven or hell. Put a millstone around your neck, lady. You give Christianity the bad name that many people associate with, and refuse to go to church because of people like you. You’re a Pharisee. I DARE you to go to the funeral of a young adult, whose parents are not Christian, and tell their parents the same thing you said here, to their face. Jesus never acted like you. You have no compassion nor mercy. And then you brag about being rude. You are NOT the light of Jesus.

  • Hell exists when we have lots of people like Sandi in the world, unfortunately. God will take care of the likes of her in His own way. He can’t stand hypocrites.

  • Sandi, you apparently forgot many passages in the Bible. “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” You think you know better than God. Arrogant.

  • I can help you get real. If you are truly saved, then you will not pick and choose scripture to defend your ignorance of the Lord. Anyone who claims to know, with 100% accuracy, the mind of God is a Pharisee.

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