For some reason, I got a bit fired up during the recording of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in). The subject wasn't all that controversial, but it really got under my skin. We were talking about my recent post on the topic of the spiritual wanderers called the Baby Boomers (talkin' 'bout my generation) and the trend toward "green funerals."
Now, that is a topic that has interested me for several decades -- dating back to when I taught as "Communicator on Culture" at Denver Theological Seminary (right after my exit from full-time religion-beat reporting at The Rocky "RIP" Mountain News).
At that time, 1991-93, America was still in the (a) New Age religion era, while also (b) experiencing a wave of death-and-dying movies at the local multiplex (biggest hit, of course, was "Ghost"). Thus, I led a seminar on "The Good Death" and how traditional Christian views on the subject were not what was being sold at the local shopping mall (or most funeral homes).
The main takeaway from the seminar was that the spiritual adventures of the 1960s era were leading Americans in all kinds of different directions, from Eastern religions to traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism, from Oprah spirituality to damned-if-I-don't secularism. There was, in other words, no one trend dominating the death-and-dying landscape.
That was true then and I would argue it's still true today, which is why the recent Washington Post report on "green funerals" bugged me so much. Click here to catch up on that subject.
I was truly interested in the "green funeral" angle, as part of a wider discussion of non-shopping mall approaches to the very serious subject of death and life after death (an inherently religious subject if there ever was one, for the vast majority of Americans). The Post report, however, suggested that the idea of natural, humble, yes "green" funerals was somehow a purely secular trend, suggesting that the opposite approach -- the world of big-bucks, bling-bling funerals -- represented a "traditional," even religious, approach to things.
Really now, tell that to the Amish. Tell that to the Catholic monks fighting for the right to sell inexpensive, simple, no-frills caskets. Tell that to Orthodox Jews. Tell that to traditional Muslims. Come to think of it, tell that to all the converts at my own Eastern Orthodox parish.
So I got a bit emotional. Here's what was running through my mind -- an interview I did with Bruderhof community leader Johann Christoph Arnold about the death of his mother. The best thing I can do, to tell you about that, is to let you read the "On Religion" piece I wrote at Easter nearly two decades ago. Here's two major chunks of that:
Johann Christoph Arnold doesn't mince words when describing his mother's death.
The matriarch of the Bruderhof community learned she had cancer of the lymph nodes late in 1979 and her condition rapidly deteriorated, accompanied by tremendous pain. After decades of serving others, she also found it hard to be an invalid who needed constant care. Still, there were transcendent moments. Throughout her five-month ordeal, children gathered to sing hymns and pray at her bedroom window.
"Just hearing their voices had an almost magical impact on her – physically and spiritually," said Johann Christoph Arnold, a writer and social activist who now serves as senior elder of the eight Bruderhof communes in the U.S. and England. Her face would radiate the love they were giving her. Some of her last words were, 'The children. The children.'"
The inspiration flowed both ways. As the children learned about her suffering, many wrestled with questions of life, death and eternity. Annemarie Arnold knew this and, on her deathbed, prayed for those making life-changing decisions on the other side of the windowpane.
No one found it strange that children found inspiration in the dying days of an elderly woman. No one found it strange that she took comfort in the fact that her life and death inspired others. In a simple book called I Tell You A Mystery," Arnold describes many similar passages from life into death. These scenes may sound strange to many, he said, because so many churches fail to teach one of life's crucial lessons -- that it's possible to die a good death.
And later there was this, leading to the conclusion:
Churches that hesitate to teach people how to live and die eventually lose confidence in their ability to talk about life after death. Part of the problem is that families and religious leaders have allowed outsiders almost total control of death and dying, said Arnold.
This would be unthinkable in the Bruderhof (place of the brothers"), a tiny Protestant movement that began in Germany before its commitment to pacifism and the sanctity of life led to Nazi persecution. Today, its 2,500 members remain committed to simple living, but do not reject hospitals, medical technology and many other benefits of modern life. They even offer a spiritual advice forum on the World Wide Web (www.bruderhof.org).
But they will not adandon their way of dying, said Arnold. This includes singing, prayer and worship at the bedside. After death, family members wash and prepare the body for burial. The entire community takes part in the funeral, a procession to the grave, the burial and testimonial meals. The goal is to celebrate the person's legacy and help everyone face their grief.
"I have seen many, many people die. It involves one's whole being – one's body, one's emotions, one's spirit," said Arnold. Those close to the dying person experience a tangle of emotions: dread, anguish, sorrow, hope, exhaustion and pain. But at the moment of departing, we often can sense signs of the resurrection and the life beyond. We may see a smile, a new look in the eyes, perhaps an unexpected movement or speech, as if the dying one is standing on the edge of eternity. It can be a moment of victory."
In other words, Arnold thought that it was crucial for religious communities to fight for a simpler, more humble, less materialistic approach to death and to the rites that follow. Perhaps even a "greener" approach?
Just don't tell the folks at the Post. OK? Seeking a "good death" is the stuff of cocktail parties and secularism.