funerals

Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Karen Heller’s “The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic — just in time for a death boom” for The Washington Post is a nearly pitch-perfect roundup of how egocentric choices seem to diminish every cultural and religious custom they touch. 

For all the language about not denying death and “hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased,” the “celebration of life”  movement is just as death-haunted as some funeral traditions in the cultural past — and, as shown in Heller’s report, silent on larger questions about an afterlife.

After leading with a solid illustration from a “Memorialpalooza” for entertainment agent Howard West, Heller turns to the factors (hello Baby Boomers) driving the trend of funerals as parties. This passage is long, but essential reading:

Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals.

The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population. …

Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.

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Concerning that priest's offensive funeral remarks on suicide, it's true that what he actually said matters

Concerning that priest's offensive funeral remarks on suicide, it's true that what he actually said matters

Thank you, GetReligion readers, for pointing out something I missed!

I wrote Monday about the viral USA Today story on a priest’s jarring homily after a teen died by suicide.

My main journalistic point was that the Catholic Church’s actual beliefs concerning suicide should have been an important part of the story. However, I was so focused on that point that I failed to notice something else that is equally crucial.

That is, USA Today relied on the teen’s parents and other sources to characterize what the priest said. Granted, those critics included the Archdiocese of Detroit.

But still, didn’t the paper’s audience deserve to hear directly from the priest’s homily?

Thomas Szyszkiewicz, a veteran of Catholic media, and others made that point in comments on my original post.

From Szyszkiewicz:

Here's a link to Father LaCuesta's homily: http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2018/images/12/16/father.lacuesta.homily.maison.hullibarger.funeral.pdf

That the parents took it as saying their son was a sinner is a sign that they have not heard the basic Gospel message in church for a long time -- because we are all sinners. But if you read this homily directly, then you see that he told the truth about what suicide is and then told them that they can entrust themselves and their son to God's mercy. In fact, I believe he seriously misinterpreted that famous passage from Romans 8 ("What can separate us from the love of Christ?") but he did so favoring the mercy of God for their son. That the parents thought they could tell the priest what he could preach on is really presumptuous and that USA Today didn't challenge the parents on why they thought they could tell the priest what to preach on is ridiculous.

The great canon lawyer Ed Peters writes about this here: https://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/god-bless-fr-lacuesta/

This is not a situation that any priest wants to be in, but telling the family all fluff and puff isn't doing them any great service and Father LaCuesta seems to have told the truth on many levels. Too bad USA Today didn't see it that way.

Certainly, Szyszkiewicz’s opinions on the content of the priest’s homily and the parents’ response to it are just that — his opinions.

But it’s also true that what the priest actually said is highly relevant to news coverage.

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A priest's jarring homily after teen dies by suicide: The missing link in USA Today's viral story

A priest's jarring homily after teen dies by suicide: The missing link in USA Today's viral story

USA Today has an email newsletter to share its “Most Social” story.

Typically, it’s a viral headline such as “Jennifer Aniston responds to Dolly Parton’s outrageous threesome joke” or “Twitter users mercilessly mock Mike Pence for ‘Elf on the Shelf’ performance in the Oval Office.”

Congrats on our interest in real news, America!

Seriously, though, an actual piece of hard news occasionally crosses my screen via that newsletter: That happened this past weekend with the story of a Catholic priest’s jarring homily at the funeral of a teen who died by suicide:

DETROIT – They lost a teenage son to suicide, then sought compassion from their priest.

Yet, at the packed funeral on Dec. 8, the Rev. Don LaCuesta delivered words so hurtful that Catholic officials in Detroit apologized in a statement emailed to the Detroit Free Press.

Not good enough, the youth's parents said. They want their parish priest removed from his post in Monroe County, south of Detroit.

"Everybody seems to understand but the Catholic Church," said Jeff Hullibarger, father of 18-year-old Maison, a straight-A student and outstanding athlete who ended his own life on Dec. 4. The priest told mourners at the funeral that the youth might be blocked from heaven because of how he died, the couple said.

The extremely sad story was picked up from the Detroit Free Press, a part of the USA Today network of Gannett papers.

Read the whole thing, and it’s made even sadder by a “bully” high school football coach who apparently has been relieved of his duties.

But here’s the question raised that sparked this post at GetReligion: What does the Catholic Church believe concerning suicide?

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One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

Try to imagine covering a worship service, in a cathedral, using modernized Anglican rites and a river of glorious sacred music and managing to produce news features that focus on (fill in the blank) instead of (fill in the blank).

After this week, you can probably guess what this post is about.

Yes, it’s another post about the mainstream news coverage of the state funeral — and too a lesser extent, the oh-so-Texas funeral in Houston — of former President George H.W. Bush. I’ve writing about that subject a lot this week (click here for a Bobby Ross, Jr., post with lots of links) and now you can listen to a “Crossroads” podcast on that subject, as well. Click here to tune that in.

Frankly, there is still a lot to talk about, especially if you think that that these various rites were about Bush 41, rather than Donald Trump. However, I’d like to signal that this post will end with some good news, a story about the state funeral that actually mixed lots of religion into a report on this topic. Hold that thought.

I’m at home in East Tennessee, these days, not in New York City. Thus, the newspaper in my driveway is the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is owned by the Gannett chain. Thus, I watched the whole funeral and then, the following day, read the following USA Today report in that local paper: “George H.W. Bush state funeral: 'America's last great soldier-statesman'.”

I was, frankly, stunned that this long story was, basically, free of faith-based content. Did the USA Today watch the same rite I did? Here is a long, and very typical, passage:

Ever the diplomat, the elder Bush managed in death to bring together the nation's four living ex-presidents, as well as President Donald Trump, the Republican he and his son George W. Bush refused to support two years ago. The gathering was at times awkward as Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, ignored each other.

The most touching moment came when the younger Bush, delivering the last of four eulogies, choked up recalling "a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have." As the late president's three other sons and daughter looked on tearfully, the audience burst into applause for the only time during the ceremony.

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Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

State funerals are what they are — the high-church rites of civil religion.

Obviously, they are political events that may include elements of partisan drama. Obviously, they are civic events featuring warm, mostly secular, salutes to national leaders. At the same time, they are funerals in which families confront the death of a loved one, a process that is often complex and emotional.

But may I add one more statement to this list of facts? The vast majority of state funerals are also worship services and this is especially true when dealing with political leaders who were faithful members of a parish and their lives were framed in a specific religious tradition.

With all of these realities in mind, let me suggest a quick, digital test that readers can use when evaluating the mainstream press coverage of the long, beautiful Washington Cathedral rites for former President George H.W. Bush.

First, search the story for this name — “Russell Levenson.”

Then search the story for this name — “Donald Trump.” After all, everything in Beltway land, these days, is ultimately about the Tweeter In Chief.

Now, compare and contrast what you find.

Who is Levenson? He is the rector of the large Houston parish attended by George and Barbara Bush and, thus, their pastor for more than a decade. Since this funeral was a rite of Christian worship, Levenson delivered the sermon at the end. Yes, this was the rare event where a priest spoke AFTER an address by the president, in this case a former president.

The way I see it, it’s hard to cover a worship service while ignoring the sermon and, come to think of it, the actual contents of the funeral rite itself.

So let’s look at some of the content in two crucial news sources in elite American media — The New York Times and, naturally, The Washington Post.

The main story at Times included material addressing secular and religious content in this particular state funeral. Sure, I would have liked a stronger emphasis on the faith content, but I know I am not part of this newspaper’s target audience, it’s choir. I thought this was a rather restrained, solid story.

Yes, there was a reference to Levenson’s sermon — at the very end.

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Behold, a Barbara Bush mystery: Family matriarch waited 'til age 90 to be confirmed as Episcopalian?

Behold, a Barbara Bush mystery: Family matriarch waited 'til age 90 to be confirmed as Episcopalian?

If you watch the whole Barbara Bush funeral, you really get a sense of her personality and how she fit into Houston as a community, but especially life at St. Martin's Episcopal Church (the largest Episcopal congregation in North America).

The service (click here) was loaded with interesting choices, in terms of the readings and hymns -- all negotiated in fine detail, months before her death by the clergy and the extremely literate Barbara Bush.

There's a lot of humor in the service, since we are talking about the life of one of the wittiest figures to grace the American political stage in the 20th Century. There are quite a few tears, too, since she led a large family and clearly had a big impact on all of them.

However, let me note that the service also contained one big surprise and/or mystery and, sure enough, it concerned Barbara Bush's faith. I am sure that religion-beat reporters -- had any been given this choice assignment -- would have caught it.

So what was it? In my GetReligion post following the Bush matriarch's death, I noted that George H.W. Bush and his wife were dyed-in-the-wool, old-school Episcopalians and that this fact helped shape their lives, culture and style. You can see this right at the top of the fine New York Times story about the funeral:

HOUSTON -- At the Episcopal church that has been her spiritual home for more than 50 years, the former first lady Barbara Pierce Bush was celebrated at her funeral as one of the most beloved political matriarchs in American history.

Mrs. Bush, the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd, died on Tuesday in the bedroom of her home in Houston. She was 92, and took her last breaths holding the hand of her husband of 73 years, former President George Bush.

Note especially the reference to St. Martin's being her "spiritual home for more than 50 years." With that in mind, note this material drawn from the eulogies by son Jeb Bush and the church's rector, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. This passage was way down in the USA Today report:

When [Jeb Bush] asked his mom recently how she felt about the idea of dying, he said, she didn't miss a beat. "She said, 'Jeb, I believe in Jesus and he is my savior. I don’t want to leave your dad, but I know I will be in a beautiful place.’”

Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., the Bush's pastor for the last 13 years, revealed that Bush came to him in 2015 -- at the age of 90 -- and asked to be confirmed in the church.

Wait a minute!

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Generic prayers for fallen hero: Lots of faith details missing in Parkland massacre coverage

Generic prayers for fallen hero: Lots of faith details missing in Parkland massacre coverage

Back in the days when he attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Joseph LaGuardia had a good friend who was working his way through some tough times.

But there were two constants that his friend could count on -- football and church.

The friend was Aaron Feis, who would later become a security guard and football coach at his alma mater. Feis has emerged as one of the most heroic figures in the school massacre in Parkland, Fla. Students said he used his massive frame to shield the innocent and was fatally wounded while doing so.

The national press has paid attention to the Feis story, with lots of quotes talking about his unique and powerful bond with students and his commitment to his work. He died in a local hospital, while friends sent out waves of social-media appeals for prayer on his behalf.

Today, LaGuardia is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, north of West Palm Beach. I don't know how the local newspaper found him, but his warm words about Feis added some interesting and poignant details to his life story.

The bottom line: Bless be the ties that bind.

As often is the case, there may have been a faith angle in all of those appeals for prayer. In a way, that's the theme that ran through this week's "Crossroads" podcast, which followed up on my earlier post about the Ash Wednesday-Valentine's Day shooting. Click here to tune that in.

But back to the TCPalm.com story about Fies, as seen through the eyes of this pastor who knew him well.

LaGuardia ... said Feis was a couple of years behind him in school, but the two grew close through their church, the New Covenant Church on the Lake in Pompano Beach.

“There were three of us friends who spent most weekends together,” LaGuardia said. “We were very active in the youth group, kind of always there when the doors opened. And his wife was also part of the youth group as well.”

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Here is a good question about something familiar: Why do Christian clergy wear black?

Here is a good question about something familiar: Why do Christian clergy wear black?

THE QUESTION: So, the question of why Christian clergy often wear black was posed to The Religion Guy during a conversation a while ago. The thought had never occurred to me. So this is a good example of things we tend to take for granted and don’t think about. Thus it makes a good “Religion Q & A” topic. (Please feel free to submit your own questions at any time by clicking right here.)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER: Black is becoming the new black. In recent days we’ve seen members of Congress attending the president’s State of the Union address, and preening showbiz celebrities at the Golden Globe awards, wearing that color (or non-color) to proclaim their solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and the burgeoning #MeToo cause.

The House Democratic Women’s Working Group invited women and men of both political parties to participate. One leader, California Congresswman Jackie Speier, said “this is a culture change that is sweeping the country, and Congress is embracing it.”

One year ago this same Working Group urged members to wear white during President Trump’s address to Congress in order to broadcast their support for “reproductive rights” (the favored euphemism for abortion), Planned Parenthood, equal pay, paid maternity leave, and affordable health and child-care coverage from the government.

The black of 2018 carries a suggestion of sorrow, since black is the color traditionally worn by people in mourning or repenting of their past sins (the biblical sackcloth and ashes having long gone out of style).

Then we have the question at hand, that longstanding tradition of Christian clergy wearing black, not to demonstrate alignments but as everyday garb.

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Not a dying trend: This is why cremations — and religion — keep making headlines in the U.S.

Not a dying trend: This is why cremations — and religion — keep making headlines in the U.S.

If you read my last post on the subject, you know that my wife, Tamie, wants to be cremated when she dies.

I, on the other hand, prefer to be dressed in my Sunday best and await the resurrection with what's left of my skin and bones fully intact.

I bring up this issue — once again — because the rising number of cremations in the U.S. again has sparked a wave of headlines.

The New York Times is among major news organizations covering the trend, with a story headlined "In a Move Away From Tradition, Cremations Increase":

An envelope was in Carmen Rosa’s desk in her apartment in Co-op City in the Bronx — an envelope that she had instructed her son not to open until after she died. Inside were more instructions, and they left her son, Alfredo Angueira, flabbergasted.
Ms. Rosa, the longtime district manager of Community Board 12 in the Bronx who died in March 2015 at age 69, directed that she was to be cremated and her remains placed at Woodlawn Cemetery. Mr. Angueira called that “a shocker.”
“Never in a million years would I have thought that this is what she would have wanted,” he said, explaining that he had expected her to say she wanted a traditional burial at St. Raymond’s, a Roman Catholic cemetery near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge where celebrities like Billie Holiday and Frankie Lymon are interred. So are at least four of Ms. Rosa’s relatives, including her mother.
But cremations are quickly becoming the choice for more and more families. And now, for the first time, more Americans are being cremated than having traditional burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The cremation rate in 2016 achieved a milestone, edging past 50 percent to 50.2 percent, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, according to a report issued recently by the funeral directors’ association.

Right away, the Times hints at a strong religion angle (read: changing beliefs) behind this trend.

And later, the story notes:

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