What Makes For a Good Public Funeral?

With the funerals of James Foley and Michael Brown being held this week, I have been thinking about the purpose of public funerals and how we who are called upon to lead them can help both the family and the wider community through liturgy and proclamation.

Is there any benefit to broadcasting the funerals of James Foley, who was executed by a terrorist, and Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer in an incident that sparked both peaceful protests and violent riots over the past two weeks?

I believe there is a great benefit to broadcasting them when they are done well.

From a family systems perspective, we can watch or participate in these public rituals with a wide-angle lens rather than the sharp focus of our own theology. I cringe at many of the thoughtless platitudes of pop theology I hear bandied about at some funerals I have attended, such as “it was God’s will,” (do you really believe in a God who said, “I’m in the mood for a good beheading?”) or “God never gives us more than we have strength enough to handle” (would you really tell James Foley’s mother that if her faith were not so strong, God would not have allowed her son to be killed?)

In a public funeral, however, on the occasion of a death that sends ripples, if not shock waves, around the world, there are larger and more important questions than whether the theology articulated in the service meets my own personal standards as a mainline Presbyterian.

The more important issue is whether the theology articulated in the service clearly states the deepest beliefs about life and death of the community to whom the deceased belonged. There is nothing like a shocking death such as that of these two men to open the minds and hearts of people to hear a voice of hope in the middle of despair.

James Foley was a Roman Catholic. The extent to which the public service reflected his Catholic faith provided a clarity to the occasion. It said, “This is who he was, this is what he believed in the depths of his heart, and when his unbelief got the better of him, this is what we have believed on his behalf, and this is what we proclaim about the future.”

Even to those who do not share his Catholic faith, the proclamation has the effect of promoting theological or philosophical thought instead of reptilian reactivity.

Funerals are rites of passage for families and communities.

While many family members look at funerals as something ceremonial that we just have to buck up and get through, we who look at life through a family systems lens see them as opportunities for families and communities to self-define. Self-defining, telling ourselves and the world who we are and what we believe, also tells the world that we will not allow our loved ones to be defined by the manner of their death alone, and we who remain will not be defined by the tidal wave of media coverage.

When that is done clearly, calmly, and courageously, it can stimulate others to think rather than react. In the midst of the emotionally reactive cacophony of blame and revenge, it can give voice to a religious tradition refined by the deep thought of generations of the faithful.

To a people cut off from history and tradition, it can connect us to the intellectual and spiritual voices of generations of wisdom-development.

I have seen that remembering and celebrating the life and gifts of the deceased has a healing effect on most survivors. Even more important, however, is whether the leader(s) of the service can articulate a future that is different, that is better, because of the life this person lived.

We need to know that these horrific events cannot disappear into the footnotes of history without changing how we do things from this point forward. Will the death of James Foley lead us toward the cessation of violent conflict between the West and the radical Islamic militants?

Will the death of Michael Brown lead us to resolve this nation’s divisions between black and white, rich and poor, between law enforcement services and the communities they have been called to protect?

If their deaths will lead to a better future, we will not see it this week, next month, or next year.

It will be a long time coming.

In the age of the quick fix, we need to hear leaders of faith articulate a future that will be worth the energy, courage, and patience it will take to bring it about.

Neill Morgan is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister, an aging triathlete, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Bible Is My Crazy Uncle. He writes a weekly newsletter on theology and endurance training at neillmorgan.com.