What should churches do about death?

People keep dying around us. One here, one there, or if not dead, seriously ill.

We received our latest death notice one evening earlier this week, while watching TV: One of our oldest friends in San Miguel had died Tuesday afternoon at the hands an implacable posse of cancers and other ailments that had tormented her for two years.

Her name was Sheryl and what a boisterous, funny hunk of woman she was. Her death is going to feel like a raucous family dinner suddenly gone quiet.

Indeed when we heard the news Stew and I instinctively looked at each other silently for several seconds.

She had a bawdy sense of humor. though, and was not afraid to broach just about any subject, so she wouldn’t mind, I’m sure, me writing about her death or death in general.

The Trumpet sounding, Roman Catholic version. 

I feel as if  we’re on a bad streak here. This is not making any sense or at least none I can figure out.

Yet this past Sunday the congregants at a church we attend spent almost an hour trudging through an eye-glazing discussion of the Holy Trinity.

I carried a minor in Roman Catholic theology in college and my recollection of the subject remains roughly the same—who knows? who cares?—particularly when the congregants are preoccupied with other matters

Just before the service, I’d heard about a expat woman who’d been kidnapped and had her little finger chopped off by her abductors; about another woman who was a victim of a home invasion/assault; and about our dear friend Bill, who would be flown to Boston, in very delicate condition, to receive further treatment for a serious stroke ten days ago.

The only recognition of these realities came during the brief interlude during the service when the attendees express their personal “joys and concerns.” We close this portion of the service with “Let us pray!”, an expression that in the gloomy circumstances sounded about as insipid as “Have a nice day!”

Why are churches generally so reluctant, downright clueless, when dealing with serious illness and eventual death, particularly at this particular church in which most of the congregants are either gray-haired, bald or working on their umpteenth case of Miss Clairol?

Yes, when one of us is laid out on a hospital bed or dead in a box, congregations will plug in the comfort-and-platitude machine, sometimes coming up with truly inane Hallmark statements.

“It was probably the best thing…” a widow might be told, as if there could possibly be an upside to the loss of a husband or a life partner of several decades. “I’m really sorry” might be more apt.

Others might bring cookies or pots of soup, which are in fact more useful gestures, or pay unannounced visits to the sick in the hospital out of true concern or just morbid curiosity. But before you leave home on this mission of mercy please consider that someone hospitalized and perched on a bedpan with their butt half-hanging out may rather want some privacy instead.

Company definitely helps, and as the built-in social mechanics of a church group, a bridge club or some other organization promptly rush in, they do a good job of comforting their own. Thank you.

Still, there is so much more that churches could provide, being by definition spiritual-support organizations. They could help their members prepare for the inevitable and the difficult decisions involved—logistical, psychological and spiritual.

Alas the best that many churches come up with is often a litany of unctuous denials as in, “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:52) In other words, death is just an inconvenient interlude while we wait for the final trumpet.

Roman Catholics in fact long banned cremation because when the trumpet sounds one can hardly rise from a small stainless cremains box looking incorruptible and well-rested.

Perhaps churches just reflect the denial of their members. who prefer not to deal with some of these unpleasant subjects themselves. Or perhaps churches and religious congregations have not much more to add than promises about resurrection, reincarnation and trumpets blaring.


4 thoughts on “What should churches do about death?

  1. Several years ago, The American Spectator devoted one issue of the magazine to a symposium on Heaven. The participants could have been the characters of a “walked into a bar” joke: an atheist, a lay Christian, and a Jewish rabbi. To me, the rabbi made the most sense. He argued we spend far too much time focusing on death and the afterlife when our focus as believers should be on what torah teaches: to love God and our neighbors (the same two lessons Jesus emphasized). By focusing on the afterlife, we skew our relationship with God and undermine our responsibilities to our fellow creatures. I rather liked that approach. It mirrors Jesus' teachings in The Beatitudes. If we hone in on what we are to be now in God's Kingdom, we have very little time to deal with a list of “dont's” and worries about the future.I attend a church where some of my fellow congregants have adopted that attitude. We are here to befriend and support one another. Most of us now have learned that posing Job's questions will only lead us to intellectual dead-ends. Even though I am a son of the Enlightenment, I have learned bit by bit that logic is only the first step to knowledge. And I am humble enough to know that most of what I think should be true in life simply is not. With that, I find a sense of contentment — even while I rage against the storm of indifference.


  2. Steve: I wrote a reply to your terrific comment, pressed the wrong key and I lost it. Here is again, reconstituted:A friend who heads the local Jewish congregation (not really a synagogue because they don't have a rabbi) once told me that Jews don't believe in heaven, hell, limbo and all the afterlife stuff, and concentrate on how we can be better, kinder, gentler human beings right now. As you said, “we are here to befriend and support one another,” and the Beatitudes are a great place to start, though scripture is full of lessons and teachable moments. Thanks. Al


  3. Anonymous

    With the exception of wedding and funerals, I haven't been to church in over fifty years. But I believe in God, and I hope that he/she/it believes in me. I am pretty sure God will not judge us because we may have guessed wrong on the mechanics of salvation.As to what comes after death, we will find out about that soon enough.Robert GillPhoenix, AZ


  4. Anonymous

    Your headline made me laugh out loud, but then I quickly realized the seriousness of your post. Seems odd that an institution devoted (seemingly) to a successful transition into the afterlife should be so at a loss to deal with death. The fact of the matter is that death is the ultimate finality and there's no arguing with it, and no matter of degrees. Either you're dead or your not. There are few situations in life where the matter is so clear-cut and final. But yes, I think focusing on the lives left behind and how they can be best lived with a spirit of community and sharing is probably the best approach. Saludos,Kim GRedding, CA


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