For Holy Week, Missio interviewed Mark Higgins, President of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service & Crematory in Durham, NC on his work as funeral director and the theology and practices of good funerals. Given that this week we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is appropriate to reflect on the practices of how Christians remember and honor the dead. [This conversation has been edited for publication.]

Adam Joyce: How did you become a funeral director?

Mark Higgins: The ghost of my great great grandfather may have surfaced in me. He was a prominent undertaker in Baltimore for many years and maybe it’s no coincidence that I chose to go into this work.

I went to Hope College in Holland, MI where the local funeral homes employed college students to run their emergency ambulance service, which many funeral homes used to own in smaller communities. I went on ambulance calls, received the required emergency medical training, but gradually got interested in what happened on the other side of the building. One thing led to another and I felt called to this vocation, seeing it as an opportunity to provide assistance and care to people in crisis.

However, seeds were planted a long time ago. As a child I used to walk by the funeral parlors by the YMCA where I’d swim every Saturday. I was extremely curious and was always trying to find a crack in the curtains to see a dead person. Then, in 1969 my sixth grade Sunday school teacher’s husband was killed in a car wreck and I paid very close attention to nuances of what the funeral home people were doing. I remember that funeral as if it were yesterday. It had a great impact on me.

I loved the pomp and circumstance, the drama, the dignity, if you will, the “black” of the event affected me. The vestments of the clergy, the black cars and my parents saying to me, “this is not a time to be chatty as we usually are on Sundays. When this is over we go immediately to our cars and avoid visiting.” We put ourselves in a posture of reverence and respect. It was so different than ordinary Sunday worship.

Sadly many services of today have become bubbly and upbeat. We have lost something by subtracting solemnity; we are uncomfortable with the simple act of standing in solidarity with the mourners and just showing up. That is the essence of undertaking –  just showing up.

During that particular funeral from childhood something told me “I could be doing this one day.” I don’t think it was an accident. God’s hand was at work in leading me into this, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.

AJ: So what does a good funeral look like?

MH: A good funeral involves facing the fact of death and not dispatching someone like me to get rid of the bad news—by removing the body from sight—but embracing the fact we have a corpse in our midst. It attends to the task of consigning this person somewhere, not in some perfunctory way but doing it with attention, ceremony, and some quest for meaning.

In the words of my friend and colleague Thomas Lynch, “the essential obligation of the living is to get the dead to where they need to go.” In getting the dead where they need to go the living take care of themselves. We get to where we need to be. This transcends any particular faith tradition. It is a basic human project. It is in our DNA. Hand someone a shovel and they know how to put it to work.

A good funeral begins with a body. Just ask someone still longing for the discovery of a body. Whether it is a drowning victim that wasn’t found, a ship that went down, the dead in World War II that never came back, or the victims most recently of the Malaysian flight. Until that period is put at the end of the sentence one can be forever stuck, with protracted grief and looming questions. We need to look at a face and say: “This is why I am a bereaved person. I am looking at loss.” The need for a body is universal regardless if we claim any kind of faith beyond this life.

However, if we really want to see a good religious funeral our Jewish sisters and brothers—to whom we can trace our own practices—do it best. It involves a real body, a real dead person, real dirt, real tears, and real rending of garments, and standing at the grave, and mourning, and taking turns with the shovel.

AJ: It sounds like without a body our grief doesn’t know where to go?

MH: The body is a pivotal point in moving through this process of mourning. It is how we begin to wrap our heads around what has happened—the fact of loss. We are drawn when we hear the news of someone’s death, we want to go to that place. We want to go to Golgotha to see it and believe it.

There was a young man who was killed in a plane crash. The family didn’t have any desire to see the body, but we had worked on that body and put the person together as though the family was going to see him. And to say to the family “Your son is whole. He is recognizable, it is him.” This gave them incredible comfort and peace and it was exactly what they needed. So the hours we spent were well worth it, to give his body back whole to the people to whom he mattered the most.

AJ: What makes a good Christian funeral?

MH: Although it has moved in this direction, particularly among white suburban Protestants, the funeral is not simply the inward therapeutic journey that we’ve made it. The funeral is meant to be a public act of worship. Contrary to today’s impulses, if we look at the ancient practices, the funeral is about the deceased person and not the livings’ personal journey of grief. A good Christian funeral ought to be one that invites the dead to their own funeral. Why is it that everyone else is showing up, everyone to whom this person matters, but we leave the dead out of it?

So what are we doing in the Christian funeral? And all of this is spoken so clearly by Thomas G. Long in Accompany Them With Singing–The Christian Funeral and his recent book with Thomas Lynch, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. We are acting out a piece of Christian theater. The Christian funeral really ought to be this sacred drama that has many players in it: the clergy, the dead person, the survivors, and the undertaker. It’s where we act out what we believe about life and death, and where we walk along the last mile of the baptismal journey of this person. The funeral is when we commend this beloved saint into the hands of the God we can trust—whether we take them to the fire or to the ground.

The Christian funeral ought to be embodied because this evidence of death in our midst helps us to hear and understand God’s power over death. Is it a burden to deal with a body? Yes. Is it inconvenient? Yes. But it is a holy inconvenience and a holy burden. In the same way that it is a burden to look after the bodies of the living. The way we treat the bodies of our dead has powerful implications for how we ought to be shouldering the burdens of the living.

There is a ritual process to a good funeral. While not particular to Roman Catholics, structurally I think they do it best. It begins with the wake and vigil service – a time to focus on the life of a person. It is a prayer service, allowing also a segment for open sharing of memories about the unique life of that individual. Then during the funeral mass the next day, the over-arching theme is the death and resurrection of Jesus, and how the life of this person was refracted through the gospel as the deceased lived out his or her baptism. The crescendo through the Mass is the theme of our hope in the resurrection. The third phase of this three-part structure is the committal service. When we bury or cremate the body, then finally inter the remains.

If you look at the way these worship services are written, they are scored, for example, in the same way that Beethoven’s 9th symphony was. It calls for a choir and an orchestra. What if we took the orchestra out? What if we yanked out the string section? It wouldn’t play the same way. We need all the sections in place for it to sound right. The same goes for a funeral to feel right and convey its purposes.

You may remember Dr. Allen Verhey, a professor at Duke Divinity School who recently died. If you want to see the paradigm of a Christian funeral watch the funeral of Allen Verhey. For me it was the model funeral from the standpoint of liturgy, drama, nuance, music and preaching. It was probably the finest funeral in which I have ever participated in my career.

AJ: Have you always understood the Christian funeral this way?

MH: My years as a practicing funeral director have let me see good and bad funerals. I’ve always been moved by ritual and liturgy, and have wanted to help families of more liturgical traditions engage in the movement and drama of the funeral.

People say these practices are anachronistic, that we are trying to turn back the clock to 50 years ago. In fact we are trying to get back to the practices of a couple thousand years ago because they are fundamental and primary to the human species.

AJ: You and Thomas Long both talk about the “bias against embodiment” that currently characterizes funerals. So what are the Christian traditions and practices that help resist this bias?

MH: We want to sweep death under the rug in this death avoiding society of ours. We don’t want to deal with the dirty part. Unfortunately for Christians we tend to over-spiritualize death, just as we tend to over-spiritualize sex. We are not bodies with souls plugged into us to be released upon death. We are our bodies. The Hebrew and Greek text words for soul, spirit, and body suggest that these are intertwined, unified aspects of our nature. Easter involves a body. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a body and blood reality. For Socrates death was a welcomed release but for Jesus he faces agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So, we really do die and await resurrection. In the Book of Wisdom we read: “the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.” Maybe that is what it means to be in this in between time before resurrection of the body. The Book of Common Prayer speaks of being held in the “nearer presence of God.” I love that image. It suggests a different notion than our souls leaving our bodies and in a state of immortality.

One of the best teachers of this is a well-done funeral. People need to experience a funeral that combines hymns, scripture, the creeds, elements of the ancient liturgy, and a transcendent worship service. We should let people go to a cemetery or the crematory, to the place of departure, where we leave this person whom we love. We should give them a shovel, show them how to hit the switch for the fire. Because once they know what to do, they will feel better for having done it.

AJ: What advice would you give to pastors regarding funerals?

MH: This ubiquitous “celebration of life” that we see today, the unwillingness to walk the road of sorrow, is the proverbial towel thrown into the culture of generic spirituality. A “celebration of life” is a departure from, say, the Episcopal tradition of The Order for the Burial of the Dead or other various funeral traditions. My favorite is probably the United Methodist Church’s title, A Service of Death and Resurrection. Death is acknowledged in the title. Both death and resurrection are underscored.

Under many circumstances such as a suicide or person who was a chronic abuser, there isn’t really much to “celebrate.” Clergy must make clear the purpose of the Christian funeral is the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, of God’s faithfulness and unfailing, unconditional love. Allen Verhey writes about looking to “God’s good future” –  that this good creation will be redeemed out of the dust instead of heading toward some disembodied netherworld. At the same time the clergy must recognize that capital “D” death is on the loose at the funeral and competes with this message of hope. The preacher must shout back in the face of death with “Oh death where is thy sting?” – amplifying that death does not get the last word.

Christian pastors need to allow for genuine lament at a funeral, vis-à-vis psalm 22. The funeral is not some all inclusive pastoral care recipe. It cannot tidy up a mess, answer all of the questions and send people on their way toward healing with a sense of closure.

And on closure, it’s really not possible or desirable. We don’t believe our relationship with the deceased is over because we believe in an on going reality called the communion of saints. If you talk to people who are further along in their grief journey, they can say the relationship as they knew it ends of course, but it has also been transformed. It has changed. A death ends a life, but not a relationship. So the funeral’s final measure is not all joy and light. Considering the end of Mark’s gospel, the women were afraid. That is what it is like to look into the gaping maw of death.

In the homily one ought to invoke the life of the deceased, while also bearing witness to the resurrection. A funeral service can be personal—discussing the attributes and gifts of that person’s life refracted through the gospel—but personalized sermons can get off track, such as when we display golf clubs, play the alma mater fight song or share stories of Uncle Bill’s Bourbon Street escapades. There is a time and place for that, but better left for the wake or reception. However, the whole funeral does not rest on the sermon. You have to recognize the power of ritual and music. We want to stand up and sing the great hymns of the faith on these occasions. If you ask people what they remember most about funerals often they will talk about the music.

The “canned” Christian funeral, under attack today, works and has worked for centuries. People of faith have a script and don’t need to reinvent this stuff. The Church knows what She is doing and I’m forever dealing with people who are panicking about how: “We have to get over to the church and let the minister know what we want to do.” The church can say “Put it into neutral. We know what to do. We have a structure, a script, and a recipe. It’s our time to do this for you.” And as I say to my clergy and seminary audiences, if you come from a tradition with written rubrics for liturgy then for heaven’s sake stick to it. The rituals tell the ancient story so don’t dumb down the funeral and weave in the silliness that comes with certain whims and wishes. This isn’t all about personal choice of the deceased either. Why? Because the church has a baptismal claim on that person, so if someone dies and her wishes were that there be no funeral—that somehow that death makes no difference—then her baptism was a sham. So on one level the Church through the pledges made at baptism has adoptive ownership of Her members.

While this varies in different parts of the country, for people of the Christian faith we should do funerals in the church. We don’t do baptisms in a funeral home; we do them in the church.

Clergy ought to be aware of previous losses. Rarely are people just dealing with this current and particular loss. Often they are re-mourning the loss of a parent, sibling or friend. We need to be attentive to what else they are bringing to this funeral. This also means that funerals can be an opportunity for healing fractures in a family through the sharing of memories. When I come to a family’s door I say a little prayer for strength, for open eyes and ears to be attentive because I never know what else is going on.

Finally I tell my clergy colleagues that wherever you go to get to know your local undertaker. Let them know what your expectations are, what’s important to you, and aim toward a good working relationship. Undertakers and clergy should be functioning in harmony to the same ends in caring for people.

AJ: There seems to be a loss of idea that a funeral has a sense of communal and cultural responsibility. Could you talk about this?

MH: The shouldering of pastoral care should not just fall on the professionals. I look at the churches that do this well and its lay people who often do the heavy lifting. So I think training people not just to be counselors, but also helpful neighbors, is beneficial for those going through the mourning journey. When people provide casseroles or pick up children and offer to help with the household chores, this gives people breathing room. Or when a person is dying the church might send the choir out to sing a person’s favorite hymns at their deathbed as a gesture of being the body of Christ.

There is also tendency that when one is in pain you want to shut down and be alone, to make grief a private matter. This can happen for many reasons, but maybe there is some shame around the life of a person? Maybe he or she was an alcoholic? We need to allow room for that, for people to have an honest funeral. Sometimes a prayer of the rite of confession and announcement of forgiveness is appropriate in a funeral.

Finally, we believe in God’s victory over death and this means there is a missional aspect to the funeral. We send people forth into this culture of death and violence and we say: “You who are gathered here are called to bear witness to God’s victory over death. We are sending you out to be bearers of light and life, and bearers of the good news.” There is this “sending forth” element to a funeral. Funerals ask us: “What are you going to do as people of the Way?”

AJ: That is a wonderful note to end on. Mark, thanks so much for your time.

MH: My pleasure.

Mark Higgins, is President of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service & Crematory in Durham, NC. He is a frequent presenter on End of Life issues in his community, regularly conducting programs for Duke University Divinity students and Duke Hospital’s CPE program. His particular interest is in the theology of funerals, and he served as a resource to Dr. Thomas Long during the research of his book, Accompany them with Singing–The Christian Funeral. He is also the author of a reflection on St. Joseph of Arimathea, patron of funeral directors, published in, Patrons & Protectors (Liturgy Training Publications).