Published March 29th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
When former Kansas City teacher and school board president Helen Ragsdale died on March 10, her family asked her former student and close friend, Imam Sulaiman Z. Salaam Jr., to speak at her funeral.
“She was a wonderful woman and I loved her dearly,” Salaam recalls.
But Salaam, leader of Al Haqq Islamic Center at 6941 Prospect Ave., was on a family trip to California and wasn’t sure he’d get back in time for the service, so the Ragsdale family found a replacement speaker. Salaam did arrive in time for her funeral at Paseo Baptist Church on March 21, but what he found there, he says, “was an odd experience.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the crowd had been limited to just 50 — widely scattered in the sanctuary.
“A lot of people normally would have been there,” Salaam says. “And I watched several people being turned away.”
Salaam thought he would be denied entrance, too, but a Ragsdale family member saw him and made sure he was allowed in.
Scenes like this have been happening all over the Kansas City area in recent days, and no doubt things will get even stranger now that funerals have been listed in Mayor Quinton Lucas’ stay-at-home order as non-essential gatherings.
All of this raises questions about the purpose and value of our death rituals. In fact, now is a good time to rethink these religious and cultural traditions to see if they still make sense.
“The service,” says the Rev. Sally Haynes, pastor of Central United Methodist Church at 5144 Oak St., “is the easiest part in many ways. God is holding that person closely, whether they’ve been duly blessed into the earth or not.
“The biggest challenge will be all of the other attendant things. How will friends and families and neighbors and church and community show up, when showing up is prohibited? The family won’t starve without that cheesy potato casserole from a church friend, but they absolutely need the love it represents. I think it’ll be one more thing that we’re going to have to figure out in this new era.”
Rabbi Javier Cattapan of Congregation Beth Torah at 6100 W. 127th St. in Overland Park couldn’t agree more. Indeed, Jewish death practices have always emphasized the importance of community.
“The piece that we will miss the most,” he says, “is the community” now that all Jewish services will be conducted at the graveside and the practice of sitting shiva for several days in the bereaved family’s home after burial won’t happen.
Beth Torah, he says, always has emphasized “the importance of people coming together not only at the moment of the burial but afterward, too.”
Now Cattapan is thinking about how technology might make some of that happen: “Maybe after this experience we will say, ‘Yeah, it’s a holy thing we can do’” to use social media platforms so the community can grieve together. But, he says, that will require education for a substantial portion of his congregation that hasn’t used such technology yet.
In a different religious tradition, Father Paul Turner, pastor of the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City, says that “the Catholic funeral liturgy prays for the forgiveness of the sins of the one who has died, while it holds aloft our hope in eternal life. In this pandemic, that message can help people heal. Especially if a loved one dies from an unforeseen disease before an occasion for reconciliation of differences, a funeral gives a place to park one’s emotions, to share common grief, to pray for peace and to hear words of hope.
“We ministers may have to livestream funerals to convey their message or share resources that people can pray at home or encourage visits to cemeteries. But the loss of a funeral service as we know it will deepen the grief for some who are already suffering sorrow.”
The Rev. David Nelson, a retired Lutheran pastor who now worships at North Oak Christian Church in Kansas City, North, says this pandemic means it’s time for people who lead funerals and memorial services to use the best technology available: “Somehow we respond to the crisis that’s there in a way that continues to bring dignity and proclamation of hope and that assures people that you, too, will not be forgotten.
“One of our primary jobs as a griever, as a pastor or as a dear friend is to emphasize that every life is significant. Every life is sacred and every life is part of creation. And that needs to be proclaimed.”
But such services, certainly at first, are going to feel odd and maybe inadequate. That’s how a funeral I attended — and ushered for — at my own congregation, Second Presbyterian Church in Brookside, felt a week or so before stay-at-home orders became the norm around the country. The service was for a 98-year-old woman who had been part of our congregation for decades. But the attendance at her service was quite limited because people already were being asked not to congregate in large groups.
So we said farewell to Jean Quinn with some fabulous stories from her grandchildren. But there were church members who badly wanted to be there but felt they shouldn’t risk such a gathering. And, thus, it felt somehow incomplete.
No doubt it also felt incomplete to be at another small graveside service for one of my congregation’s older members recently. As my own pastor, the Rev. Paul Rock, says: “There we were, cold and wet and knowing we were all headed back to our sequestered corners after the brief, graveside goodbye. It was rough.”
What’s important, says Haynes, is “not just the service itself: It’s the post-service family meal the church provides; it’s the receiving line and cookie reception at the visitation; it’s the casseroles from friends and neighbors who show up at the door. And it is the ability of the pastor to be present to visit in the final hours, to pray with the person and family and to simply be present as the face of Christ and the church during those precious hours.”
This new challenge to traditional funerals is taking place in the context not just of a pandemic but also of decades-long changes to funeral practices, particularly among Protestant Christianity.
As Russell E. Saltzman, a former Kansas City area Lutheran pastor who now worships as a lay Catholic, wrote a few years ago for the journal First Things: “Once upon a time, before the mid-twentieth century period of ‘silence and denial’ about and around death, death was a natural part of the ‘cycle of life.’ And then death and the dying were hospitalized and mechanized, put away and hidden from sight, and there was nothing that could be said publicly about death because Americans no longer had a language for death.”
Beyond that, many Christian funerals were moved out of the church and into funeral homes, buildings with no connection at all to the deceased. And these services drifted from being about the gospel and the promises of afterlife to being therapeutic sessions for the bereaved as they told stories about Aunt Ruth or Uncle Hal.
As theologian Thomas G. Long wrote in his terrific 2013 book, “Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral”, those services often lacked the four things necessary for a funeral: “a holy person, a holy place, a holy people and a holy script.” Those services, he writes, became disembodied memorial services, not funerals.
And in the U.S. today — to say nothing of around the world — funerals, when they happen at all, are taking on a strange new feel. Perhaps the most important thing to remember in such a time is that you can never judge the sacredness or value of people’s lives by the size of their funerals. Ever.
Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at email@example.com.