Sunday, June 6, 2010. 10:10 AM
Living and Dying: Why Our Christian Rituals Matter
What is the importance of funerals? What do they say about the nature of our faith? Cathedral Dean Samuel T. Lloyd III talks with the Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long about “Living and Dying: Why Our Christian Rituals Matter.”
Describing some rituals as “paths in the forest,” Long says, “Some of our deepest rituals in which we are a different person at the end of the ritual than we were at the beginning. Take a wedding, for example. We come in not married to this person. We leave married to that person. And negotiating the move from being one person to being another kind of person is not something we can do spontaneously.”
Long describes the earliest Christian funeral practices. Today, in his view, care of the body of the deceased is almost an afterthought. By contrast, early Christians “were washing and anointing the bodies of their dead, they were putting them in baptismal garments, and in broad daylight, with psalms and hymns . . . taking the person to be given to God” at the place of farewell.
Today, especially in white Protestant suburban America, the body is removed from view and cared for in a private place, and many memorial services take place without the body of the deceased. “We are the first generation for whom the presence of the deceased at their own funeral is unnecessary or even undesirable,” Long says. How odd it would be to have a wedding in the absence of bride and groom, he points out.
Although the body of the deceased is less integral to many funerals today, the important ancient journey of faith remains in many liturgies for the dead. Long portrays the journey thus: Pallbearers carry the casket into the church, where the deceased is greeted as a worshiper and takes his or her place among the other worshipers. Baptismal references abound. Afterward, mourners accompany the casket to the cemetery, that place of farewell.
In Long’s opinion, cremation should ideally not take place before the funeral. Instead, the friends and family of the deceased should accompany the casket to the crematorium. If cremation does precede the service, a cremation urn can be carried into the church and covered it with a special pall, much as a casket is carried and covered.
About The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long
Dr. Thomas G. Long is the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He received his B.A. and M.Div. from Erskine Seminary and his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1980. He began his career as a preacher at McElroy Presbyterian Church near Atlanta, Georgia, and since that time has taught at a number of seminaries, including Princeton and Candler. He served on the Cathedral College Program Board and was a frequent faculty member of the College.
In 1996, Dr. Long was named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English speaking world by Baylor University, along with the likes of Fred Craddock, Billy Graham, James Forbes, Barbara Brown Taylor, and William Willimon. He was ordained by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and currently his ordination is being held by the PCUSA.
Dr. Long’s field is in homiletics and is a strong proponent of the two pillars of preaching: strong exegetical work held alongside with strong presentation skills.
His most recent books are Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian and Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. Other titles include: The Witness of Preaching, Second Edition; Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian; Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship; Hebrews (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching); Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion Series); Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible; Shepherds and Bathrobes: Sermons for Advent and Christmas; and The Senses of Preaching.