Category Archives: Orthodox Church in America

The Chaplain as a Professional Obituary Writer

The Obituary: Repackaging History

Why the Chaplain is Best Qualified to Compose the Obituary.

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.


An obituary is a public announcement of a person’s death and is the traditional and conventional way of providing the public notice of the death, and to provide information on the person who has died. The obituary is usually placed in a local newspaper and many funeral homes include a tribute or obituary on the funeral home website.  It is a way to let people know of the death.

If the deceased person has lived in several places during his or her life, it is a good idea to publish the obituary in the newspaper serving the locales where he or she lived. This is a generous courtesy to those who may have known the deceased and would be interested in grieving the loss.

While there is no standard length or content for an obituary, the current trend is to publish shorter obituaries in the form of the deceased’s life and some significant accomplishments. Naturally, when publishing an obituary in a newspaper, cost becomes a consideration; the longer the obituary, the higher the cost. It is my personal practice to provide a mini biography in the funeral or memorial service program, if one is used. If the funeral home offers the option of an online obituary, a shorter announcement can be placed in the newspaper with a referral to the longer obituary on the funeral home’s website.

Every family member will have different memories of the deceased and a differnt perception of his or her life and milestones. I personally recommend that the information received from several persons during the family planning meeting be used to compose the obituary and then to have the draft obituary reviewed by family members to ensure that it is as complete as possible, given the preferences of the family, and finally to have the family approve it for publication.[1]



 Let’s face the facts: The vast majority of people, including most professionals, simply couldn’t write a good essay if their life depended on it. Most professionals were not trained in the skills necessary for obtaining relevant facts, selecting those most consonant with the purpose. Most have difficulty with reframing perceptions, emotional crafting, repackaging the past to include present historical meanings and social relations. This requires sophisticated inquiry and listening skills, sensitive creativity, the ability to navigate a conversation, persuade and curate emotions, and writing and presentation gifts. I argue in this article that the bereavement chaplain is a key resource for the funeral home and the bereaved family for creating the obituary.

Introduction

Most professionals focus on method and technique; most people today look for a numbered list of how-to steps. This simply doesn’t work in the lifecare and especially in the deathcare vocations, where an obituary requires compassion and creativity.

The problem, the obstacle of method and technique is nothing new, it’s just so commonplace that we tend to overlook it. In fact, a whole generation, maybe three generations, has been born into and have grown up and matured in a culture of materialism, consumerism, disposalism, [a]social media, all of which nurture a sense of quick fixes, worthlessness, instant gratification, urgency, and anxiety. Quite obviously, none of these is conducive to the authenticity and relationship necessary for the helping professions, whether healthcare, psychospiritual care, or deathcare. Regrettably, this broad statement applies to most every level of education today: the focus is on method and technique; not on creativity and vision, and so individuals find themselves on the slippery slope right from the start.

If this broad statement can obviously be applied to everyone from the mechanic to the physician, from the priest to the nurse, how much more does it apply to the funeral director, whose training may be limited to two years in mortuary science school and one year of residency in a funeral home? These men and women, some of them not even physically much less mentally or emotionally mature – most of them have never experienced the death of a close relative or friend –, yet they find themselves sitting opposite a grieving family, “advising them” on how to cope with the death and what needs to be done. Or, in the even worse scenario, the family succumbs to the smiling ghoul-like CEO of a funeral corporation, literally a disposal factory operation, who preaches lowest price for dignified services; just sign here and get on the conveyor belt. Dignity and compassion, friends, are not mass produced goods and factory funeral homes cannot produce artisan goods.


I recommend a family meeting to include as many generations as possible who knew the deceased. No more than 5 persons should be included in order to ensure manageability and to allow everyone to make a contribution. Set the ground rules in advance so that no single person dominates the conversation. It’s useful to record the session. The venue should be warm, inviting, and relatively free of unnecessary interruptions. I frequently get the family to come to the funeral home where it’s quiet and there’s usually a meeting room available. Meeting in the funeral home has several advantages: the family will become acclimated to the environment and more familiar with the rooms, if there are any questions about the service, a quick walk-thru is always possible. I also like to include the funeral director in the meeting so that he is aware of what’s taking place and to answer any questions that may come up. Light refreshments should be available, since food is life-affirming and empty stomachs are not conducive to the rich sharing experience we are looking for in the family meeting. After the family meeting a Q&A is always helpful.


Even more concerning is the fact that most of our funeral and memorial writing is delegated to either the family or to a family member who, obviously are in the grieving process and really are not in the position to do any really meaningful writing despite their best intentions. My advice to such persons who may volunteer to write grandma’s obituary is that they participate in the service or do the eulogy instead. Truth is, most family members don’t know enough of their family history or social relations to write an obituary, much less the author skills required for such a special type of writing.

Alternatively, the obituary, as the most common form of funeralization literature is composed by the funeral director based on what few historical facts he can glean from the family during the arrangements meeting. The result is a rather paltry bit of bare bones, sometimes inaccurate or fabricated, script posted on a so-called “Tributes” page on the funeral home’s website.

What Most Clergy Lack In Public Speaking And Writing Skills They Attempt To Make Up For With Sentimentalism And Endurance.

Most clergy lack even the necessary skills for liturgical preaching, let alone memorializing a stranger ad hoc.[2] Those of us who have experienced any funeralization presentation by a member of the mainstream clergy – or clergy on the funeral home’s clergy list, what I call “stock clergy” — can speak only of abject disappointment and must commiserate with the unfortunate family who has to hear the pabulum and scripted doctrinally correct, often narcotic, presentation at a wake service, funeral service, or funeral liturgy. What most clergy lack in public speaking and writing skills they attempt to make up for with sentimentalism and endurance. That’s not memorialization, it’s not communications skill, and it’s not a gift; it’s an abuse, and the bereaved should not have to put up with it, much less pay for it.

The Funeral Home Chaplain May Be The Best Resource Available

Then it frequently comes down to the funeral director to compose the obituary. All things considered, we really can’t fault the funeral director for not being an expert public speaker or writer, much less for not obtaining intricate details about the deceased. There is only so much a human being can do in the average three days from the first call to the closing of the grave.[3] In those three days, the time available to the funeral director that can physically, emotionally, or intellectually be devoted to writing an effective and commemorative obituary is close to null.

The alternative is just as dehumanizing and degrading as a poorly written product. That alternative is the obituary template application. Just ask the key questions and fill in the blanks and Voilà! you have yourself what some would call an obituary. NOT! What it is, in fact, is a collection of words, some of which might have some vague or arbitrary resemblance to the life that is purportedly being commemorated, but not mot else. It’s what I disparage above: technique and method versus creativity and vision.

What Is Left Besides The Usual Mainstream Cookie-Cutter Clergy 15-Minute “Ashes To Ashes” Performance?

So, you might ask yourself, what is left besides the usual mainstream cookie-cutter clergy 15-minute “ashes to ashes” performance or the rushed, expensive, and questionable funeral home obituary product? Well, those funeral homes who have the good business sense to have a resident or a regular on-call chaplain, may just have an untapped resource for an important funeralization service. Yes, the funeral home chaplain may be the best resource available in the funeral home or anywhere else for creating the top-shelf obituary. Here’s why:

  • The professional bereavement chaplain is a specialist lifecare and deathcare provider, educated and trained as a psychospiritual care provider; a thanatologist, in fact.
  • He understands how to approach the dying and the bereaved in a sacred safe place, to meet them where they’re at.
  • The chaplain leaves the ego and judgment at the door, and practices a ministry of intentional presence, listening and talking little; deep listening deep learning.
  • The professional chaplain has clergy training plus extensive academic training in several disciplines: humanities, philosophy, psychology, pastoral care, theology, religions.
  • His broad learning base and life experience endow him with a certain wisdom and authority found in few other professions, including denominational clergy.
  • As specialist clergy or as a member of the “para-clergy”, the chaplain has the same training as any minister or priest. Because of his station in life, he has certain authority and an air of authenticity that nurtures trust; he can and does ask questions and talks about subjects that even the funeral director might find uncomfortable to address.
  • As a lifecare and deathcare professional the chaplain is intimately familiar with the healthcare and deathcare professions. He’s been on the front lines in the ER, the ICU, the morgue. He’s familiar with death in all of its guises, and also with the mortuary arts. Because he’s familiar and may have studied the back-room operations of the hospital and the funeral home, cemetery, crematory, he can confidently address sensitive issues and concerns with a gentle and compassionate honesty.
  • The chaplain who lives the vocation of lifecare and deathcare lives in a different concept of time; the chaplain’s time is cyclical rather than linear. Rather than counting cases, the chaplain moves effortlessly through the cycles of birth, life, death, and treats each cycle, each case, as the first case, each unique, each its own narrative.
  • Because the mature chaplain has an unusual familiarity, a unique relationship with the cycles of life, with transfiguration, with the teachings of many faith and belief traditions, he likely has a very unique way of viewing life’s transitions. He will seem more at ease, more comfortable, more accepting of others in their most difficult moments.
  • While others may avoid giving expression to the language of grief or abandon themselves to emotions, the chaplain can give meaningful expression to the silent pain of grief and loss; he is articulate in the language of the past to give meaning and hope to the future.
  • The chaplain does psychospiritual care and nothing else. The chaplain provides lifecare and deathcare and nothing else. Unlike career clergy or the funeral director, the central concern, the focus is only the bereaved and nothing else.

While most of what the chaplain might talk about or what the family might reveal is highly confidential and remains with the chaplain, never to be disclosed, much of what he learns is for the purpose of crafting his homily or “words of comfort” to be presented during the funeralization rituals. In other words, it’s publishable.

It’s not about the chaplain, so self-disclosure is rare. It’s all about the family and the family’s history, the dead loved one and his or her meaning and legacy, personal and social relationships with the deceased; in other words, much of the bereavement chaplain’s work is with the past, with history, and reframing it so that it has positive meaning for the future. So, too, the chaplain is the best-qualified team member to re-present this entire composite picture in the form of an obituary.

When meeting with the family to discuss details of the funeral or memorial service, the chaplain mines deep into the family’s history and selectively homes in on what is most meaningful to the various participants, teasing out of the intricate weave of the family tapestry the gold threads that are in the weave. Like any tapestry, the visible side is impeccable, perfect but the hidden back is full of loose ends and knots, just like families. It’s the chaplain’s expertise and people skills that allows him to relate the loose ends and the knots to the beauty and meaning of the idyllic front side.

The Chaplain Is Thus A Psychospiritual Art Historian

When interpreting a tapestry the interpreter has to be attentive to style, interrelationships of elements and symbol, and to the characteristics of the audience. The interpretation of the tapestry has to be packaged in a way that is acceptable to the audience, remaining true to the meaning of the historical style, technique, symbol, while still relating it to the reality of the audience’s world and perceptions of reality. In other words, the tapestry had its meaning and relevance in the past, when it was created, but it has to be re-presented in the present in new contexts that make it relevant now, and tomorrow. In many ways, the chaplain is thus a psychospiritual art historian, taking the past, re-packaging it in the contexts of the present, making it relevant to the future. These are important considerations in crafting an obituary.

With this understanding of what the bereavement chaplain is and what he does, it becomes clear how he can be an invaluable asset to both the funeral home and to the customer.

The funeral director has 1001 things on his plate with each case. He may be a skilled salesperson, a knowledgeable marketer, an expert embalmer, a gifted reconstructionist, a veteran listener. During the short moments between the first call, the removal, and the final disposition, he has little time to conduct an in-depth interview of the family and to do a family history, then to condense it into a commemorative obituary that doesn’t read like a cookie recipe.

If the funeral director is fully aware of the interdisciplinary resources at his disposal, he will get the legal and financial details he needs to proceed with the funeralization business and then turn the family over to the capable hands of the bereavement chaplain, who will then do the in-depth interview he would normally do for the service but also obtain detailed information for an obituary, much of which comes with the details necessary for designing the funeral or memorial service.

The chaplain teaches and preaches. He’s a skilled writer, speaker and presenter. He has highly developed writing skills that he uses every time he prepares a talk or a homily. He has the time and the expertise to create not only an inspiring homily but also a moving obituary.

While it’s true the chaplain will invest an average of 10 hours in preparing for a typical customized funeral or memorial service, once all the details are obtained, a stellar obituary can be created in record time, using much of the same information used in the Words of Comfort or the homily, but differently.

How differently? Well, that depends on what the chaplain discovers during the family conference. You see, during the family conference the chaplain will guide the participants through a series of questions posed in the form of statements, statements that cannot be answered with a Yes or a No, but need actual responses requiring disclosure. By inviting each participant to join the conversation, each will disclose a different, a personal perception. While such a conversation is intended to do several things, not the least of which is naturally to gather family historical information, it serves a therapeutic purpose by getting the family participants to talk, to feel, to realize, to share. Such a conversation in the safe, non-judgemental, trusted presence of the chaplain usually develops into an amazingly open and candid sharing session. You’ll hear things like: “I didn’t know that.” “Dad never talked about that before.” “Mom sure was fierce, wasn’t she?” “Yeah. Those were good times.” “Remember the salad?” And the chaplain is very sensitive to the body language and quiet moments that signal “We don’t want to talk about that.” And realizes that they do and that they will but only when they’re ready. They know that, too. So the chaplain moves on, but gently.

The Tone May Be Upbeat, Intellectual, Reverent, Dignified, Humorous, Or Cooly Distant.

It’s what’s said as much as what’s not said — the nonverbal communication — that goes into the tone of the service, the tone of the homily and consequently sets the tone of the obituary, and that kind of stuff can be accessed only by someone who is intrinsically trusted, the chaplain. The tone may be upbeat, intellectual, reverent, dignified, humorous, or cooly distant; the tone should, if possible, be reproduced in the obituary.

This Is The Point To Which They Have Been Navigating.

What is it that John would like most to be remembered for? What would John say his greatest contribution to the world would be? What would John say he valued most. What will your best memories of John be from this point on? What will you tell your children, your grandchildren about John? Sitting here now, what it something you remember about John that will make you smile? Those are some of the final questions I ask at the end of the family conference. How can you get a grieving family, a family who might have just lost the most significant person in their lives, to answer questions like that? Well, because they want to. Because throughout the entire conversation, this is the point to which they have been navigating. These questions form the basis of the continuing bond with the deceased. These questions give the survivors, now in the depths of grief and grappling for some sort of understanding of What? Why? How?, permission to continue the bond with their dead loved one, while playing an active role in internalizing this new relationship, transfiguring the deceased loved one into a living symbol of someone no longer physically present but eternally inwardly present.

An Obituary Is Like A Sacred Narrative And Should Read And Be Read With All The Reverence And Reflection Of A Gospel

The obituary is a tangible keepsake to whichany family member can turn at those special moments, to read and recall, and to recall and to remember the loved one. The obituary loses all of its morbidness and becomes an essay about the dead loved one and his or her relationships, his or her meaning. Even more than an heirloom ring or brooch, the obituary is personal, a living account of a real person. In a sense, an obituary is like a family Gospel and should read and be read with all the reverence and reflection of a Gospel.

So far I have written about the obituary as a concept, almost an ideal. Well, it’s not an ideal, it’s a reality, and an incredibly important one at that. I briefly touched upon the obituary as a tangible family record, as a family Gospel. Well that’s one role it can play but we need now to turn to the physicalness of the obituary, since the obituary is something that has to be drafted, written, refined, and finally published in some medium whether newsprint, an order of service, a website, a social media platform, or as a permanent memorial on a platform devoted specifically to memorialization and commemoration.[4]

I shall devote a separate essay to the media used for publishing obituaries and say a few words about each in terms of how I feel they serve the survivors in facilitating continuing the bond with their loved one, coping with bereavement grief, transfiguring the dead loved one and internalizing the memory, serving as a chapter in a family’s living history, repackaging the past to be a lodestone for drawing a family together, a guide for the present and for the future.


NOTES

[1] This review and approval step is extremely important in order to avoid offending or hurting feelings. Special attention should be given to spellings of names, degrees of kinship and names of any spouses, living and predeceased relatives, special friends, special organizations, etc. A clean draft should be provided to the family for review and approval within 24 hours.

[2] Simply asking an arranger for the family’s religious preference and if they would like clergy participation in the funeral or memorial service is a bad start. Many families do not regularly practice and most are unfamiliar with the traditions and rites involved in funerals. This is one reason why I recommend always to have the on-call chaplain available at the arrangements meeting; he can best discuss any religious or spiritual matters with the arranger or the family and avoid any inconvenient incidents and possible problems caused by “religious” insensitivity of “stock clergy” who are unfamiliar with the family, its history, dynamics, and social relationships.

[3] We can thank Western industrial culture for the three-day rule for funerals. Most employed persons are allowed three days in the event of the death of a close relative; it’s called Bereavement Leave. An employee is entitled to up to 3 workdays of paid funeral leave to make arrangements for or to attend the funeral of an immediate relative who died; after the 3 days, the employee can either take personal vacation time or unpaid time off.  In the United States The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee’s representative). After three days, everything has to be wrapped up and the employee is expected to have disposed of his dead and finished his grieving. After three days it’s back to work. Thus the dehumanizing of humankind in the industrialized West.

[4] These various media for publishing obituaries will be discussed in the next article, and will include print as well as digital obituaries, their characteristics, their strengths and their weaknesses.

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Ring out the New; Ring in the Old. Scrap the redefinitions of end-of-life care.

Interfaith Pastoral Care. Just what is it? Interfaith pastoral care is a hard nut to crack when a client actually is interested enough to ask the question., “What is interfaith?”

Is this reality? Even possible? Honestly.[1]

Some have suggested that we change, broaden our terminology to “interbelief” but I don’t really think that changes a thing; in fact, I think it complicates the conversation even more than “interfaith” does. It gets even worse when the innovators come up with a term like “interpath” care. It soon becomes so turbulent that it becomes obfuscating; it becomes an idiotic dialogue of nonsense.

The Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago (RC) defines “the difference between ecumenical, interfaith, and interreligious relations”, as follows:

  • “Ecumenical” as “relations and prayer with other Christians”,
  • “Interfaith” as “relations with members of the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ (Jewish and Muslim traditions),” and
  • “Interreligious” as “relations with other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism”.[2]

[Aside: Some proponents of interfaith whatever have adopted the name “interbelief,” “interpath”; how far do we stretch “interfaith” before it becomes “intercultural”?]

In such places like the Public Religion Research Institute[3], we can examples of the glaring misinformation and mixed messages concocted by “interfaith dialogue” proponents can be found in the short article, “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” [4] Here’s an extract from that article:

“A new study released in the American Journal of Sociology finds that “conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability.” The study’s authors note that by discouraging pre-marital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, conservative religious institutions inadvertently increase the likelihood of divorce. However, Professor Charles Stokes, in reviewing the research, notes that couples who are embedded in religious communities tend to have lower divorce rates regardless of their theology.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that a contradiction? Or a glaring error in the American Journal of Sociology when it reports a misinterpretation of the published data. Isn’t the Am Jour Soc a peer-reviewed journal or at least an edited journal? The same article reports:

“In an effort be more inclusive of atheists, the St. Paul Interfaith Network has changed the name of its monthly community meeting to “Inter-belief Conversation Café.” In the Midwest, 2 percent of people identify as atheists.” [my emphasis]

Inclusivism = Universalism = Sentimentalism

Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith? 

I think that’s pushing the notion of liberal secularism and sentimentalism a.k.a. “inclusivism” right over the edge into oblivion. Forgive me, for I have “ismed” again! In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.” in articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists.” Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics!.[5] Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith?

We have all became amoral meandering idiots!

So even the atheists are claiming a piece of “interfaith,” though on somewhat shakier grounds, and on condition that you change your group’s name. In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, and where we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.”[6] So what? In articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists“—all 2% of them. Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics! Girls using boys’ toilets, boys using girls’ toilets, women clergy, girl boyscouts. Where does it all end? Segregation became diversity; diversity became indiviudalism; we have all became amoral meandering idiots!

And the  St Paul Pioneer Press  while other proponents have proposed the term interpath dialogue. It seems that these groups are making a radical departure from what we know as “faith” to honor impossible inclusiveness while losing all focus and credibility. These groups are making the attempt to include or at least to avoid excluding atheists, agnostics, humanists, and such with no religious faith in traditional terms but who espouse ethical or philosophical credos.

What we now call post-modern or post-Christian might as well be called post-mortem; we can dilute the doctrines and dogmas (Truth) of world faith and belief communities to the point of losing all tradition and with it all sense of identity; we have lost sight of the fact that unity implies otherness and otherness implies identity.

Another example of how the concept of interfaith can derail and alchemically transmutate into a bastard creature of so-called religion-turned-social-program is the  About Interfaith IMPACT of New York State. (We have no idea why the “IMPACT” is uppercase.) According to their website,

“IINYS consists of congregations, clergy and individuals from progressive Protestant, Reform Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other faith traditions. Together we work for the common good through progressive religious advocacy.  The interfaith Impact of New York State Foundation, Inc. is a charitable organization. Its mission is to Inform and encourage progressive faith based participation in public dialogue.”[7]

One of IINYS’s stated missions is to ensure a separation of Church and state but a closer reading of what their activities include is a direct contradiction of any separation and has nothing to do with any faith with which I am familiar. Key to understanding what interfaith in the IINYS is the word “progressive.” What this means is “secularization,” social “justice” programming (socialism), and is deeply imbedded in “state” (= government) activity and operations. Of course, you won’t find any mainstream faith or belief traditions represented on the “Reform” and “Universalist” board membership, because mainstream faith or belief traditions have clear and unambiguous statutes and doctrines, not an agenda of political activity clothed in smoke and mirror deception, and a blurring of the black letter of the Separation Clause. And that’s just one example of how “interfaith” is being marketed.

IINYS succeeds not only in confusing any coherent impression that the term “interfaith” may have implied by conflating “moral values” with “social programs,” a gaffe that distracts significantly, among other things, from the organization’s alleged principles, which should not come as a surprise given the intimate, almost incestuous relationship IINYS has with the profane state government of New York, itself in a state of disinformation and secular humanist and liberal materialism. Interfaith is equated with unabashed sentimentalism.

IINYS’s case gets even worse: the IINYS actually uses a P.O. box at the New York State Capitol to receive mail! Now that’s what I call Church-state separation.

They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

Another example of the perversion of the faith part of “interfaith” would be the Interfaith Medical Center of Brooklyn, New York. The only faith at IMCB would be faith in the idolatry of medical capitalism and market economy. Unfortunately, at this writing IMCB’s mission statement was “under construction.” They’re probably having a real tough time justifying the interfaith part of what appears to be an enterprise healthcare facility attempting to cater to the needs of a multiethnic community. So why not just say so and leave “interfaith” out of the game? Because “interfaith” means nothing but looks really good. Smoke and mirrors. They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

One thing is very clear: there has been no peace between human beings since the Tower of Babel because we all are speaking different languages; even when we’re speaking the same language, we don’t understand one another. There’s no need to imagine the catastrophic confusion that comes about when we attempt to use language to define or to discuss the ineffable, the transcendent like the mysteries of life, death or faith or belief in a transcendent state or spirituality. Imagine that when we have such difficulty distinguishing between religion and spirituality at all!

While I personally reject the alleged definitions of “interfaith” anything, I do understand the thought behind it and the problems of rendering “inter-“ anything intelligible to the point of being useful or implementable. Here are a couple that may help us to get our arms around the notion of what really should have stayed under the rubric of “tolerance.”

As a psychospiritual care provider, I have to confront this problem on a regular basis when I have people telling me, “She wasn’t religious at all.” But then they go on to tell me how she believed in God and in an existence after death; where my conversation partner tells me that she, the deceased, is now in heaven with her beloved spouse. Or “We want a spiritual service, not a religious service.” What do you mean spiritual but not religious? Now the great silence starts and I recognize that my dialogue partner doesn’t know what the difference is; in fact, she’s embarrassed and I have to save her now.

This becomes a particularly acute situation when I am facilitating a family conference for arranging a funeral or memorial service. During this conference I have to chop through suspicion, confusion, defensiveness, family secrecies, and so much more to establish a relationship of trust and authenticity in just a few sentences. I have to learn enough about a person, his or her family relationships, community involvements, likes and dislikes, habits and idiosyncrasies, end-of-life circumstances, and I have to do this without traumatizing my conversation partners or offending sometimes unspoken sensitivities. They didn’t each this sort of thing at my seminary institute, and they didn’t help very much in my many hours of Clinical Pastoral Education in a major trauma center, or in the nursing home or in the parish where I did my pastoral formation. My guess is that most of my instructors and mentors didn’t have a clue outside of what they were able to find in somebody’s book on the subject and what we brought to the table ourselves. At this point in my career-vocation, I can see why it’s something that you can’t just each or get from any textbook, because the lessons to be learned are as diverse as the individuals and families we, as pastoral care providers and psychospiritual guides are called to serve.

In fact, having written the term “pastoral care” I even balk at using that term because not all of the sufferers I companion think of themselves as animals, sheep, who require a pastor, a shepherd. Since we are finding ourselves increasingly faced with practically unlettered clients, clients who don’t read and who never were taught reading and writing skills, who tend to communicated in a few syllables or in emoticons, we, too, have had to develop second language skills, so-to-speak, and I don’t mean only in our liturgical, ritual, and Scriptural language, but in the language we use in the professional milieu and that we use in the care-giving milieu. This distinction does not discriminate between the lower socioeconomic or socioethinic groups but applies equally well to the so-called “educated” and techosavvy groups, who are just as language-challenged as a newly arrived immigrant but less likely to admit the importance of learning the language.

Furthermore, in strict terms, I’m not a pastor at all because I don’t have a fixed parish or congregation, so I’m not providing “pastoral” care as such. In fact, there are very few pastors who are called to do what I do and have to do in my vocation. Normally, a pastor has a congregation with whom he, nowadays also she, is in theory expected to be intimately familiar on an individual basis.  But we all know that today, just about every faith and belief community has succumbed to the post-modern sentimental hypocrisy of the happy-clappy social club, insincere hugging orgies, and idiotic grinning clubs we today call congregations. Or, even worse, the entertainment events in the guise of worship now offered by the megachurches springing up all over the place. Well, they’re cheaper than a ticket to a country western concert and the cappuccino at the java bar is pretty good, too, and cheaper than Starbucks. Music’s pretty cool, too. Maybe God will even show up one of these Sundays! Meanwhile, the show of raised armpits, gibberish cries of ecstasy and the Guinness Book of Records breaker show of hairy armpits will go on…and on. Thank you, Vatican II! Thank you, Facebook! Thank you, Beelzebub!

In recent years, I have found that I am providing a form of psychotherapy as well as spiritual guidance, so I more often than not will use the term psychospiritual care provider. It seems to come closer to what I really do, and doesn’t get the discussion bogged down in a quagmire of denominations, faith communities, belief traditions or spiritual path distinctions. Once we get past the icebreaking and the initial disclosure process, we are in a better position to explore religion and spirituality without treading on eggs.

Meanwhile, back in the conference room, we are sitting with the husband, the three daughters and the two sons of a woman recently dead, and we need to put together a chapel service and a graveside interment service the Saturday morning, two days hence. The funeral director has the easy job of prepping and embalming the body, dressing her, and doing her cosmetics, so that she is Barbie-doll presentable in her lovely imitation mahogany eternity capsule. The FD has the easy part, the dead don’t get defensive; they’re good listeners and don’t talk much.

“So, tell me a little about your mom,” or so the conversation starts.  “Well, I don’t really know where to start. What do you think, dad?” Now dad’s in the hot seat and hasn’t got a clue what the question is. So we start over again, this time I’m trying to recall the scanty information that the FD provided during our initial conversation about the case. And so I move on, now in reverse mode: “What kind of service did you have in mind to celebrate your mom’s, your wife’s life?” Here’s where we get right down to the nitty-gritty: religious, spiritual, non-religious/secular, humanistic (no religion). Mr. FD tells me that your mom’s records show that she declared herself to be Roman Catholic. The daughter-in-charge looks a bit dazed, “She did? Was mom Catholic, dad?” Dad puts on a sheepish look, “Yeah. We

both were. We got married in church and we had you kids baptized, too.” One thought rolls over my mind: “OMG! Just let them talk this one out.” Once they are done doing their own interviews, I can interject with, “It seems your mom did have a religious preference and that she had a faith tradition. You may be surprised but I have had situations like this many times where a parent or a grandparent gets so involved with caring for their family, that there’s just no time on Sundays to pack everyone up and march to church, and so the “religion” moves from the church to the heart. That’s not a bad thing. So I’m not surprised that your mom was busy being a good mom and a loving wife, and managed to keep her religion in her heart and worship there. That’s a beautiful thing. Don’t you think?” In unison: “Yeah. You’re right!”

And so we move past that hurdle, and we have something to hold on to. I have a starting point and the family has a very viable option, the service will be a religious service, but not “too” Catholic, because we don’t go to church and the kids won’t sit still through a lot of prayers. The conversation and sharing goes on beautifully from that point on, once a “major” question has been negotiated.

But what about the non-religious, or the so-called “quilted family system,” in which you have a mix of non-believers, and believers including the odd Buddhist, the Jew, the Presbyterian, the Evangelicals, Baptists and the de rigueur generic “Christians?” Is this interfaith, interbelief, or interpath? My categorical answer is: Yes. But it’s likely to be non-religious if it’s any of these.

You see, it’s hypersimplistic to presume to take any collection of denominations or traditions and call it by any name, let alone be crazy enough to think that you can properly address and avoid offending any or all of the traditions in the assembly. To be very honest, there are today so many flavors of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Episcopalianism, etc.  Forgive me! for I have ismed.

The truth is that you can provide a service only along the lines of a single tradition – or no tradition — and, if you are not a listener or not well-trained, you run a risk of adoring adulation from some and condemnation as a heretic by others in the same group. The attempt to please all is doomed to please none.

This is because most institutionalized, mainstream denominations simply do not properly train or supervise their clergy – so as not to offend them or in order to allow the clergy to take the odd doctrinal or dogmatic detours to ensure that he or she keeps the pews filled and the collections abundant – so you can go to one service on one Sunday and hear one teaching and the next Sunday go to another worship service and get another take on the Gospel. Neither do the clergy properly and honestly form and educate their constituents; that’s why Christians are so diverse and so critical of and cruel to one another, while preaching some sort of love. Most tend to go where you have a preacher who says what they want to hear; once-a-week worship becomes a happy-clappy hypocritical quest for affirmation and acknowledgement. Orthodox doctrine is a thing of the past; institutionalized religion, the mainstream religions, like any institution are self-serving and self-preserving; it’s a market economy with hymns and incense. It’s ice-cream religion, vanilla or any flavor you’d like.

Meanwhile back at the funeral home, we’re just finishing up and have decided on a chapel service that will be based on the Rite of Christian Burial that will include Roman Catholic liturgical elements, even candles, holy water and incense, but will include some secular poetry readings, and a couple of “Protestant” hymns. The graveside service will be prayerful, moving and tearful. The family’s happy, the FD is over the moon, and I have my doubts.

On the way back to my office I’m pondering, “How am I going to pull this off, and still be able to have dinner with myself again?” That may have been a reason for considering self-harm years ago but today it’s just a pro forma start to “designing” a custom and personalized service we now call the “Celebration of Life,” rather than a funeral ritual.

It’s here that years of study, continuing education, lots of extradisciplinary study, interpersonal skills, creativity, and a lot of help from something I refer to as the Holy Spirit gets us all over the hump rather than in the dump.

In ministering to suffering in general and to those confronting an end-of-life process, death, and the rite of passage from ante-mortem to post-mortem life, we are forced to recognize the indisputable fact that suffering if anything,  while being a common thread running through all of humankind, is inextricably individual; the pain of bereavement is totally one’s own experience, each individual experiences it differently, and any attempt to provide an “inter-anything” type of psychospiritual care is a deplorable fake.

At some time after our birth we are presented to the community in a rite of passage ritual called “naming;” naming explicitly announces to the cosmos that here we have an individual, an “other,” who, for the purposes of distinction shall be called “Baby Doe.” Different cultures will ascribe different duties and responsibilities and different degrees of separateness of the new member but that new member is almost universally recognized as an “other.” Accordingly, the cookie-cutter funeralization rites and rituals of various faith and belief traditions, while they may at one point or another recognize the individual by mentioning his or her name, the overall presumption is that the departed one has indeed departed the community and, upon final disposition of the mortal remains, is no longer. Thank you, Dr Freud!

But this is as far from health reality as we can get. We have to reach back into our own history and bring back the family involvement, the maintenance of important connections with our dead; we have to learn from other traditions how to continue those bonds and how to grow with them.

A clergyperson who doesn’t hone the importance of acknowledging the “other,” the named one, the uniqueness of the deceased, and who doesn’t include the family to the maximum extent possible in the rites of funeralization, is shortchanging the deceased and the mourners! Continuing bonds with the dead is an intimate, personal necessity and not one in which church or community should be dominant; the annual memorial mass is one example of superficiality and ecclesial control. By far more effective is to light a candle at a holiday gathering or to light a candle on a special occasion, honoring the presence and memory of a dead loved one, or even the community of dead loved ones. Perhaps even observing a moment of silent reflection when the family gathers.

The Agape Meal

The early Church started in private homes in the family circle; for centuries it continued and evolved in the warmth and intimacy of private homes, the early house churches; this had less to do with persecution than with the Jewish Sabbath tradition and the primordial agapé meal! But then, the early organizers got together to set the rules and to enforce some control over the various “churches” as they were called in the different faith communities. Gradually, faith moved out of the family circle, out of the home, into the community assembly space, out of the core of the individual human being, until today, it has practically moved out completely. The lights are on but nobody’s home. We are the janitors of the soul, the concierges of the refuge; when we get the call, we prepare the place.

Faith, religious belief, spirituality still maintains an address in the human soul and still receives mail there; our job as clergy, ministers, chaplains, psychospiritual care providers have to keep that abode open, accessible and welcoming for the time when the prodigal has to return, open the mail, and pay the bills. All suffering, all grief, all healing, all transformation is addressed personally to the individual; all care has to do the same: it must be individual, or at least the individual must be provided with the tools so that they can do the DIY repair and maintenance.

Creating new labels for negligence or indifference or continuing cookie-cutter rituals is an affront to any concept of ministry, to any concept of community. We need to stop being narcissistically creative and start being humbly serving.

If we are going to allow any notion of “inter” to enter our lives, our praxis, our ministries, and from there into the lives of those who look to us for guidance, we are going to have to recognize and accept the fact that our churches, our faith and belief communities have become institutions and, like any profane or secular institution are governed by self-interest and self-preservation, all else playing a lesser role.  As a psychospiritual care provider it is my duty and obligation first to be tolerant and to recognize that it is arrogant to claim and impossible to be “interfaith,” “interreligious,” “interpath,” “interbelief,” and to claim to be any of these is to announce being nothing at all. Best to be wholly tolerant and wholly compliant with the explicit wishes of the deceased but even more so with those of the living, obviously, and to be guided by good and prudent discernment of the content of the sharing during the family conference.

The rites and rituals of funeralization should transform the dead into fonts of meaningful legacy and provide the living with psychospiritual nourishment and the opportunity for growth; this requires deep listening, sensitivity, creativity, humility, compassion, and patience. Ours is a vocation, not a job, that’s why the FD or some funeral home dilettante should not, must not be put in the position of providing psychospiritual care as a funeral or memorial officiant. Doing so simply makes the statement either that the funeral director or the funeral home does not know its limitations or boundaries, or that they simply are indifferent to the harm they can do by providing care outside of their competence, or both. Offering quick fixes like direct burial or direct cremation are careless and insensitive alternatives to providing the care and attention necessary for healing grief work and transformational mourning; even direct disposition services should offer, promote and encourage the services of a professional bereavement chaplain, even if it’s only to meet with the survivors in an informal environment and simply chat; the chaplain will know how to steer the sharing.

Epilogue

It’s astounding how few FDs actually make it a point to offer or even mention chaplain services. It’s even more disappointing to have to admit that most clergy never have a pre-funeral or pre-memorial meeting with the family to discuss the rites and rituals and why things are being done a certain way. Even fewer enlist the family’s participation in the actual service. This is a travesty of deathcare services both by the FD and by so called clergy. We owe the dead, the bereaved, mourners in general better treatment than this, especially if we are receiving a fee or a stipend to provide psychospiritual care!

In this article I have used the word sentimental and its derivatives but have not really defined it as I am using it. I owe you, my patient reader, the fairness of a definition. Sentimentality is fooling yourself into thinking there are easy answers. Sentimentality gives free rein to rank simplification, excessive feeling, particularly emotions, that have no place in actuality Sentimentality is a form of defense, a self-deception just like denial, and is used in order to avoid acknowledging more painful emotions, particularly anger, shame or guilt. So what would I propose to you as the opposite of sentimentality? My reasoned suggestion of an antonym for the term “sentimentality” would be “mature realism.” Mature realism Mature realism steering clear of cheap idealization just as we would steer clear of cheap grace; such realism requires the courage to examine the good and bad of everything, and further demands that we to search beyond the superficiality of our own emotions, motives and those of others that mislead us to think that there are easy answers to complex problems.[8]

Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney MDiv
Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist

 


[1]DAVOS-KLOSTERS/SWITZERLAND, 30JAN09 – Lord Carey of Clifton (VLTR), Archbishop of Canterbury (1991-2002), United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, United Kingdom, Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Executive Officer, Sojournes, USA, , captured at the press conference ‘Religious leaders call for the peace in the middle east’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009. ©World Economic Forum. swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler.
[2] Source: Archdiocese of Chicago (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 22, 2017)

[3] The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) describes itself as “”… a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life…PRRI’s mission is to help journalists, opinion leaders, scholars, clergy, and the general public better understand debates on public policy issues and the role of religion and values in American public life by conducting high quality public opinion surveys and qualitative research”

[4] “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160202185558/http://publicreligion.org/2014/07/the-morning-buzz-how-religious-affiliation-and-attendance-influence-likelihood-of-divorce/ last accessed on October 24, 2017)

[5] “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists” (

[6] “St. Paul’s atheists are coming out of the closet” (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[7] Interfaith IMPACT of New York State (www.interfaithimpactnys.org, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[8] I would strongly recommend the book Faking It by Digby Anderson. In that 1998 book Anderson and contributors present a scathing assessment of sentimentality in most of today’s institutions of modern culture. (Anderson, D., P. Mullen, Faking it:  (1998) The sentimentalization of modern society. London: St Edmundsbury Press.)

Discerning Chickens from Ducks. A taxonomy.

Republished with permission from the Companions of St Silouan Athonite


Those of us in the vocation of teaching or preaching sometimes find that no matter how we attempt to describe something, we fall short of the mark, that is, we just don’t have the wherewithal to communicate complex situations in terms our audience can fully embrace.


As I lay in bed one early morning unable to sleep, and immersed in reflection, I began musing and imagined the various Christian faith communities as chicken farms, and I created a taxonomy of about 4 categories of chickens. I reached for my journal and jotted down some key thoughts in order not to lose them. Once I found peace having jotted down the necessary mnemonics, I was able to doze off. I rose early that morning to reconstruct my dozy thoughts. Here they are:

There are Ducks among the Chickens

On the one hand we have the factory farms where the chickens are confined in large coops and fed a prescribed diet doped with various enhancers. These are the Roman or Western Rite Christians. They are kept in parochial coops, fed a diet of dogma, doctrine, catechesis, and Canon rules and regulations; they are under the chief keeper, the bishop, whose minions, the priests are the farm hands. The corporation headquarters calls all of the important shots for these chickens. It’s “systematic.” The lights in the coop go on timer-controlled, stay on for a set period of time, and then go off. Feeding is done automatically, mechanically by the hopper method — homiletics or liturgical preaching —, in the process of delivering  a premixed formula — a so-called liturgy —, which the clucks devour at set times, and then go on with their lackluster, routine lives until it’s time to make the trip to the processing plant. That’s category 1.

Factory farmed, raised systematically, kept in line by protocol.

Category 2, took shape when I turned my thoughts then turned to the chicken-metaphorical Eastern Orthodox Rites. Here I have free-range, cageless chickens, who roam about within a perimeter of dogma and doctrine. These chickens have relative freedom and autonomy, although the head farmer makes all of the major decisions affecting their lives and his farmhands live among the chickens, ensuring that they stay healthy, and keep the foxes and weasels at their distance. These chickens rise with the sun and roost when the sun sets. They have relative variety and color in their diets and it’s natural, no artificial additives; organic. These clucks are out there digging around and experience the mystery that is their life and the beauty that is their world. They live their live with relatively few rules and regulations, and finish their lives plump and clean.

Wandering and feeding in the beauty and mystery of creation.

There’s a third category of chicken in the chicken world I’ve conjured up. It’s the chicken kept by the guy down the road who wants his eggs fresh and his Sunday dinner just outside his door. Nice and convenient. This chicken is kept in a rather pedestrian, vulgar way, allowed to roam about, kept in a makeshift hutch or in a coop. Their keeper is not particularly well educated in chicken-care nor in what chickens need out of life so their diet and care is a bit haphazard and generally subject to their keeper’s idiosyncrasies and whims. Their keeper gets his chicken knowledge out of a popular magazine or off the Internet. No real plan, no real structure, each chicken has a personal relationship with its owner. Neighbors see these chickens and refer to them by the owner’s name: “There’s Joe’s chickens in the road again. “ “Or Amy’s chickens are in our backyard again.” With little or no supervision or protection, these chickens sometimes become road-kill or are taken by a fox or a dog. But they can also be happy chickens because they don’t know anything else, and they can be healthy chickens, but they’re good only for soup because they’re very lean and underfed; a bit tough at times. These are the non-mainstreamerspopular religious movements, sects, cults and storefront “churches.”

Backyard chickens.

Getting near completion of our taxonomy of religious chickens, of course, we have some chickens who fall somewhere in between these three groups, or chickens who get “rescued” by one or the other categories. They’re still chickens but a bit confused.

Finally, we have the un-chickens. These are creatures that think they’re chickens, look like chickens, act like chickens but are definitely not chickens. Fortunately, these bizarre items are rare and they do make the tabloids or National Geographic. They even manage to attract vulnerable followers, who think that these un-chickens are the real thing. Most of these un-chickens are charlatans, some may actually believe they are chickens, but they are easy to identify and can’t easily hide their deception from the discerning observer.

The Un-chicken. They look like chickens, act like chickens, but don’t know they’re un-chickens.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the un-chicken category. These are not chickens at all but ducks who want to be chickens. These ducks leave their aquatic environment for dry land among the chickens. These ducks have lost track of their special gift: mythologically they inhabited and belonged to three worlds: the world of water, the world of dry land, and the world of the ether. Some would say that these ducks, if they were aware and awake, would realize that they mediated between the sky, the earth and the water. They are special. They think they’re chickens but they still sound like ducks and walk like ducks. Some of the chickens don’t even know there are ducks among them; some of the ducks don’t know they’re ducks. But in reality, you can’t mistake the ducks among the chickens but no one seems to mention the fact and no one makes a peep…or a cluck.

Moving freely between worlds.

And then there are the ducks. Wild and free. Diving into the depths or flying invisible paths. No words or texts are needed to guide them. They find their food along their journey’s course. They quench their thirst in fresh, living water. They live in all three spheres but belong to none in particular. Unlike the chickens who are earthbound and know only a circumscribed tract, the ducks share three worlds; they know the world under the reflective surface of the pond in which they dive, they know the dry land where they walk, and they know the heights, which they share with eagles. We might call the ducks among us the mystics or the contemplatives, those among us whose keeper is the Spirit.

The Spirit is in our midst!

Br Silouan …
A chicken in discernment to be a duck!