Worst Funeral Ever

January 21, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Best Funeral Ever 1It started with MTV’s “The Real World.”  And ever since, television has never been the same.  So-called “reality TV” has become a staple of both cable and network prime time lineups.  It used to be “Big Brother,” “Survivor,” “The Bachelor,” and “Fear Factor.”  Then came reality talent competitions like “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars.”  These days, shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “The Voice” top the ratings.  And now, new to the reality TV field is the surprise hit … “Best Funeral Ever”?

I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.  TLC’s newest reality show features over-the-top funerals directed by the over-the-top Golden Gate funeral home in Dallas.  The funeral home’s motto describes its philosophy:  “You may be in a casket, but it can still be fantastic.”  So far, the show has featured a Christmas-themed funeral complete with a mourner dressed as a snowman as well as a funeral for the singer of the Chili’s Baby Back Ribs jingle, Willie McCoy, which boasted a barbeque sauce fountain, ribs for the guests, live pigs, and a coffin shaped like a smoker.

The garishness of these funerals may provide a ratings boost for “Best Funeral Ever,” but its irreverence also invokes deep discomfort.  Clinton Yates of the Washington Post lamented, “TLC’s exploitation of how families mourn their dead is shameful in an era in which we can barely focus on keeping each other alive.”[1]  Turning mourning into a spectacle just doesn’t seem right.

Of course, there is a reason turning mourning into a spectacle doesn’t seem right.  It doesn’t seem right because it isn’t right.  Death and the mourning that it brings is an indicator of something gone terribly wrong and tragically awry.  This is why death is referred to in the Bible as an “enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26).  Death is no joking matter.

The ancients were well aware of the gravity of death.  After all, it was all around them.  In first century Rome, the average life expectancy was a mere twenty years.  And the Romans hated this.  This is why when a person died, he was taken outside the city to be buried.  This is why a Roman law mandated, “No body be buried or cremated inside the city.”  People did not want to be near death.  They did not want to confront the mortality that surrounded them.

But then, something changed.  Rather than burying the dead far away from the living, cemeteries began to become a part of the local landscape.  As Christians began to build houses of worship, many cemeteries were plotted directly on church grounds.  To worship the living God, you would have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  In our day, we might find this unsettling.  But for many early Christians, such a move was intentional.  For these Christians believed that death was not only an enemy to be destroyed, but an enemy that would be destroyed.  These Christians believed the somber scene of the cemetery was only temporary.  Indeed, even the word “cemetery” is from the Greek word for “dormitory” – a place where one dwells only for a time.  These cemeteries, then, were not tragically permanent dwellings, but only provisional dormitories.  One day, the people buried in them would move out and move on to be with the Lord at the resurrection of the dead.  There was no need to be scared of them.[2]

The tragedy of a show like “Best Funeral Ever” is that it replaces resurrection anticipation with TV tawdriness.  Snowmen, barbeque fountains, live pigs, and smoker shaped caskets offer little in the way of true and lasting hope.

As Christians, we know that what a funeral needs is not cheap antics, but an empty tomb.  It is there that we find cause for real celebration, for it is there that we find God’s promise of life.

[1] Clinton Yates, “‘Best Funeral Ever’: Most frightening reality TV show to date?Washington Post (1.7.2013).

[2] For a good discussion of how the Christian hope of the resurrection changed ancient views on death, see John Ortberg, Who Is This Man?  The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2012), 191.

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