For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes."
The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer.
But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals.
"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview.
Thus, when it comes time to plan funerals the results frequently suggest that people in the modern age -- including many religious believers -- have "lost that sense of the reality, the gravity of death itself," he added. "The problem is that death is denied, then it's hard to understand the meaning of life and our hope for the life to come."
On one level, it's easy to blame this on the Baby Boomers, that giant cohort of 76 million or so Americans that came of age during the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s and early '70s. This was also an era, noted Bird, when people increasingly began to define their lives in terms of consumerism and entertainment.
Throw in a strong trend toward "navel gazing," he said, and what do you have? Fewer traditional funeral rites and a rising number of events defined by the comfortable label, "A Celebration of Life." These services tend to focus on good times in the past, rather than on faith, grief and loss in the present. The result, argues Bird, is an " egocentrism that extends beyond this life into a kind of necro-narcissism."
To demonstrate what this trend looks like in practice, Bird recently wrote an online meditation in which -- speaking as a traditional Christian -- he listed some phrases that he wants banned from the eulogy at his own funeral. For example:
* "He was a good man." That's out of line, he said, because "even if I were the moral equivalent of Mother Teresa" funerals are not supposed to celebrate someone's "moral resume." In Christian theology, the goal is to remember God's love for sinners -- including the one in the coffin.
* "God now has another angel." It's important to understand that "people don't become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever," he wrote. This is a sobering statement about the importance of decisions made during this life.
* "We are not here to mourn Chad's death, but to celebrate his life." This is a false note, argued Bird, because the "gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause."
* "What's in that coffin is just the shell of Chad." Actually, he said, "My body is God's creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God's gift to me."
Bird said religious leaders shouldn't be surprised that secular consumers are planning -- encouraged by funeral-industry experts -- upbeat end-of-life celebrations filled with references to their favorite movies, music, hobbies and sports franchises.
Want to end a "Celebration of Life" with your college fight song? The spirit of the age says, "Just do it."
The bigger question, said Bird, is why clergy and believers who say they take their faith traditions quite seriously would want to join in this trend.
"The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith," he noted. "If you pass up the chance to do that, then you really haven't honored anyone, including the person who has died or the people who are mourning the loss. ...
"This is serious, because liturgical scholars say that when our liturgies -- like funerals -- have changed to fit the culture, then that change is real. I don't see this as a passing fad."