When Jessica Mitford first published The American Way of Death in 1963, she unleashed a broadside against the entire funeral industry in this country. She criticized the way funerals were done in America, including cosmetic excrescences and high expenses stemming from the greed of morticians. Some of Mitford’s salvos hit their target and resulted in reforms now codified by law. But, as Thomas G. Long has pointed out, Mitford’s own ideas about what a “good funeral” ought to look like owe more to her secularist mentality than to concern for the bereaved.
To Mitford’s mind, a clear-eyed gaze at death yielded little more than the biological facts. When people died, they were dead . . . period . . . and funerals were little more than pathetic attempts to cover up this bare truth with winks, lies, make believe, cosmetics, and mumbo jumbo.
One does not have to be an atheist in order to miss or distort the central purpose of the liturgical leave-taking a Christian funeral is supposed to be. In days gone by, funerals did not focus on “celebrating” life at the expense of ignoring death. Funerals acknowledged the mystery and liminality of death by fostering serious reflection on both the meaning of life and its finitude. “Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” the minister would say at the interment while tossing a clod of dirt into the opened grave. This act was done “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection” (Book of Common Prayer).
Today, even in many churches that retain an orthodox confession of faith, funeral services are often minimalist affairs with a spare (if any) liturgy, no sermon of substance, and sentimentalized music, all suffused with anecdotal stories about the deceased and other half-hearted efforts intended to camouflage the fact that death remains, as St. Paul called it, “the last enemy” to be destroyed (I Cor. 15:25-26). This stands in stark contrast to the tradition of a Christian funeral as worship of the living God who, in Jesus Christ, triumphs over sin, death, and the grave—Christus Victor! Tom Long again:
Though the liturgy may be gently worded, there is no hiding the fact that, in a funeral, Christians raise a fist at death; recount the story of the Christ who suffered death, battled death, and triumphed over it; offer laments and thanksgivings to the God who raised Jesus from the grave; sing hymns of defiance; and honor the body and life of the saint who has died.
On August 31, 1998, Justice Antonin Scalia, of blessed memory, attended a funeral service at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond. This was the home church of retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who had just died at age ninety. Scalia had served on the Supreme Court with Justice Powell, but they were different in many ways. As a clerk who had worked for both justices put it: “Those two wouldn’t agree on whether the sky was blue.” Then he added: “On second thought, they would agree, but for different reasons.” Scalia was a devout Roman Catholic, while Powell was a traditional Presbyterian. But death is the supreme ecumenical moment, and Scalia was moved by the service for Powell, which he attended along with the other eight justices then on the court.
Powell’s funeral service was conducted by the Reverend James C. Goodloe IV, the minister of the church at the time. The service was decorous and sober without being somber. Powell’s flag-draped casket was at the front of the sanctuary (he had served in the Army Air Force during World War II) as the congregation stood to sing “God of Our Fathers.” The other two hymns would be Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” There were four readings from the scriptures (Ps. 121; Ps. 23; Rom. 8:35-39; Jn. 14:1-6) and three brief eulogies. In his funeral sermon, Pastor Goodloe gave thanks to God for Justice Powell, for his life and legacy, and then he moved to his main point—the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the hope it gives.
We rejoice in Christ’s resurrection as the promise of our own, as the promise of resurrection of those whom we love, and as the promise of the resurrection of Justice Powell. Death pretends to be Lord over us. It’s not. God alone is the Lord over our lives. Death tries to have the last word about who we are. It doesn’t. God has plans for our lives that even death cannot destroy. Death struts its seeming great power, but its power is broken. To Christ belongs the victory. Though death will lay claim to all of us, it will not hold us all, for we do not belong to death. We belong to God in life, we belong to God in death, and we continue to belong to God in that new life on the other side of death.
Justice Scalia was so impressed with the service, and especially Goodloe’s sermon, that on the following day, back in his chambers in Washington, he wrote a personal letter to Powell’s pastor. Here is Scalia’s unedited letter:
September 1, 1998
Dear Dr. Goodloe:
I looked for you unsuccessfully at the luncheon following the funeral yesterday. I wanted to tell you how reverent and inspiring I found the service that you conducted.
In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians, I am surprised at how often eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that. I am told that, in Roman Catholic canon law, encomiums at funeral Masses are not permitted—though if that fact is the rule, I have never seen it observed except in the breach. I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition, not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner. (My goodness, that seems more like a Presbyterian thought than a Catholic one!)
Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.
Many thanks, Dr. Goodloe, for a service that did honor to Lewis and homage to God. It was a privilege to sit with your congregation. Best regards.
Justice Scalia was well-known for sharply distinguishing his constitutional methodology—his textualism—from his personal religious faith. He may have overstated that distinction, but his letter to Pastor Goodloe following the funeral service of Justice Powell leaves no doubt about Scalia’s sturdy Christian faith at life’s end. In that faith is the one comfort—the only comfort—to which all sinners have recourse in such a moment: the inexplicable mercy of God.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com. The Scalia letter is reproduced with permission from the Reverend Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, executive director of the Foundation for Reformed Theology.