On Friday I attended a funeral at an African-American inner city church. Normally, I would expect to put the word “predominately” in there, but frankly, the only people in the overflowing sanctuary who didn’t look African-American were people I recognized from work.
I was immediately surprised by the joyful demeanor of the congregation. One song continued for a long time, with many congregants standing, singing, and clapping. Two congregants passed a tambourine back and forth, one playing until she apparently got tired, and then the other taking over.
People seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Which struck me as incongruous, because at the front of the room was a coffin containing the body of a 26-year-old woman.
There were more quiet moments, such as when they did what they call “Praise Dances,” in which one or more people dance to religious music. But there was nothing particularly sad or mournful about the music. Any of the dances could have been done at any service, even the one in which a woman dressed to resemble an angel.
As I have seen at other funerals, a number of people got up to speak. A few spoke a little about their relationship with the deceased. Most, if not all of them, made sure to express thanks to God. There was nothing that I would call a eulogy about the person who had died, just a regular sermon about not sinning. The whole thing resembled a worship service more than a funeral service.
The part that was the most uncomfortable for me was when the dead woman’s father, a pastor, got up to speak. He said how happy his heart is that his daughter is in heaven, and even started leading the congregation in a little reprise of the earlier joyful singing.
I don’t like to criticize other religions or cultures. If folks really believe the dead woman is in a better place now, and that makes them happy and grateful, then more power to them.
Yet I can’t ignore my firm belief that the sudden death of a young woman is a tragedy. Her family and her closest friends were visibly saddened, which is perfectly understandable and appropriate. However, I got the feeling that it was expected that everyone would stick to the program of praising God and not talking about the death as a bad thing.
As a person who studies and engages in Jewish burial and mourning practices, I see funerals, burials, and memorial services as venues in which people can start, however slowly, to heal. Different people can have very different reactions and needs in the aftermath of a death, and I believe strongly in the importance of tailoring services to meet the needs of the mourners.
It feels to me that a joyful funeral is not a healthy thing. I believe it is important for those mourning a death to be able to express their sorrow over the loss of their friend or loved one. I believe that talking about the person who died – rather than focusing solely on God – is a healthy way to allow people to start to express what they have lost.
I don’t know what other rituals or practices the folks in this church normally practice before or after this kind of funeral. Maybe they have other ways to process and express their grief. But the public and joyful denial of these feelings during the funeral just doesn’t feel right to me. What do you think?