Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christians and Funerals

The Huffington Post posted a short piece by Jaweed Kaleem about the importance of eulogizing the dead.  While it appears that the practice of eulogizing, making good or kind remarks about the dead at their burial, is not always done, it can be a rewarding exercise for all involved.  I have been involved with more than one funeral where the eulogy was the most powerful part of the event.

But few know that the act of holding funerals for everyone is a distinctly Christian cultural artifact.  It might seem disrespectful to most westerners now to imagine not holding a funeral for someone, even if we did not know them well.  We have been trained to believe that it is respectful to have at least some form of remembrance when people pass away, no matter their social or economic status.  You can thank your Christian roots for that part of your moral compass.

It was not always the case that everyone enjoyed a funeral or a moment of silence.  As the Christian church was growing under the persecution of the Roman culture, most people did not rise to the social strata where they were worthy of a funeral at their death.  Only the wealthy and powerful were remembered, and the rest were thrown mostly into unmarked mass graves.

Now this is what happens when a culture is formed by a religion or worldview that does not hold to the inherent value of every single human life.  To the Romans, and the Greek tradition before them, most humans were not worthy of notice and lived to serve the desires of the gods and the earthly powerful.  So what happens when a religious tradition (the Jewish and Christian religions) grows in size and begins having its impact on that culture?

Lactanitus,(AD 240-320) “We will not allow the image and creation of God to be thrown out to the wild beasts and the birds as their prey; it must be given back to the earth from which it was taken.”

Lactanitus was a Christian convert who previously had been appointed by Emperor Diocletian to be the official professor or rhetoric in Nicomedia.  He grew up, was well educated, and succeeded in the Roman cultural system before he converted to Christianity.  He knew the Roman system, and his values changed radically as a Christ-follower.  At one time he would have believed as all Romans did that most people did not deserve a funeral.  As a Christian his view of humanity changed and as a result a core precept of his ethic changed – every human life is created in the image of God and is of ultimate value.

Funerals for the “unimportant” and the “poor” are a vestige of the Christian ethic that helped shape Western Civilization and much of the rest of the world.  When we “pay our respects” for people we barely knew we do so because of the deeply rooted truth in our culture that every human being is due at least that.  And without this part of the Christian influence, things might be very different.  It is the Christian doctrine of creation that imparts value to every human being, and without that doctrine it becomes hard to see how that value would be justified.  And clearly, as history shows us, it was not.

Some references:

How Christianity Change the World, by Alvin J. Schmidt

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