But it's a Family Choice: An undertaker responds

When the Reformed Worship staff asked me to respond to an article by Joel Belz, "No More for the Undertaker," I put it off for reasons I did not then understand.

I am both a Christian and a funeral director, a fact that Mr. Belz apparently finds a contradiction in terms. Reading that I was involved in an "essentially pagan industry" came as a great surprise to me. Should I and my Christian colleagues be finding other employment rather than being there when both believers and nonbelievers lose someone close to them? Have I been mistaken all this time in thinking that we are in a unique position to minister to hurting people?

I think not.

The Question of Cost

One of the largest issues for Belz seems to be what he views as excessive funeral costs. But is $4,000-$5,000 truly unreasonable for average funeral expenses? People spend more for optional equipment on a new car every few years than they do for an average funeral.

Quite often people, including Mr. Belz I suspect, have the mistaken notion that the bulk of what constitutes a funeral is the casket. Actually, much of what people are paying for is service and facilities. Death is not a 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. occurrence. Funeral home staff are available twenty-four hours a day, every day of the week— no exceptions. Attracting and keeping staff who are willing to make that kind of commitment does not come cheap, nor do facilities and motor equipment that meet the public's standards.

In the 1980s funeral homes in the U.S., under a mandate by the Federal Trade Commission, took a major step toward educating people about what they were really paying for. Today people entering any funeral home in the country are supplied with an itemized price list, from which they can select the services, facilities, and merchandise they want and can afford.

The funeral director's role is that of facilitator. He or she helps the family create as personal a service as they desire, tailoring it to their personal and religious preferences as well as to their financial parameters. Families are ultimately the ones who make the decisions as to what is meaningful to them and what is in keeping with their beliefs. The funeral director only carries through on the family's choices, removing some of the burden of the details.

Let's face it, as a Christian I am called to treat people as I would like to be treated; as a funeral director I am well served to have people satisfied in their dealings with me.

A Celebration of Life

I found out last week why I had not written this response before now. My neighbor, my friend, my brother in Christ, died at home after battling cancer for many months. He was the fourth close friend I have lost in the past four years. He was also the oldest at forty-two. He left not only his wife but six children from college age to preschool.

My friend and I shared many things—concerns over our families, our church, our society, and a vision of what we believed the body of Christ to be here on earth. We knew each other well. When his family and I met together to plan his funeral, we all knew that it had to fit the person; who he was as husband, father, educator, and member of the body of faith.

I had the luxury of knowing what he wanted for his funeral because we had talked about it; years ago we had even conducted church classes on dying and grief together. He spoke of the importance of visitation hours for people to share their remembrances with the family, the necessity of confronting the reality of death by viewing the body, the wisdom of people gathering together for mutual support at the time of personal loss, and the need for God's children to celebrate victory over death. He also knew the dangers of trying to intellectualize death away as though we could somehow then minimize its impact. He believed that funerals address our human side—our pain over the loss of the physical presence of a person—but that they also attend to our spiritual side—proclaiming our triumph over death in Christ.

There was nothing muted about his witness through his funeral. It was a testimony of God's faithfulness even in circumstances we cannot begin to fathom. The hundreds of us that attended heard the gospel that was so precious to him shared with all his family, friends, and students. We came together and supported one another in the pain of our loss, and we celebrated his life, savoring the memories he left in our minds and hearts.

Come to think of it, isn't that really what funerals are all about? "Pagan industry" taken over by non-Christians, Mr. Belz? Not in my neighborhood!

Martin L. Hollebeek is president of Heritage Funeral Services, Inc., a company that operates five funeral homes in the Western Michigan area.