No More for the Undertaker: A critique of the funeral industry

For the last time this past week, I hope, I let an essentially pagan industry dictate to my colleagues and me how we go about what should be a uniquely Christian celebration.

My friend Manker Sherrod, an enthusiastic World subscriber, died at the age of 85. From his earliest years, Manker was a follower of Christ—and everyone around him knew of his faithful Christian testimony.

But because non-Christians have virtually taken over the industry that provides funeral and burial services in our society today, the robustness of my friend's lifelong witness for Christ was muted in the hour of his death. Not silenced, but muted—and for the Christian, that is too much.

Playing on Fear

Central to the problem is the typical funeral home's assumption that death is as grimly fearful a matter for everyone as it is for the unbeliever. They trade big-time on that assumption. The result is that Christians, who respect death but have no fear of it, cough up hundreds of millions of dollars annually because they're treated just like everyone else.

The average funeral in the U.S. right now, excluding cemetery costs, starts at about $4,000 or $5,000. You can easily spend much more. It is hard to spend less without being made by the operators of the funeral home to think that you are insulting the memory of the person you are seeking to honor.

I am a member of a church in a relatively small denomination of about 200,000 members. Statistics say that about 3,000 of those people will die this year. At $5,000 each, that amounts to $15 million this year alone—more than my denomination designates for foreign missions! And we have one of the highest denominational records for giving to missions.

A Question of Stewardship

We Christians have got to begin to see that as a scandal of a proportion that dwarfs the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart problems of the last few years. It involves almost all of us.

But it doesn't need to. Christians don't have to keep listening to undertakers whose elegant brochures cynically guarantee hermetically-sealed caskets and encourage extravagance in honoring the deceased. Respect is one thing; morbid fear is another—and it is morbid fear that the undertaker trades on. The whole idea of Christian stewardship is insulted when we are asked to buy a $3,000 coffin only to bury it in the ground as soon as we buy it.

Christians need to rise up, en masse, and say that enough is enough.

Indeed, there are small segments of people even in American society who do not spend lavishly on funerals. Many Quakers and Unitarians, for example, have exercised the foresight to make arrangements which cost less than $500, and still are in full compliance with state laws. In most states, neither caskets, vaults, nor even embalming are legally required.

But being aware of what laws do require in each state, and being prepared to do the right thing when death occurs, demands some kind of advance, heads-up awareness. That is something Christians haven't typically taken care of but need to. Maybe church deacons can get together to do the job; perhaps other groupings will be necessary.

The main point is that we are people who celebrate life. We serve the God of the living, not of the dead. To be held hostage any longer by the death industry should embarrass us all.

I loved Manker Sherrod and the way he always put God's kingdom first. If the occasion of his death prompts many of us to quit burying our resources in the ground, and use them instead for the lively work of God's kingdom, I think both my friend—and the Lord he served— would be pleased.



Joel Belz recently began working with a deaconal committee in the Asheville, North Carolina area to develop more choices for funeral arrangements. The group is studying local and state legal requirements, and is looking for ways that families can be served well for far less money than they pay for the traditional funeral.

Belz wrote to RW as we were preparing this issue:

"It is important to prearrange as many details as possible, or to have a well-qualified cadre of folks ready to step forward to relieve the family of responsibilities that they are not equipped to handle at such a difficult time. Part of our objective will be to offer arrangements that are more biblically rooted; and certainly part of our goal is to reduce the cost of death arrangements, perhaps under the $500 mark."

For information on this group's progress, write Joel Belz, Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802.

Reprinted by permission from World, p. 3, October 27,1990.

Joel Belz is executive director of World, a weekly publication of God's World Publications, Inc., Asheville, North Carolina.


Reformed Worship 24 © June 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.