Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: Rethinking the Episcopal way of death

By | January 25, 2021

One of the things that is interesting in watching the Episcopal Church over the years is how customs start out being progressive, then become normative, and finally become outdated. That is the case with funeral customs in the Episcopal Church, which at one time were greener than most, but today are increasingly outdated. Indeed, many today no longer consider the typical Episcopal funeral to be environmentally friendly.

Thus, given the aging demographics of the Episcopal church and the burgeoning death count due to the pandemic, the time has come to rethink the Episcopal way of death.

Traditional funerals

Growing up in the church, I well remember traditional Episcopal funerals. The closed casket sat in front of the chancel, draped in a pall, often surrounded by four vigil candles and with the Paschal candle nearby.

Such services often included several viewings at the funeral home, a graveside service, and a reception afterwards, resulting in a costly production involving embalming, myriad limousines, flower cars, and a cast of characters adequate to produce a minor motion picture. And while the pall over the casket and the customary limit of two flower arrangements on the altar ostensibly made all decedents equal in the eyes of God, lavish receptions, costly monuments, and mountains of flowers at the viewing made sure that all involved were suitably apprised of the survivors’ financial and social position.

At the same time, these funerals were like 60’s muscle cars — all about appearance and performance, with no consideration for the environmental consequences, or even whether they were sensible choices for most people.

The rise of cremation

But even as society increasingly embraced cremation in the 1970’s, so too did the Episcopal Church lead the way.

Beginning with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which set out specific provisions for use in conjunction with cremations (and was the first prayer book in the Anglican Communion to do so), cremation became increasingly prevalent in the church. Indeed, in many cases, cremation was less expensive, and perceived as environmentally friendly.

The shift in funeral customs was also beneficial to many parishes. Not only could churches offer members the opportunity for a church burial — a tradition dating to the earliest days of the church — but those with churchyards experienced less pressure to find additional burial plots. And columbariums and memorial gardens offered a helpful revenue stream for many churches, even as America’s aging demographics created financial stressors for parishes. And while few would admit it, church burials were a way to ensure continuing connections between a church and a decedent’s extended family, even as society became increasingly mobile.

As a result, it’s been many years since I’ve seen a “traditional” Episcopal funeral, in the sense of a closed casket, hearse, and related accoutrements.

Indeed, a few years ago, I attended a funeral at an Episcopal church, only to be shocked to discover a viewing under way in the narthex. To be fair, the family in question was of limited means, and the parish, like most, did not permit an open casket in the nave. Thus, a compromise was reached to permit the family to have the viewing in the narthex, which saved the expense of a separate viewing at the funeral home. A sound decision by all involved, but sufficiently rare as to be a surprise.

Instead, most Episcopalians today now choose cremation, with the ashes later present in the church for a memorial service. Thus, cremation, which was an newfound trend in the 1970’s, has become the status quo in the Episcopal church, even as much of the world around the church moves in new and different directions.

Emerging funeral trends

Today, outside the church, Americans increasingly trend towards green burials, in which the cemetery does not permit embalmed remains, sometimes referred to as natural burial. Such arrangements account for five percent of funerals, while 72 percent of cemeteries reporting getting the question regularly, and 54 percent of Americans expressing interest in such arrangements.

Meanwhile, the variety of funeral options available to consumers is expanding rapidly. These include human composting, liquid cremation, cryonics, promession (which is freeze drying and shaking the body until it becomes a small pile of fertilizer, but is not yet legal for use on human remains), tree planting, and even so-called green embalming.

Some, like liquid cremation, have been around for years for pets and research cadavers, but are slowly getting traction in the funeral industry. Other options are really out there, like hiring the team in Russia that maintains Lenin’s mummified remains. (Yes, for $200K a year, you can spend eternity in a glass box, providing the grandkids with a Halloween unmatched by any of the other kids in the hood.)

Meanwhile, cremation is looking less desirable to many consumers, primarily for its environmental implications. Each cremation results in an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide, generating a total of 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the US every year.

Nor is cremation a guarantee of cost savings, as funeral directors increasingly think of ways to increase profits. These range from reef burials for ashes, to shooting them into space, to mausoleum niches and costly urns. Indeed, grandma’s or even Fluffy’s ashes can now even be made into high-end gemstones.

And absent the right equipment, thus mercury fillings you got in 70’s will aersolize, and head right up flue and into the air, from where they will eventually enter the food chain. Not good.

Predictably, with so many options, new funeral technologies also draw their fair share of criticism. Some, for example, cringe at the notion of flushing remains down the drain in liquid cremation, all the while forgetting that bodily fluids get flushed down the drain with embalming, while cremation sends those fluids up the flue. Even tree planting, one of the greenest solutions out there, carries with it the risk of resurfacing human remains, a situation not unheard of even before modern funeral practices.

Nor is green embalming altogether environmentally friendly, for even the so-called green embalming fluids require hazard warning stickers. Or as one wag puts it, don’t try to show off by swilling a pint of the green stuff. Please.

The church’s role — or lack thereof

Despite all these changes, the Episcopal Church has done little, if anything, to adjust to the changing times. This, even as Los Angeles lifts air pollution-related restrictions on cremation due to excess deaths resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, part of the problem is that the Episcopal Church is engaged in its usual dithering over proposed revisions to the Book of Common Prayer. The vote to begin the process was held in 2018, and at the rate we’re going, we may not have a new edition before the Episcopal church collapses into the dustbin of history.

But the issue extends beyond being merely liturgical.

Even now, where we are fast heading towards 500,000 deaths, Americans face a powerful funeral industry that keeps costs unnaturally high, while restricting consumer choice and fostering an unhealthy attitude towards death. And these issues are particularly acute in the pandemic, for a 2018 Federal Reserve study found that only 61 percent of Americans could cope with an unexpected $400 expense. Now, with surging unemployment and a shuddering economy, and an average funeral with a vault costing $8,900, a COVID-related death would be financially devastating to many American families.

Indeed, some advocate for a more death-positive approach, for death is a natural act and a normal part of the human condition.

That goes to the heart of the church, its theology around death and dying, and the pastoral care it affords members. Real death is not the pretty, cosmetized, sanitized affair presented by much of the modern funeral industry. Nor does the corollary of that approach apply; death is not inherently ugly.

Personal experience

Speaking from personal experience, when my mother died last year, I arrived at her side moments after she stopped breathing. It was the wee hours of the morning, and the roads were covered in black ice, adding hours to an already long drive.

As a result, it was hours before the hospice nurse arrived to declare Mom dead. So I sat with her, smoothed her hair, held her soft, frail hand, and sang the songs to her that she sang to me when, as a small child, I would wake up in the night, screaming in terror due to a bad dream.

And while it’s difficult to explain why or how, holding her hand as she cooled and slowly turned pale as the life slipped away from her was neither scary nor frightening; it was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life, and my hope is that everyone has the opportunity for a similar experience at some point in their lives. Indeed, it was one of the few good things about Mom’s protracted and difficult death due to emphysema and heart failure, and offset some of the grief I experienced from watching her prolonged suffering.

Of course, there are circumstances where cosmetology and a traditional funeral may be appropriate, even for those who might otherwise seek a green alternative. Autopsies, for example, leave results that would make a non-cosmeticized viewing traumatic for all but the most resilient. Similarly — and I have some firsthand experience in this matter as well — traffic accident victims may require traditional funeral, including restoration work and cosmetology, if family members wish to see the deceased.

How might the church help?

As we face the soaring death count of the pandemic, there are specific ways the church might help.

For example, some parishes might consider providing hands-on funeral care. This idea is not as shocking as it may seem, for many synagogues maintain, or have connections with, burial societies. In these cases, synagogue members wash and prepare the dead for burial, and sit shiva. All or most of this is done by volunteers, and I have heard consistently positive comments from all involved. Indeed, some of my Jewish friends report that this hands-on caring for each other during some of life’s most difficult moments results in close interpersonal connections within the schul that might otherwise be impossible.

Another option would be a funeral society.

In such an arrangement, a church or diocese might use its size and leverage to offer pre-planned funeral options in which cost and logistics are pre-arranged, thus alleviating the stress and anxiety that confront parishioners in the difficult hours after a death. Such an arrangement could be cost effective, and offer the comfort of being predictable and easy to arrange, while ensuring that church customs and protocols were followed without a hitch.

Indeed, a willing funeral home — most likely one independently owned, versus one controlled by the four big corporate players in the industry — might help churches and their members consider a range of funeral choices, including natural burial, human composting, tree planting, liquid cremation, and other emerging options. Again, this could be done in a way that prevents members from being exploited as they contemplate options not available 20 or 30 years previously, and with which they may have little firsthand knowledge or experience.

Speaking of exploitation, while such arrangements might afford additional revenue streams to parishes, it’s important not to fall prey to the approach of the Catholic church. In this situation, some allege that dioceses have retained ownership of Catholic cemeteries, while outsourcing cemetery operations to for-profit companies.

The result? Enormous profits to all parties, possibly at the expense of the bereaved.

Nor are the sums of cash involved insignificant, for Catholic dioceses allegedly have sheltered tens of millions of dollars in assets during the abuse settlements via their cemeteries. This illustrates the need for transparency, accountability, and good governance — all things for which the Episcopal church is not well known — should the church choose to become involved in helping members make funeral arrangements. In other words, it is important that any church foray into these space be first and foremost a service, versus a source of income. And funeral care must be free of the petty politics, personal conflicts, and amateur-hour service delivery that all too often become part of the mix when church gets involved.

Simpler solutions might also be possible.

Drawing on parishioners with suitable knowledge and experience, churches and dioceses might offer written or online funeral planning guides. A mid-tier solution might be setting up pre-payment investment vehicles for funerals, which might even be structured to provide assets to the church after payment of funeral expenses. This could be a win-win for all involved, while offering certainty to those engaging in estate planning.

And of course, preparing appropriate liturgical resources is appropriate. The beauty of liturgy is that it affords predictability, wisdom and grace, particularly important in the trying days after the loss of a loved one. So thinking about how clergy bless, for example, a human composting is important. And trust me, somewhere out there is the priest who, absent a written liturgy, will solemnly intone, “God, bless this compost heap, even as we commit the body of [insert name of old church lady] to its depths.” Sooner or later, it will happen.

Needless to say, with the rapidly aging demographics of the Episcopal church, those parishes and dioceses that wish to survive should consider that a huge amount of wealth will change hands in the next 20 years as baby boomers reach end of life. Rethinking the Episcopal way of death can be a helpful way to support those engaging in estate planning and other end-of-life decisions, even as it helps churches and dioceses work towards future financial stability.

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