When my father-in-law died seven years ago in northwestern Pennsylvania, it was my privilege to have a share in his funeral. Funerals, at least in the Christian tradition, are worship services. In other words, the purpose is to give praise and thanks to God for the life of the just-deceased individual. The focus, to put a fine point on it, is supposed to be on God. Our Catholic friends take this emphasis a step further by celebrating communion. (This further focuses the bereaved on God's saving work in Jesus Christ.) We honored Dad in the service but were careful to say that our ultimate purpose was to be grateful to God for his years among us.
Earlier this week, if you watched television at all, it was hard to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage of the Michael Jackson "memorial service" at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. I use quotation marks in the last sentence because if the body is present -- as it was -- then it is technically a funeral. But there's no point in quibbling over semantics.
At least two clergymen spoke at this service. From my vantage point, they failed to do the basic job of giving glory to God for Michael Jackson's life. From beginning to end, it appeared to be a two-hour glorification of an individual, the so-called "King of Pop." Several people said embarrassing things, words so over-the-top and out of proportion that I imagine Jackson himself might have had cause to blush. Only Jackson's adolescent child, surrounded by relatives wearing sunglasses for an indoor event (ostensibly to honor MJ), seemed to acquit herself well -- saying simply, "I'll miss him." Exactly.
Events like these, which so many people apparently watched, are an opportunity for reflection. What is the purpose of a funeral? We presuppose that every person's life is so important that we choose to mark their transition to death with an event -- a funeral (body present) or a memorial service (body not present).
Such moments are minifamily reunions and a chance to reconnect with friends, including those we seldom see. They are opportunities to take our private grief and make it public. But funerals/memorial services are for the living, for the survivors. If such events are to be helpful, we must connect our grief and sorrow to something larger -- to the God who made us, redeems us, sustains us and promises to take us to our eternal home.
God seemed suspiciously and disappointingly absent at the Staples Center on Tuesday. Was it a well-produced spectacle? Certainly. Ultimately helpful in helping us wrestle with the mystery of life and death and to build a better relationship to the one who holds both in his hands? Don't think so. It's a shame. Really.
Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.