1975 Church of the Brethren Statement
Whereas funeral practices tend to be dictated more by custom and convention than by Christian conviction; and
Whereas the cost of extravagant and even traditional funerals and burials may be a contradiction of Christian simplicity and the stewardship of accumulated financial resources; and
Whereas family estates may be dissipated by legal fees and neglected tax savings or the final disposition may be a denial of Christian stewardship; and
Whereas “heroic medical measures” may merely maintain life, but deny the terminally ill person the dignity of dying in peace; and
Whereas anatomical donations are needed to extend medical research and provide viable tissue and organs to restore health and vitality to the disabled and chronically ill; let it therefore be Resolved, that the Panther Creek Church of the Brethren assembled in congregational business meeting petition Annual Conference through the District of Iowa-Minnesota to study the following:
- The Christian meaning of the funeral.
- The stewardship involved in the cost of funerals and in the disposition of estates and to suggest alternative programs of Christian witness through bequests in support of scholarships for students from the Developing Nations and Brethren youth preparing for careers in one of the “helping or healing arts.”
- The medical and pastoral care of the dying.
- The need for, the moral issues implicit in, and the procedures for donations of human bodies or tissues for medical research and for transplanting of tissue and organs (eyes, hearts, kidneys, etc.) to restore persons to health.
Doris Emmert, Clerk
Berwyn Oltman, Moderator
Passed as written by the Iowa-Minnesota District Conference in session at Lamoni, Iowa, on July 21-23, 1973.
John Ditmars, Moderator
Darlene M. Garwick, District Writing Clerk
Action of the 1973 Annual Conference
The following answer of Standing Committee was accepted and the committee was elected.
“The Standing Committee recommends that the concerns of the query be granted and that a committee of seven persons be appointed to make the study called for. Five persons shall be elected by ballot by the Annual Conference and two persons shall be named by the General Board. In addition to studying the issues raised in the query, the committee should consider developing program materials, study resources and bibliographical materials for use by local churches in implementing the findings of its study. It might be desirable to explore all agencies, including our Committee on Health and Welfare, and other church groups, such as the National Council of Churches, doing similar study in these most vital life-stewardship issues.”
The committee members elected by Annual Conference are Iva Brunner, Dennis Gump, Wilbur McFadden, Wilbur D. Miller, and Clyde Shallenberger. The two members appointed by the General Board are Wanda Button and Larry Graybill.
In 1974 the Study Committee on Life-Stewardship reported progress and requested additional time.
Action of 1974 Annual Conference
The report was presented by Clyde Shallenberger. The request for additional time by the committee was granted.
1975 Report of the Committee
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time to be born and a time to die (Ec. 3:2). We anticipate and celebrate the time of birth not only at the time but annually for years to follow. But the time of dying is avoided by a denial that takes many forms.
While it is difficult for many to accept, it is a fact of life that at some time, at some place, and under some circumstance, every one of us will die. We intensify the difficulty of our dying by our denial of it. If only we could take it out of the “dark closets” to which we have relegated it and examine it in the light of our Christian faith, death need not be the forbidden topic that it has become.
This report to the 1975 Annual Conference assembled in Dayton, Ohio, focuses on six major areas: I. A Biblical View of the Body; II. Historical Positions Regarding the Funeral and Burial; III. The Christian Funeral; IV. The Church as Support Community; V. Christian Stewardship in Relation to Medical Need, the Funeral, and Estate Planning; and VI. Recommendations.
Biblical View of the Body
Though human flesh was created from the dust of the earth, it did not have a negative connotation in the Hebrew mind. Indeed, even after the person died and God had received the person’s breath back unto himself, the body was to be treated with care and respect. It was a disgrace not to be buried (2 Kg. 9:10; Pr. 30:17; Jer. 16:4, 22:19).
While the Jews did not embalm (an exception being Joseph in Egypt), by the time of Christ they did wrap the body in linen swathes and prepare it by using spices, probably as a form of ceremonial purification. (See John 11:44; 19:39-40.)
In the New Testament, Paul describes the body variously as a frail “earthen vessel” filled with the “treasure” of God (2 Cor. 4:7), as a temporary “tent” or “tabernacle” (2 Cor. 5:1-5) and as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Again, we see that the physical body is frail and destined for corruption, but it is not evil in itself.
The New Testament differs from the Old, however, in its doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. What determines the nature of the resurrection body? There was no consensus among the Pharisees as to what degree the body would be “material” or “spiritual.” Some Jewish apocalyptic writers taught that persons would be raised with their old physical marks and deformities. Rabbis who stressed the material nature of the resurrection body were concerned with the problem of resurrection of suicides or executed criminals, those devoured by wolves or lions or drowned in water. When Jesus himself appeared after his resurrection, his new body did bear the marks of the nails in his hands and the wound in his side (Jn. 20:26-28).
The New Testament teaches that the nature of the resurrection body depends not upon the condition of the corpse but upon the relationship which one has had with the Risen Lord during one’s lifetime. The individual’s quality of faithfulness to Christ is reflected in the resurrection body (described as a “garment” in Revelations 3:4,18; 16:15) which God provides for him. It is the Holy Spirit within the believer who is the basis of the person’s hope for resurrection to eternal blessedness: If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you (Rom. 8:11; see also Eph. 1:13-14; 1 Cor. 5:5; 15:45).
Another way in which Paul describes the intimate relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the believer’s resurrection is that the believer’s resurrection actually begins at baptism, when the person becomes “one spirit” with the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17), and “puts on” Christ (Gal. 3:27). The Christian, in union with the Risen Lord and the fellowship of believers, is undergoing a process of transformation (see Gal. 4:19; 2 Cor. 3:18; 5:5), which will be completed at Christ’s Second Coming, when the believer will receive an imperishable, glorified body (1 Cor. 15:51-54) and “be like him [Christ]” (1 Jn. 3:2). It is this relationship of the believer with the Risen Lord that assures the person of fellowship with the Lord even in the bodiless state after death and before the resurrection (Lk. 23:43; Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:6-8).
Concerning the afterlife and the resurrection, the Christian’s focus should not be on the state of his own physical body—which is transient and corruptible—but rather on the Risen Christ, who said: I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die (Jn. 11:25-26).
In the Creation account given to us in Genesis 2 we find that man is completely dependent upon the grace of God for his personal existence: Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being (Gen. 2:7). Apart from the breath, or Spirit, of God, the human body is merely worthless dust. Throughout most of the Old Testament (except, for example, in Daniel 12:2 and Isaiah 26:19), there was no belief in life after death for the individual personality, although one did in a sense live on through the nation Israel and one’s own descendants.
Historical Positions Regarding the Funeral and Burial
In American culture public viewing of the body has become part of the assumed events in connection with the final ceremonies given to the dead. This is so only in the United States and Canada. It is not so in any other country.1
Brethren reflect the cultural norm. In a sampling made of the delegates at the 1974 Annual Conference in Roanoke, Virginia, 57% of them regarded funeral customs (i.e., means of disposition, public viewing of the body, etc.) as generally satisfying. The public viewing that has become the customary procedure in our country has given rise to a major industry surrounding the preparation of the body for that viewing: i.e., embalming and the reconstructive and restorative procedures used to improve the appearance of the body, so that it will be acceptable to view. Then it became necessary to have a place for that viewing, and so “viewing rooms”/“slumber rooms” have been provided.
Embalming is another funeral custom which is very rare in every part of the world except on the North American continent. In other cultures there appears to be little appreciation for the value of embalming since it is an expensive procedure. Embalming is usually done only for those of high social or political status or in cases where the body must be shipped. There are also no other countries where an effort is made to reconstruct the features of the newly dead or to improve the appearance of the body by restorative procedures. And, as one might expect, there is very little viewing of the body. Burial is within forty-eight hours after death has occurred.
Funeralization tends to be a reflection of the whole viewpoint, the Weltanschauung, the world outlook, the basic philosophy of life of the culture in which it is found, according to Habenstein and Lamars. In some cultures death is considered fatalistically. Because of great poverty in some parts of the world, life is misery, and death is often greeted as a release from misery. It is almost something to be celebrated. In America we do not regard death fatalistically. We place such an emphasis on health and well-being and confidence in modern medicine that we tend to regard death as human failure. Americans respond to death with aversion. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it seems so necessary to prepare the body in such a way that it looks as lifelike as possible—to appear to be only sleeping.
In the early history of our church, the care of the dead was very much a church matter. When a member of the church died, a simple coffin was constructed, the family or a neighbor washed and laid out the body of the deceased, and the funeral service was held in the church prior to the burial.
A number of queries came to Annual Conference in the 1800s concerning the conduct of Brethren funerals, such as the one in 1876: Is it right for members to get those fine, costly and fashionable burial cases to bury their dead in, and to employ a fashionable hearse to convey them to the burying ground? The answer of Conference was: We decide it is not right for Brethren to do so.
The answers to all the queries emphasized the need for simplicity and plainness in funerals. One of the aspects of our modern funerals which seems to have led us away from “simplicity and plainness” in funerals and has been influential in increasing the costs of undertakers’ services has been the acceptance of the custom of public viewing of the body.
This is not to imply that the viewing serves no function. Public viewing can provide a means for expressing sympathy to the family of the deceased and for working through one’s own emotions of grief. We live in a day when more people die away from home, often in distant medical institutions or through sudden, tragic circumstances. Viewing the body can make those who survive more aware of the reality of sudden, accidental, or lingering death. Seeing helps us to believe. The prepared and restored body can provide an image for recalling the deceased. The committee recognizes that viewing the body may help those closest to the deceased comprehend the reality and the finality of death. But a public viewing should never be necessary. Recall of the deceased should focus on the person rather than on the lifeless body. Perhaps we should accept the Jewish custom of having the family greet the people in the home during the five days following the death of a loved one.
It seems that the custom of public viewing which necessitates embalming and restoration is a major factor causing funerals to become increasingly expensive. Simple burial within forty-eight hours should decrease the cost significantly and should be considered good stewardship. It is now possible to join a “memorial society”—a people’s cooperative organization whose purpose is to obtain dignity, simplicity, and economy in funeral arrangements. A memorial society assists its members in selecting a funeral director and in getting the services they want.
The Christian Funeral
The most appropriate place for the funeral of a Christian is in the church where the person’s faith has been nourished and affirmed. The funeral or memorial service should be an experience of worship that affirms our faith in Jesus Christ and the eternal life he gives us. While on occasion there may be other factors to consider such as a type of architecture not suited to a funeral service, or someone whose small circle of friends might feel lost in a large sanctuary, the house of worship is still the best location for a service that celebrates life, recognizes death, and affirms eternal life. The role of a worshiping community at the time of death is to sustain and encourage those members of the community who feel most keenly the loss that death precipitates.
The worship of the gathered community is a healing experience. It gives opportunity for meditation and reflection on the ultimate questions of life. The funeral service in the church gives opportunity for forms of expression that are not easily provided elsewhere. It makes it possible to sing the great hymns of our faith. Fine soloists may stir up tender feelings but the great hymns of our faith sung by the congregation tend to confirm the awareness of the supporting group. In the time of emotional crisis that death brings, worship can make a vital contribution to the work of normal grief and healthy mourning.
In making arrangements for the disposition of one’s body, alternatives to burial ought to be seriously considered. In the survey made at the 1974 Annual Conference, 42% of the delegates indicated that they had considered such alternatives. Among those alternatives “donation of body” and “cremation” were the ones most frequently checked. In such instances an appropriate memorial service ought to be held with the community of faith of which the deceased was a part.
The committee addressing this query finds no scriptural reason to forbid cremation. It will be by God’s sovereignty and the grace of Jesus Christ that the believer will receive a new resurrection body. It is true that cremation is forbidden by the Jewish Mishna and was also resisted by the church fathers. Tertullian and Origen, for example, forbade cremation on the grounds that it was cruel to the body.
However, neither the church fathers nor the later Catholic Church has ever taught that burning prevents resurrection. Up until the present century, the proponents of cremation tended to be anti-clerical, agnostic, and disbelieving in the resurrection. Thus, the church’s reluctance concerning cremation was more a defense against what it interpreted to be attacks on the doctrine of resurrection than the conviction that cremation was wrong in itself.
Alternatives to burial followed by a memorial service help to de-emphasize the “bodily remains” and place the emphasis on the life of the deceased and on our hope in the things of the spirit. Two very practical reasons for alternatives to burial are: 1. Land used as burial ground for the dead may be better used for the living. 2. Vital organs are often buried that could possibly be better used to enhance life for the living.
The Church as Support Community
Salvation is found in the fellowship of the living body of Jesus Christ, his church. Paul conceives of individual Christians as being bound together in not merely a social unity but an organic unity: For as in one body we have many members, and all members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another (Rom. 12:4). He elaborates upon this in 1 Corinthians 12:4-31. Because we recognize that we are vitally dependent upon each other, we must suffer with and care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (v. 26).
It is the task of the church to be supporting, loving, and serving wherever there is suffering, pain, or need of any kind. This support needs to be expressed before a person is faced with the crisis of death and should include assisting members to understand death in the Christian perspective. As part of a general emphasis on the simple life, the church should encourage and support simplicity in the disposition of the body.
Local congregations should appoint a committee to assist those faced with critical illness and/or death. Responsibilities of such a committee would include assisting families facing critical illness, helping families with funeral arrangements, support, meals, etc., upon request and encouraging active participation by the congregation in an elective study course onLife’s Common Crisis.
In order to give support to local congregations serving in this capacity, the Brotherhood hopes to make available educational materials and encourage workshops and/or courses which would include topics in: (1) Psychological stages of dying and grief; (2) Community resources available; (3) Wills and estate planning; (4) Christian burial; and (5) Donation of organs and bodies.
Because the denial of death is so prevalent in American culture, many find dying difficult to discuss. Likewise, preparing in advance for one’s own death or for the death of a loved one is difficult. The tragic consequence is that the individual who is experiencing dying and wants to talk about it is often denied the opportunity to do so. The dying person may need our presence to help him realize the truth that even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, noted psychiatrist and thanatologist, has defined five stages through which individuals might move as death comes. They are shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Grief is a natural reaction to loss and especially to the loss of another person. It is mental pain that we feel at loss; mourning is the expression of that pain. It is tragic that many within the Christian community are made to feel guilty about the normal process of grief as though grieving were an indication of an anemic faith. St. Paul does not discourage grieving but suggests . . . that you may not grieve as others who have no hope(1 Th. 4:13).
Christian Stewardship in Relation to Medical Need, the Funeral, and Estate Planning
From the beginning, those who have been “healers” have thought of death as the enemy. But the modern physician, unlike his counterpart of even one generation ago, has the resources to keep biological systems functioning even though the patient has become a mere system of organs and tissues, defined in terms of disease and non-disease, and separated from the spiritual and religious part of the whole person. Death is still the enemy, but it is a scientific enemy found and fought in institutions. Approximately 80% of all deaths occur in hospitals or nursing homes. The result is that the care of the dying has become institutionalized—made remote and impersonal. (The busy, professional attendants may be “doing something,” but the needs of the dying are often neglected.)
Recent studies have shown that the problem of dying has become a problem of loneliness on the part of the patient, and that the patient may in fact experience what he fears most—abandonment. Conventional medical treatment, aimed at the disease process, is often a method that reinforces his feelings of isolation and the terror of the unknown. The disease continues to be treated, but the person may be neglected, isolating him from his family, friends, and community. All too often those who have been closest to an individual during his lifetime find that they cannot deal with their feelings about the patient’s death, and abandon him when he needs them most.
The query implies concern for “heroic medical measures that merely maintain life, but deny the terminally ill the dignity of dying in peace.” This is a problem in some instances, though seldom intentional. According to a recent survey, the vast majority of doctors recognize no special duty to keep terminally ill patients alive. (The 1974 Annual Conference survey shows that 55% of the delegates who participated in it did not feel that “the doctor should keep you alive as long as possible.”) However, in large, research-oriented institutions, it is more likely that “everything possible” will be tried, with no member of the treatment team being willing to admit defeat, or to take responsibility for the new phase of treatment of the person. Moreover, the patient is isolated from his home, thus cultural and community strengths cannot be utilized at this very important time. The dying patient is reduced to a set of complaints, symptoms, and physical findings, and the question is seldom asked, Did the patient die peacefully, with self-esteem, dignity, and in control of his limited options?
The patient often finds himself fed, bathed, sent for tests, X-rayed, intubated, awakened, sedated, medicated—sometimes without any active participation in the decisions. The patient—not the doctor, family, church, or society—has the right to be considered in these decisions, and acknowledging this right contributes to his dignity and humanity.
The problem of “heroic medical measures” at the time of death is not purely a problem for the physicians, for far too many people believe that something more can be done for the fatally ill when in reality nothing can. The everwidening expectancy of treatments for cancer, heart, and kidney diseases, for example, makes the acceptance of death more and more difficult, not only for the physician, who feels some sense of obligation to maintain treatment until the very end, but also for the families, who fear the ensuing guilt when “everything possible” isn’t done. Even patients who probably suspect that they are dying, may not face the issue, but may fantasize potential breakthroughs for their particular disease.
There is justification for our concern about misapplication of “heroic medical measures.” A few examples are truly horror stories of continued suffering, enormous expense, and the breakdown of the remaining family for the support of vegetative “life.” Few, if any, are comfortable with this outcome, and many, through the signing of a “living will,” hope to actively prevent such an occurrence. The Living Will is a signed and witnessed document which states that “at such a time when there is no reasonable expectation of my recovering from physical or mental illness, I request that I not be kept alive by artificial means or heroic measures, and that I be allowed to die with dignity.” A growing movement now asserts that there is a right to die, as well as a right to live, and that the right to die is often violated by the prolonged, excruciating, and expensive medical interventions that keep people alive who would be better off dead.
Unfortunately, it is still much more common that too little attention is given to the dying person, rather than too much, and it is here that we should focus our energies. We need to know more than we do about the care of the dying, with emphasis on the patient as a sensitive and sensible human being, and more about how best to help the anxious, strained, and suffering family and friends, during and after the event of dying. Ultimately, good care of the dying will be a test of the teamwork of all involved—family, pastor, medical personnel, et al., so that persons can live their last days with self-possession and self-respect whenever humanly possible. This is good stewardship of life.
Good stewardship can also be expressed by the donation of one’s body for teaching and/or research and donation of viable organs for transplantation to a needy, living individual.
Fifty thousand American people are affected with uremia, a disease caused by a malfunctioning kidney(s), each year. Of that number, 7,000 are good candidates for hemodialysis while they await a possible kidney for transplantation. Of these 7,000 prime candidates who wait, only 1,000 of them can be accommodated. This means that six out of seven likely candidates will die, largely because there are so few donor kidneys available.
Unknown hundreds of near sightless people could have a measure of their sight restored if there were a sufficient number of persons who would will their corneas for transplantation at the time of their death. Temporal bones can give hearing to some who are deaf if they are made available. Other organs and bones and tissues can give new meaning to those who live if those who die prearrange to make these parts available.
It is poor Christian stewardship to throw away (bury) at time of death that which can possibly sustain meaningful life for another. It might be well to recall the parable of the unfaithful steward who, rather than putting to work that which was entrusted to him, buried it in the ground where it did no one any good.
The procedure for the donation of bodies and/or organs might differ from state to state. However, there is in existence a National Uniform Anatomical Gift Act that makes it possible for an individual, while in good health, to prearrange the donation of body and/or organs for teaching and/or transplantation. Under this Act such prearranged donation by the donor is legally binding, i.e., it cannot be reversed by anyone other than the donor.
If your intention is to bequeath a specific organ or tissue for transplantation, this must be done in such a way that the organ or tissue can be received while still in a viable state. That is, arrangements ought to be handled in some form other than or in addition to your will. Members of your family and the executor of your estate ought to be advised as to your desires in this matter so that they can anticipate this donation at time of death.
The disposition of one’s estate should be a matter of great concern for every Christian who desires to practice good stewardship. It has been said that “you can’t take it with you, but you may direct where it goes.” However, one who does not make a will loses that privilege. When a person has no will, the state assumes the distribution of the property, perhaps in a way that would greatly displease that person.
The 1974 Annual Conference survey shows that 98.5% of the delegate body felt that having a will was important. Yet only 54% of those filling in the questionnaire indicated that they had prepared one. Some advantages of making a will are:
- You can make sure the beneficiary of your choice receives the property.
- You can appoint your own executor, which in turn permits you to dispense with bonding.
- You are able to add longevity to your estate planning.
- Tax savings are possible when the marital and charitable deductions are utilized. There has already been initiated a Brethren “Fellowship of Donors”—members of which designate a portion of expected tax savings through estate planning to the General Board, seminary, church colleges, and other Brethren institutions.
The committee, having engaged in considerable discussion, research, and interviewing makes the following recommendations to the constituency of the Church of the Brethren:
- That we resist the pressures of our culture to expend exorbitant amounts of money in supporting funeral customs and practices that tend to make the dead appear “lifelike,” denying the reality of death. We encourage a simple, dignified funeral or memorial service with no public viewing.
- That we encourage members to publicly suggest living memorials, such as gifts to the Brotherhood Fund or a special fund designated by the General Board. Thus the loved one can be remembered in a more lasting way.
- That funerals should be held in the church whenever possible; therefore, church architects and building committees in planning new buildings or in renovating existing ones should give consideration to the church as the appropriate place for funeral or memorial services.
- That each congregation in the Brotherhood participate in a study course or workshop on Life’s Common Crisis. Such course or workshop ought to include at least the following topics:
a. Psychological stages of dying and grief
b. Community resources available
- c. Christian burial. Donation of bodies and organs. The Christian belief in resurrection.
- That congregations, when appropriate, assist individuals in prearranging their funeral/memorial services.
- That individuals talk with their families and pastor about their wishes concerning funeral preparations and prolonged medical treatment in case they become unable to make decisions for themselves.
- That alternatives to burial be considered as a principal of Christian dignity and stewardship.
- That each congregation sponsor an emphasis on Christian Wills at least annually.
- That persons be made aware of the need for bodies for medical investigation and teaching and of the need for viable organs for transplantation.
- That each congregation, accepting its role as a support community, establish a committee to assist families and individuals at times of serious illness and death. Such a committee could also help to establish a Fellowship of Donors.
- The committee further recommends that the General Board, through its staff, produce appropriate reference materials for local congregational study of the topics related to this paper on life Stewardship.
- Footnote 1 See Habenstein and Lamars, Funeral Customs the World Over (Milwaukee, Wis.: Bulfin Printers. Inc., 1960). Clyde R. Shallenberger, Chairman; Larry Graybill, Secretary; Iva Brunner; Wanda Button; Dennis Gump; Wilbur McFadden; Wilbur Miller
Action of 1975 Annual Conference
- The report was presented by Clyde Shallenberger with others on the committee present. The report was adopted, with the addition of a new recommendation number 2.