Posted Online: March 30, 2007, 12:00 am

Funerals go secular

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By Leon Lagerstam,

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Karen E. Manning, music director at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Rock Island practices some of the variety of music that is played at funerals incorporating religious and secular components.

Death remains as certain as taxes. Yet, the way we mark it has changed over the years. A growing trend in the funeral business sees a secular shift.

More than 30,000 funerals last year in Britain, for example, were "celebrations of life" instead of more-traditional church services, according to a recent article in the London Sunday Telegraph, shared by the Rev. Steven McClaskey of Trinity Church in Rock Island.

"There's been a distinct secular twist and turn in recent years," he said. "Funerals have moved away from the sacred use of traditional prayers and homily."

"Celebrations of life" have become more frequent. Such "celebrations" feature more eulogies and the public sharing of memories of a deceased person's life and times; and often use contemporary, non-religious music.

In fact, one in every 20 families outright rejects a church service in favor of those "celebrations of life," according to the National Association of Funeral Directors, as cited in the Telegraph article.

"It's certainly a trend," said Steve Pressly, president of Wheelan Funeral Home, Rock Island.

A funeral without a minister or reference to God would have been virtually unheard of 10 years ago, cited the Telegraph. "But increasingly services are presided over by a `celebrant,' and involve poems instead of psalms, while mourners are often asked to wear something bright rather than black."

"I don't remember anyone ever saying they wanted no mention of God or no prayers said during funeral services," Mr. Pressly said, "but we have maybe five or six more secular, or family-led, services a year."

It's a small percentage of the approximate 350 funerals at Wheelan's per year, "but 20 years ago, there would have been none, so you have to say it's an increase and pay attention to it," he said.

"Yet, because of my own religious upbringing, I hope we never get away from the sacredness of funeral services," Mr. Pressly said.

The number of more secular services may well increase, "but I don't think it will be a huge shift."

It largely depends on the wishes of surviving family members, and the whole aspect of making services more personal to honor those who have passed away.

"Funeral homes have value when they meet the needs of surviving families," said Eric Trimble, president of Trimble Funeral and Cremation Centers in Moline.

If families feel the church is the most appropriate place, Trimble even offers a specific "$4,895 Church Funeral Plan."

Yet, families who have no church connections or religious service familiarity have different needs, "and it's important we come to terms with grief people are feeling and, at the same time, celebrate the life that has been lived," Mr. Trimble said.

It was among reasons he decided three years ago to rename an area at his funeral home the "Celebration of Life Chapel."

Celebration of Life elements simply personalize services, according to the Rev. Brian Fischer, pastor at First Baptist Church of East Moline.

"Those elements may make it appear that services are moving away from religion, and give it more of a secular feel," he said. "But I feel families still desire a faith connection, and I will always include faith-based elements, as well."

Explaining those elements will be part of an upcoming informational seminar about funeral planning at his church, so "people can have a clear understanding of the worship options available for them," Rev. Fischer said.

Deep-down, it might be difficult to really define a difference between secular and religious funerals, Mr. Pressly said.

"Most clergy people who do funeral services always include something personal about the person who passed away that would allow people attending to `celebrate' that person's memory. It would be difficult to picture a funeral that wouldn't have such a component."

However, he hopes services would never become "insincere,"

"Besides lifting up and celebrating the life of a person who lived, we still need to provide some comfort for those who are there by what is said and done at funerals," Mr. Pressly said.

Shifting to a more secular approach may simply be a fruitless attempt to hide the fact of death, Rev. McClaskey said.

"No matter how well we try to hide it from ourselves, life is solitary, nasty, brutish and short, and death is God's last chance to face up to our need for Him, and it's precisely when you need His consolations of faith, and the Eucharist," he said.

That's as certain as taxes in mid-April.

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