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Why a Funeral Home Is More Ministry Than Business

September 9, 2019

By: Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap

The philosopher Hans Jonas once said that three things have always distinguished human life from other animal experience: the tool, the image, and the grave.

The tool imposes man’s knowledge and will onto nature. The image – man’s paintings and other art – projects his imagination. It implies a sense of beauty and memory, and a desire to express them. But the greatest difference between humans and other animals is the grave. Only man buries his dead. Only man knows his own mortality. And knowing that he will die, only man can ask where he came from, what his life means, and what comes after it.

The grave, then, and all of our solemn rituals that surround death and mourning are expressions of reverence and hope.

When Christians and other people of good will talk about “the dignity of the human person” and “the sanctity of human life,” they’re putting into words what we all instinctively know. Unique in nature, and unlike any other creature, something elevated and sacred in men and women demands our special respect.

I grew up in a family where death was revered for what it is: a natural part of life, but also a tear in the fabric of a family’s world.

As C.S. Lewis liked to say, every life is an unrepeatable universe, and when it ends, it leaves a hole in a network of other lives. My father understood that. He was a funeral director in a small Kansas town. The many friendships we shared often meant that my parents shouldered some of the sadness and helped with the material needs of those we knew and loved – families who had lost loved ones.

My father also knew that the funeral profession, done well, is much more than a corporate enterprise. It has no room for insincerity or false compassion. In important ways, it’s closer to a ministry than a business – a source of support for persons struggling with very difficult emotions. We dispose of waste, but we treasure and inter human remains. The gulf between the two is immense, and every wake and every funeral is as much about comforting those who grieve as it is about remembering and burying the deceased.

All of this reinforces the common sense of professional guidelines and sex-specific dress codes like those for the staff of Harris Funeral Homes in the Detroit area. These allow the people they serve to focus on processing their grief, rather than on the funeral home and its staff. And ultimately, that’s why the funeral home chose to part ways with a male employee who announced an intent – after six years of complying with the male dress code – to start dressing and presenting as a woman while interacting with grieving families.

A funeral director’s role is to serve as a respectful, unobtrusive, and supportive presence for those dealing with intimate loss. Anything less disserves those who are suffering immense grief.

But that view is not shared by the ACLU, which is fighting Harris Funeral Homes before the Supreme Court, demanding that “sex” be redefined in federal law to include “gender identity.” For the ACLU, its political goal of redefining “sex” to include “gender identity” trumps the interests of those enduring deep human grief.

We live in a country that allows plenty of opportunities for individuals to express their sexual preferences. The funeral home, with the grief it seeks to comfort and the dignity it attaches to every deceased person being remembered, isn’t one of them. This means that Alliance Defending Freedom, in its defense of Harris Funeral Homes, is defending much more than a funeral home. And it’s yet another reason why ADF is so important.

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Alliance Defending Freedom

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