Did you know that Muslims don’t use coffins? That Buddhists hope to go to the ‘pure land’ when they die? Or that eulogies are a comparatively new inclusion for Christian services? These are just a few of the insights revealed by a new Compass series that investigates the intersection between faith and funerals. However the primary discovery by its end is the blindness with which most people approach death.
The five episodes of Faith & Funerals each take a look at two contrasting belief systems in modern Australia: Anglican & Muslim, Secularism and Chinese Buddhism, Catholicism and Hinduism, Pentecostalism and Atheism, culminating in a final program on the ways we choose to remember the departed. As is to be expected, though, there’s no real contrasting going on. Compass preserves its reputation as an unbiased, certainly non-judgmental Australian neighbour looking over the fence from its postmodern backyard. However that doesn’t mean there isn’t some understanding to be gained from sharing the view.
The first episode introduces us to Osman Iqubal, a community minded Muslim from Mount Druitt who devotes part of his time to organizing low-cost funerals for Sydney’s Islamic community. Through his experiences we learn that Muslim funerals are relatively austere affairs. No coffin, no eulogies, no mention of the man’s name during the brief mosque service. Instead there is an emphasis on prayer and the purity a body needs to maintain to enter the afterlife. But the likelihood of arriving there seems to be dependent on how many people can be persuaded to participate in your last rites, says Osman:
“They pray for you that you’ll be forgiven. If you have 40 or more people [at the mosque] then the more chance you’ll be forgiven. So the more people you have just gives more chances to get into Heaven.”
This might sound rather haphazard to a Christian’s ears but the Protestant service offered doesn’t ring much clearer. In the country town of Kandos Anglican rector Leigh Gardiner is preparing to preside over the funeral of town favourite Wendy Curry. The family of the 55-year-old woman who suffered from Down Syndrome are naturally distressed by her death, but Rev. Gardiner believes the point of the service she offers is to help them find a way through that grief:
“The purpose of an Anglican funeral is to give thanks for the life of the person who has died, to acknowledge the grief that is being experienced, but also how God was involved in the journey of the person – and to bring hope.”
But hope in what exactly? Despite the trappings of tradition, the Rev. Gardiner can offer nothing more certain than the syrupy assertion that “…Wendy’s life is now joined with all life, stretching into the past and into the future…” Compass may have edited all the good stuff out but nothing about Jesus, his death for our sins or his promise to save those who trust in him emerges. It’s no wonder the family end the show convicted that Wendy has become a gold star in the sky – without sure knowledge of death and what comes next they’re as much in a fog as the next armchair theologian. Yet this is fairly typical of the majority of religious services profiled by this series: deep sadness obscured by uncertain rituals or combated by unfounded sentiment.
Faith and Funerals is worth watching if only to see just how lost people become when they wander from the certainty of Jesus’ testimony about life and death. Probably the most tragic of all funerals has to be that conducted by the secularists who boldly proclaim ‘No Grief or God allowed’. The truth is death is a universally acknowledged sadness that does not match our innate sense of how things should be. And unless God is ‘allowed’ to defeat it for us, it will end in greater grief than can possibly be imagined.
Release Date: Sundays, 6:30 PM (premiers July 20)