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[Chalice] Why do we [Chalice]
Need Funerals?

Presented October 11, 1998, by Rev. Allen Peyton

Just over a month ago I was driving to Ewing, MO to visit a consumer in order to assess his eligibility for my organization's services. As I was driving down highway D, I was rounding a curve and up ahead of me I noticed a pack of dogs scurrying about on a knoll adjoining the road. Fearing that the dogs were not smart enough to stay out of danger, I slowed down in order not to add to the road kill population. As I got closer I noticed that the dogs were running back and forth into the road oblivious to my approach. As I approached I noticed that one dog had become victim to vehicular canine slaughter. but the other dogs, over a half a dozen by my count, were running into the road to their fallen comrade and touching noses with the dead beast. There seemed to be a methodology to all of this. Only one dog would venture into the road at a time. Once the mutt touched his nose to his flattened friend he ran back to the shoulder and another dog would venture out repeating the same behavior. This continued even as I came closer with another tool of death, an '81 Monte Carlo. It was not until I sounded my horn that the dogs ceased to touch noses. I continued past in amazement of this animal behavior.

As I reflected on this canine ritual I had a flashback to a hotel room in Columbia, SC where I lay one night visiting another congregation. On the cable was a two hour documentary hosted by Desmond Morris, the noted biologist. The first hour was devoted to his work Intimate Behavior and the second hour was devoted to his work The Human Zoo. Morris set out to show how much we share with all other animals in our responses as individuals and collectively. After all, humankind is not the only social animal in existence. More importantly, much of the behavior that we regard as uniquely human has a biological basis in being. Let us take the wearing of lipstick as an example. It is easily argued that the wearing of lipstick is for cosmetic reasons; it is to make the woman more attractive. Such an assertion implies that there are really some ugly women out there who need to cover up their shortcomings. But in actuality, the wearing of lipstick has more to do with mimicking the sexual response that women experience during intercourse thereby serving as a reminder to both sexes that propagation is essential to survival. During intercourse, the woman's lips redden as blood flows to them. Her cheeks also blush hence the wearing of blush as makeup not to mention her pupils dilating which can be eluded to by eye liner accenting the darkness of her pupils at other times.

Socially we are no different from other animals in our kingdom. A prominent tension that holds a social group together is one of status, that is, who is dominant and who is subordinate. As Morris points out, there are rules that "apply to all leaders from baboons to presidents " The first and basic one is that the leader must display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance. A dominant monkey is naturally larger than his underlings and when he needs to assert his role as leader he needs only to stand erect. Any court of law will have a judge elevated by the bench wearing a gown with big puffy sleeves to broaden his size reminding the crowd that he is in charge. Religion is no exception. Here in the Unitarian Church, the seeking of truth and the intellectual questioning that goes with it is dominant, and is being represented by the pulpit which guarantees the speaker to be above everyone else and the listener in a passive and subordinate position of sitting. The many professors in this congregation may want to ponder all of this as they wear their caps and gowns making their heads bigger and bodies wider, something the baboon does not need to do to maintain his dominant role in his community. But all of this begs the question, what does all of this have to do with funerals?

There is a lot of literature on various customs associated with certain religious rites. Many of them allude to certain biological foundations that connect us with the rest of the animal kingdom. Baptism cleanses the soul of sin but in order to be baptized, which is an initiation rite into a particular community, one must bow down, subordinating oneself to the religious representative or to God. Many women dream of their wedding day walking down the aisle in the gown of her dreams. In order for her to do this she requires her mother and maid of honor to help her with her gown cinching the waist lifting her breast and wearing a bustle to enlarge her hips. And what's with the veil? Is it to hide her accented eyes and lips, the very lips that mimic her labia only to be revealed when the minister who has completed the ceremony says, "You may kiss the bride!" And we must not forget that weddings really began as public contractual events whereby one man, the father, gives his property, the daughter, to another man, the groom. But very little is written about funerals. Can an argument be made that traditional funeral practices can be related to the nose touching I witnessed among the dogs on Highway D? Most literature on funerals deal with doctrine such as the belief in an afterlife or reincarnation. Even the announcement in our Newsletter elicited conversation at Paul and Sam's hand fasting but people were quick to assume that funerals are necessary psychologically for they offer closure. But there is the rub: psychology is the study of behavior and Freud himself stated, "Biology is destiny." That is, much of our behavior is a function of a genetic predisposition.

Desmond Morris saw life as a circle and our need for intimacy stemming from our life in the womb where the baby is embraced by the wall of the uterus as he or she grows being cushioned by the fluid. As the mother walks we are comforted by the swaying motion of the moving body. It is no wonder that to comfort an infant, one must rock it. Morris points out that "we end as babies, snugly tucked in our coffins, which are softly padded and draped - just like the cradles of our babyhood. From the rock of the cradle we have passed on to the rock of ages." We can take this metaphor one step further. As the pall bearers carry the casket to the grave, it sways with each and every step only to be returned to mother earth. Cremation does not take anything away from this as we appoint honorary pall bearers to remind us that even n death we are carried back to the womb.

Not all cultures envelope the body in a tomb. Some groups of Aborigines place their dead in trees and in Tibet, bodies are sunk in water. Regardless of the religious connotation we attach to these practices, the end result is to allow the corpse to return to the ecosystem, which is more effective than embalming and encasing in a waterproof sarcophagus.

But there still remains the question of the funeral. Is there a biological foundation for the rites we attach to burying the dead? I ask this question because we have noted before that there is a biological foundation for the costumes the human animal wears from make-up to ceremonial hats. Why would burial rites be any different? It is accepted among anthropologists that the wake began as a watch over the dead body in order to verify the deceased was truly dead. Understandably, in our history when the human body was not much understood, it was often unclear as to whether or not a person was really dead. This very practical behavior has developed into the visitation at the funeral home where we go to pay our respects, all the while hoping that we do not say anything stupid to the grieving family. But what practical foundation do we have for the rituals we associate with the most final rite of passage for humankind?

I would venture to guess that many in our culture would say that much of our funereal customs come from certain religious beliefs practiced by a particular sub-group of humanity. This answer is too easy and falls short of seeking the truth. For example, let's examine the religious practices of a particular group of Christians. Let us look at Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Swedish Lutherans. These three faiths hold that the bishops of their church are in direct succession to the first Apostles. Now these twelve were present at the first Pentecost where Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles like tongues of fire. And at every catechism class since, when we prepare our children for confirmation, we tell these young minds that the reason bishops wear funny looking pointed hats is because they resemble the tongues of fire of that first Pentecost and through the laying on of hands they have been consecrated to be our leaders. The truth is that there is a very biological reason for bishops wearing those tall miters, a reason shared with princely rulers. Like most animals, he with the biggest head rules. For those of us who are slight in stature, there is nothing better than a tall pointed hat to emphasize our status in the community as a leader. After all, the Lion King has his mane. So no matter what religious doctrine we might espouse, there usually is a biological foundation for its practice. Whether or not we believe in God, an afterlife or reincarnation, we all die. The very rituals we associate, I believe, have a biological foundation like other ceremonies one can point to in a particular culture.

But we are human, some would protest. We have a mind. Surely no chimpanzee nor collie has waxed eloquently in an eulogy for a departed loved one. It is this ability to reflect upon our lives and the lives of others that separates us from the mutts I witnessed on the road touching noses with their flattened comrade. I contend that we as humans have just as extensive of a repertoire of behavior that includes verbalizations that may be described as the "Sunday Talk" or an eulogy. But what about the psychological need for closure? Once again, as biology is the study of life, psychology is the study of behavior. And we must be mindful of Freud's dictum, "Biology is destiny." Our behavior is a function of our biology. A worm squirms because it has no legs. A bird flies because it has wings. A human flies only because it can apply the principles of aerodynamics to build a plane to carry him or her aloft. A dog dies and his fellow rat pack pay tribute by systematically touching the departed dog's nose. Humans touch the departed also, but in an elaborate fashion that is nothing more than what our own biological capabilities allow. We may call it closure and there is nothing wrong with that, but exactly what is it that we do? Why is our elaborate behavior so necessary?

Evidence for special ceremonies for the dead go back 60,000 years ago. Neanderthal graves contain tools, weapons and evidence of flowers. The ancient Egyptians practiced the same and for the pharaohs built massive pyramids. Talk about status symbols! These practices seem to point to an afterlife as the deceased would carry on in another world needing the same provisions as if he or she were living in this world. But the scientific mind knows you cannot take it with you. Yet, I contend that these superstitious practices point to a basic biological need. That need is denial.

Denying death is nothing new. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross studied the phases people went through upon learning they have a terminal illness. Denial usually was the first phase followed by anger, bartering, resignation and acceptance. But this denial is not the sole property of the dying but rather a shared response by the species from cats and dogs to the human animal. It is natural and it is biological.

Once again let me allude to another biological condition where all too often, denial is the primary response and that is addiction. Alcoholics will tell us that denial takes many forms from hiding the bottle to rationalizing that only having one beer is not really drinking. Alcoholics will also tell us that alcoholism is a disease and the first step to recovery is admitting or accepting the condition that they are powerless over alcohol.

Let us look at our cousins the monkey and the use of status sex. Remember that in every animal community there exists status tension. this tension takes many forms defining who is the dominant one and who is subordinate. In monkeys, status sex is concerned with dominance, not reproduction according to Desmond Morris. A female monkey will present herself to a male by turning her "rump" towards him, overtly raising it and lowering her head. This submissive posture allows the male to take a dominant posture. Copulation may take place but it is only cursory, just to reinforce the status of the male. This ritual is used when a male spoils for a fight, the female presents herself and the male will often leave, both knowing who is the dominant leader. Now compare this routine to the testimony given by a certain intern where she states she was walking down the hall by the oval office, sees the leader of the free world, turns her backside to him and lifts her jacket exposing her thong underwear. We all know what happened next. Seven months of denials. But these denials are evidence of something more serious than high crimes and misdemeanor. They are evidence of the President's sexual addiction. This compulsive behavior makes sense when we remind ourselves that Bill Clinton's biological father and step-father were both alcoholics. He and his brother both knew the dangers of alcohol. But in their genes was that disposition that led Roger to cocaine and Bill to sex. they were and are powerless. And a more basic truth that applies to all of us is that we are powerless over death.

If we are powerless over death, and we are; then denial is something necessary and maybe useful. Death is a reminder that we are not immortal. Our language already reflects this denial. A patient expires. A relative passed away. Our rites and ceremonies may be couched in religious language and myth. But behind this behavior is a more biological experience shared with other animals. That experience is we die. And when we die our friends want to touch us in some way much like the dogs I witnessed on the highway. Is he really dead. Maybe she will come back.

Funerals are not necessary much like weddings are not necessary for a man and woman to live with each other. After all, we can all die without having a funeral. But what we cannot do is avoid the process that follows for the survivors whose life has not ceased. And so we have funerals. It is only natural after all, for we humans can find elaborate ways to emulate our cousins in the animal kingdom. As early humans built tombs to remind succeeding generations of the status of kings, and tools were buried so the deceased may carry on their work even though both prince and peasant are as dead as can be and are powerless to guarantee their status, our practices have evolved into elaborate ceremonies. Ceremonies that have their roots in something so natural. Death is natural. So is denial; particularly when faced with a situation where we are powerless. We are powerless over death. Regardless of how modern we see ourselves, we cannot escape our roots. No matter how spiritual we claim to be or how religious, we can never escape our biological needs. As powerful as death is, so is the denial of its reality. And hence we have funerals. As the wake began as a watch to see if the body revived, so too, the funeral began as a statement that this person will carry on and we must provide the tools for him to do so in the grave with the body. It was said that when Frank Sinatra died, a friend put a bottle of Jack Daniels in his coffin. As much as I like Jack Daniels, something tells me there is a good bottle of whiskey wasting away. But if his body is ever exhumed and the bottle is empty, let me know so I can prepare to meet a new drinking buddy when I die.

©1998 Rev. Allen Peyton

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Peyton, Allen. 1998. Why do we Need Funerals?, (accessed July 7, 2020).

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