Dr. Michael L. Ford
Death Hospitality is the reasonable Christian care that should be showed to those who are suffering bereavement due to the loss of a loved one.
Recently I read an article by Lea Schneider of the Jackson Sun titled “Taking hospitality to the grave.” It was written with a touch of humor but also contained some practical advice. Behind the article lies a more serious matter, and that is we have a generation of people coming to age and dominating church life who know nothing of death hospitality. This is particularly bad in a day when people are more mobile than ever before, and when death occurs there are likely to be folks coming from great distances to share in mourning. Death does not always allow for travel planning so even though there are a lot of restaurants and motels about it does not follow that families can afford to use them. Now more than ever there is a need for death hospitality.
Usually people will plan better for lodging than they will for eating before they depart, and families can often find space for those who come from afar and need it. But the issue is something to keep in mind when a church member suffers a loss, whether they are the ones doing the traveling or one of those who will be receiving friends and relatives from distant places. The ladies of the church will probably know better than men when a need exists, but it should be part of the Deacon Ministry of a church to look out for members when human loss comes into their life.
But I think there is a great need to educate church members, especially the younger adults, about the need to be thoughtful of grieving members within their church. People who have converted to Christianity from outside of Christian backgrounds frequently do not have a core experience of hospitality. (Many are devoid of social graces of any kind in a society that has had at least three consecutive generations of latch key kids.) They are going to need to be taught about death hospitality. And do not think that children who have grown up in Christian homes are aware of a responsibility for Death Hospitality. Many times parents have taken care of doing for others and the children remained oblivious to what was going on. The pulpit has to take an interest in this matter because, frankly, the older women no longer teach the younger as they should.
Death hospitality should not be confined to when someone dies who is a member of your local church.
If a church member suffers loss in their family, the church body should be there to support them. If the person who died was a member of a local church, and if that church is practicing good ministry, then someone in their church will likely be coordinating what is done to minister to the bereaved. But this does not relieve your church from doing their part; it only gives a point of contact for determining how one might help out.
Then there is the need of people who suffer loss in the community. Many of the unsaved will get their first real experience of Christian love through a church showing Death Hospitality to them. When people die the living often think about their own prospects for eternity at this time. In showing Christian love during loss, Christians often have an opportunity for evangelism like none other.
Death hospitality need exist only in small town churches. In a small town there is greater knowledge of what is going on with neighbors, but the level of small town intimacy that once existed is now more a memory than fact of current life. And, it is granted that the larger the community the more care has to be exercised in insuring that the hospitality is not taken advantage of by those who would leech off churches. But God did not call us to display His love if it was convenient or easy. At the same time He did admonish us to be wise. Every church can establish methods that work in their community to insure Death Hospitality is effective without being abused. Two relationships are useful to help the local church keep abreast of what is going on in the community. The first is with local funeral homes and the second is with the best local agency for keeping up with death, usually a locally radio station that carries an obituary program.
Death hospitality is not a one day or one time event.
People usually have need for care over at least three days from the time loss occurs just to meet the need of providing food. Sometimes, if the progress toward death had lasted over several days, Death Hospitality should actually begin before the fact of death having occurred. Then there is the matter of follow up after death. The conscientious minister will exercise pastoral care by following up for weeks after loss is experienced and so should friends. This work is made more effective if those in the church did what they could to play a reasonable role when the bereaved was unable to concentrate on the basics during the first stages of grief. One or more notes of personal concern that are full of sincerity should follow within the first week or so after the death. (One caution on note writing. Never promise or imply that you will do something you are not prepared to follow through on.)
Death Hospitality may also require helps like getting grass mowed or rooms cleaned in preparation for an influx of guests. The clue to special needs such as this is whether some concern is expressed. On one occasion I am familiar with, a man who had lost his wife expressed concern that guests would be coming in to find the yard uncut. So, while he was at the funeral his lawn was mowed and edged. Twenty years later he was heard to mention that experience of Death Hospitality.
Food is the traditional means of showing care when death occurs but it is a beginning not an end. The answer to what is needed is being responsive to what is seen and heard from those who suffer loss. It is always better to meet need than to simply do what one assumes must be done. For instance, people often have problems getting clothing organized for themselves or children when death occurs. If concern is expressed in this regard a good question would be, “What can I do to help you with this? The first rule of Death Hospitality is being willing to do something that needs to be done.
P. O. Box 752
Buchanan, Georgia 30113