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FIRST-PERSON: Our super-sized lives

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–“Mom’s not going to look comfortable in that casket.”

That’s the newest euphemistic phrase of the American funeral industry, according to an article in The New York Times this fall.

The carefully crafted phrase is a way to tell grieving family members that their loved one will require a larger-than-standard casket. And, according to The Times, funeral directors are saying it more and more. In fact, the article notes that a new industry is emerging around the widening waistlines of American corpses.

The Goliath Casket Company now designs and ships across the country triple-wide caskets, designed to accommodate up to 700 pounds. The Cremation Association of North America now has special training sessions on “the handling of obese bodies.”

And coffin builder David Hazelett tells The Times he sees no end in sight for this new feature of the old industry. “The economic opportunity exists until the country changes,” he notes. “We’re just reacting to the super-sizing of America.”

In one sense, we ought to be thankful for the blessings of a super-sized society. We ought to reject the idolatry of thinness we see in contemporary American media. And there is nothing wrong with being happily pudgy.

But Goliath caskets aren’t designed for the happily pudgy. They are designed for a growing number of Americans who are dangerously ravaged by an excess of food. This situation would be unimaginable to almost every human society preceding us in the history of this planet. Where most people scrape together food by the sweat of the brow, obesity is seen as a sign of tremendous opulence or royalty. One is drawn, for instance, to the Old Testament’s description of the Moabite monarch Eglon, who took a sword to the belly and covered it to the hilt with his fat (Judges 3:12-23).

But, on the other hand, this problem is symptomatic of an affluence that can kill us — physically, culturally and spiritually.

Moses speaks of the nation of Israel growing fat off of the milk and honey of the land inheritance (Deuteronomy 31:20). He speaks of it as a fatness that signifies a satisfaction with abundance, a lack of daily dependence on Yahweh and, thus, the foundation for idolatry.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul warns that when human beings turn from the Creator, they find a god in their own stomachs (Philippians 3:19).

The funeral industry’s “size crisis” ought to rattle American Christians as to the unprecedented affluence of the culture we are seeking to claim for Christ. After all, how can a culture understand dependence on the Father for daily bread when we are already, quite literally, too fat for our graves?

And it is not only American obesity that reveals our priorities. It is also American thinness, as the other side of the spectrum seeks to hold back death by slavishly following the advice of the latest nutritional fad.

“I’m not sure if there’s an afterlife,” one proponent of a drastic “calorie restriction diet” recently told the Nutrition Action Health Letter. “In the meantime, I’ll hedge my bets and try to get as much life out of this universe as I’m able to.”

Christ Jesus revealed the peril of living in such abundance as this. Addressing a crowd of thousands, Jesus recounted the parable of a rich fool, who said to himself “relax, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:13-21). What the affluent one was not expecting, Jesus noted, was the certainty of death and the reality of judgment. In the end, Jesus warned, the pursuit of comfort and affluence might deaden our consciences to the certainty of death — but it cannot stave it off.

For Paul, the reckless pursuit to satisfy the appetites is really a statement about resurrection. When a people no longer believe in the judgment and the glory to follow, they inevitably conclude, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32, ESV).

Could it be that the unprecedented fatness of American society is not just about our material abundance, but about our spiritual poverty as well? A people who have lost hope in the age to come can only find comfort in satisfying our created urges — so we are addicted to sex, to fame and even to food. We can’t find what we’re looking for so we “super-size” all that we have.

The answer to this is not more innovation from the funeral industry. Nor is it another “Christian” weight loss program. The answer to this hopelessness is instead churches fueled with a vision of the hope of the coming Kingdom of Christ.

To a contemporary society starving in its own fatness, our churches can herald the day when the Messiah will gather His people together for “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine” (Isaiah 25:6, ESV). To a contemporary society scared to death of what lies beyond the Goliath casket, our churches can point to the day in which our resurrected Messiah will “swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8).

It is, after all, this messianic banquet for which we are all really longing. That banquet will finally put an end to super-sized fast food, fad crash diets and obesity police. But it will also put an end to the funeral industry.

And that’s worth celebrating, maybe even with a good meal.

    About the Author

  • Russell D. Moore