When Someone Dies . . . A pastor answers some common questions about funeral practices and traditions
Weddings and funerals are the two major rituals in contemporary culture in which virtually everyone participates. Both involve families, and both are often held in church.
Unlike weddings, however, funerals are seldom anticipated or planned for. They often come on us suddenly, giving us little time to prepare. Overwhelmed by grief, we are inclined to simply follow custom and tradition in planning the funeral service.
He was such a saint. A deacon for two terms and an elder for eight, Uncle Joe spent his life serving others. Sometimes he preached at the jail and at nursing homes, and no one questioned his right to do so. In fact, no one ever spoke ill of Joe. Most people just quietly appreciated the good he did and enjoyed his subtle sense of humor. If there were skeletons in his closet, no one ever found them.
The Chapel Garden of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church began as the idea of one man. Though he had long admired the quaint and lovely cemetery surrounding the nearby Episcopal Church, he realized that there was no possibility of replicating it. But in 1978, when he learned that 40 to 50 percent of our church funerals involved cremation, he had an idea. He talked to the senior pastor about the possibility of a church columbarium, a place where members and their families could inter the cremated remains of their loved ones.
When I was a boy of six, I was confronted with two realities that made a lasting impression on me: priesthood and death. I could not understand why priesthood and death were interrelatedly sacred until I began to experience death through the burials I saw taking place in the small town where I was raised.
When the Reformed Worship staff asked me to respond to an article by Joel Belz, "No More for the Undertaker," I put it off for reasons I did not then understand.
An old Navajo man, a strong Christian, passed away after a long-term illness. His widow and children were Christians, too, so his funeral was focused on God and full of the comfort of the Christian faith. But even though they trusted in Christ, the family continued to feel the influence of Navajo customs and traditions—especially in this time of grief and death.
Funerals in Other Cultures
Funeral traditions are potent. They touch our hearts. They express our deepest understandings of life and death. They form major landmarks in the life of every one of us.
Funeral traditions are enduring. They change slowly, if at all. Each subculture, and each group within a subculture, seems to have its own ways of marking the end of life.
A Japanese student describes how he was first led to Christ when he attended the funeral service of the daughter of Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930), one of Japan's leading Christian figures. At the end of the service, said the student,
Uchimura rose and said, "She had come of marrying age. If she had remained on earth, we would have had to worry about her wedding. But I believe that Jesus has called her to heaven as his bride. This is not her funeral; it is her wedding."
In a funeral service, as in any service of worship, well-chosen music can aid sorrowing people to lift their hearts to the God of all comfort. The community of mourners unites in song to express its sorrow and grief to the Man of Sorrows, and to rejoice in the gift of life from the One who has died. In song the mourners express together the faith that is the foundation of their recovery and renewal in hopeful living.
As the organist plays the prelude, friends and relatives enter quietly and take their seats in the pews. The coffin rests in the front of the church. The minister and family wait in the rear.
The music shifts from the prelude into a quiet processional, signaling the minister to lead the family into the sanctuary. As they make their way down the center aisle, the minister reads three Scripture passages loudly and forcefully, as if banishing the fear and power of death from the room:
|All Glory, Laud, and Honor (D. Johnson, AF 11-5085)|
Andy Langford. Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1989. 26 pp.
This pamphlet is a brief version of the title above, intended as much for the family as for pastors. It does not contain the actual "Order of Service."
Tell Your Children
September is a month of new beginnings for many churches. After a summer of travel and vacation, the community returns and seeks to be renewed through a new season of education and enrichment programs. "Tell Your Children/' a contemporary hymn that calls us as families and church family to retell "the Story" in the context of our covenant commitment with our God, is therefore very appropriate for September.
Eugene H. Peterson, Calvin Miller, and others. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987.176 pp. $10.95.
Opening Words of Scripture
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children.
Edited by James R. Esther and Donald J. Bruggink. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987. 85 pp. $3.95.
This series of sermon and song outlines from Acts focuses on the victory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The perils that the early church faced are similar to those we face today. Racism, legalism, and all kinds of "exclusivism" threatened to split the church. People were too easily convinced by worldly "wisdom" and were tempted to rely on magic and witchcraft.
Fall, 1986. (To order, write 100 Wither-spoon Street, Louisville, Kentucky, 40202-1396).
This special issue is devoted to funerals and provides many helpful insights.
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship
Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986.104 pp. $8.95.
A few years ago, our church sponsored a weekend retreat dealing with death and dying. During the retreat, two people spoke about losses they had suffered years earlier; a father spoke about the sudden loss of a son, and a widow about the slow death of a husband. The Christian community remembered the events as over and past, but it was clear that the memory of both deaths was very present in the lives of the father and the widow.
Save the Butterfly
The life cycle of the butterfly has long been used by Christian artists to symbolize the metamorphosis of giving up the former self to receive a new nature in Christ. In RW 22, Louis Lotz refers to the body as the "cocoon" and the soul as the "butterfly," and condemns using the butterfly symbol based on such an interpretation.
When we have a funeral in the small midwestern town where I grew up, we always have ham buns and cake. We come back from the committal service, go to the church hall, sit on folding chairs, and the Ladies' Aid Society serves us coffee or tea, ham on buns from Vander Ploeg's bakery, and white cake. We gathered there after my mother's funeral thirty years ago, after my father's nine years ago, and last year after my Aunt Bell's.
We Enter into God's Presence with Praise
Prelude (The prelude will be organ music and congregational singing. The songs will be sung without announcement. Congregation is to join in as they enter.)
"God of All Ages"
[PH 262, PsH 599, RL 494, TH 710]
"We Plow the Fields and Scatter"
[PH 560, PsH 456, RL 17, TH 714]
"Now Thank We All Our God"
[PH 555, PsH 454, RL 61, TH 98]
New Way to Get Choral Music
A new service concept has been initiated by Christian Music Clearing House. This organization is currently working with over fifty churches and has over 3,300 preowned choral music titles available for purchase, rent, or borrowing. The clearing house charges an annual fee and provides, in addition to suggested negotiation information, an inventory list of all available materials. For more information, contact: Christian Music Clearing House, P.O. Box 771239, Wichita, KS 67277-1239.
For the last time this past week, I hope, I let an essentially pagan industry dictate to my colleagues and me how we go about what should be a uniquely Christian celebration.
My friend Manker Sherrod, an enthusiastic World subscriber, died at the age of 85. From his earliest years, Manker was a follower of Christ—and everyone around him knew of his faithful Christian testimony.
Nashville: Abingdon, 1979. 94 pp.
This resource is a I publication of the Sec-I tion on Worship of the United Methodist Church. "The Order of Service" appears as a special pamphlet and can be ordered in quantity. This Order includes a communion service and an "Order of Committal." The rest of the book consists of a discussion of the ministry of the church at death, extended commentary on the "Order of Service," and additional resources, including prayers and Scripture readings.
The funeral will soon begin in the church sanctuary. Family, friends, and members of the congregation have been seated and are awaiting the processional. In the narthex stand the minister and the pallbearers with the coffin. As a white cloth, or a "pall," is respectfully laid on the coffin, the minister begins the service with familiar words from Galatians 3:27: "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" he says.
I am writing these words on the first anniversary of my father's death. Before he died, he suffered for nearly three months with bowel cancer. He had a tumor removed a year earlier, but the cancer reappeared. He was eighty-two, and he did not want further surgery; he was eager to go home to be with his Lord.