A Good Funeral: Worship in the face of death

The other day I was grocery shopping. The cashier and I exchanged the standard “How are you doing today?” But this time she took my question seriously.

“Not so good.”

“Why is that?” I asked, going (somewhat unwillingly) into pastoral care mode.

“I had a hard weekend. Two funerals—an aunt and a friend.”

“I’m sorry for your losses,” I replied. Then we stood in silence for a moment, except for the intermittent high-pitched “boop” of the grocery scanner.

“I know this sounds funny,” I asked, “but . . . were they good funerals?”

She looked up, surprised. She thought for a moment, put a canteloupe into a paper bag, and said, “Well, one of ’em was.”

And then we had a deep conversation—at least as deep as you can have in the checkout line—about funerals, about God, and about making meaning of sorrow.

A “Good” Funeral?

I had asked this woman about “good” funerals as a matter of pastoral curiosity. But as I reflect on what makes for a “good” funeral, a couple of things strike me, and they lead together to a conclusion about worship more generally.

A good funeral service is about as good as church worship gets. It connects us to God, it reminds us of the deepest and most important truths, and it helps us to live right. We look our enemy in the face, we speak our sorrow, we admit our helplessness. We hear the strong Word preached, and we testify to what we believe and to Whom we belong. We pray for peace. We sing songs of lament, of comfort, and of defiance. Our hearts may be low, but our faith is lifted up.

A really good funeral does well what all worship does, no matter what the occasion.

Everybody Hurts

Actually, the circumstances that occasion a funeral are more persistent than we sometimes realize. Every person comes to church wounded by some loss. Not everyone’s pain is close to the surface, not everyone’s grief is of equal weight or intensity on a given Sunday. But for each of us, the bottom line to life is diminishment and death. It takes many shapes: dreams deferred into impossibility, the end of friends and friendships, the loss of things and people we love, the passing away of our capacities.

This is our common situation every Sunday when we come into the sanctuary. Every worship service must help people to meet God amid the most fundamental sorrows. Every service must offer Easter hope born of God’s transforming presence with us through suffering.

So lately I’ve been wondering, how well does our worship provide comfort and connection to those among us who are grieving? We think about this when we plan funerals and memorial services, certainly. We think about it, perhaps more than usual, during the season of Lent. But what about our regular planning, week in and week out? Is it part of our thinking about what worship in general should look like? Is it one of our filters for discerning what’s fitting on any given Sunday?

I think of two friends who have recently suffered loss. One goes to a medium-sized church trying hard to do “contemporary” worship. The other goes to a large, formal downtown church in the big city. At one service, there is little form or beauty or richness in the words spoken and sung, but what is said is full of passion. At the other service, beautiful words are spoken and sung, but quite perfunctorily. One service is either relentlessly upbeat or awash in teary vulnerability. The other is often dusty and distant.

Without dismissing what God is doing at these churches, I wonder if either of my friends finds much in their week-to-week worship to give voice to their grief, to provide comfort in their pain, to anchor their hope.

Fitting at a Funeral?

As I plan services, I’m starting to wonder whether a particular song could be suitably sung at a funeral. I wonder about the way we hide ourselves behind well-worn words or flippant chatter. I wonder about our rituals, our special music, our extemporaneous and our carefully crafted prayers. Would these be at home in a funeral service? Could any particular service I’m planning become a good funeral? A fist shaken in the face of death? A trumpet in darkness? A witness to the resurrection? Or would it feel small and trite, or big but empty?

And what I’ve come to believe is this: if something I’m considering for worship would be totally unfitting at a funeral, perhaps it is not appropriate for worship on any Sunday.

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).