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Pastoral Undertaking: A Case for Prearranging Funerals

Earlier this year, an elderly member of our congregation died. She had been prepared for many years and had spoken frequently about her readiness for death. Her legal and medical documents were in perfect order. Her funeral was prepaid and prearranged with the local funeral director; she had chosen her casket, flowers, and, presumably, everything else related to the “final disposition” of her body. Her preparedness was well known to her family, her pastors, and her friends. It was also well known to her family and church family members that she had spent considerable time choosing funeral music and texts that were meaningful to her. After she died, however, her family could not locate her personal preferences of song and Scripture choices. No one knew where she had placed her written instructions. At her funeral, we gathered in Christ’s name to proclaim his resurrection as well as hers. Yet something seemed to be missing from this service of worship. This woman had dialogued at length with her own death, and we had heard only part of the conversation.

Prearrangement at the Funeral Home

People make prearrangements with their funeral director for many reasons. Good pastoral care providers recognize that one of the most important functions of funeral prearrangement is for people to have a place to express their wishes after their death. These decisions are immensely personal and important. Sometimes they take much time and multiple visits to the funeral home. There is weightiness to this process and the decisions surrounding it. Anticipating one’s own death is one thing, but prearrangement is about planning its details.

Family considerations and sensitivities also play a part in advanced planning. Although all of us must die our own death, in prearrangement we inevitably must imagine and then express the details of a future without ourselves in it. The financial cost of death is nearly always burdensome for preplanners. This burden is compounded when a spouse must make prearrangements for a failing mate. Each component makes the decisions surrounding choosing a casket, a cemetery plot, and a grave marker particularly draining. Funeral directors recognize this too, and trustworthy ones give their customers a wide range of guilt-free choices, references, and as much time as they need for decision-making. In addition, some parishioners need pastoral care, support, and guidance throughout this process: “Pastor, I am afraid to tell my children that I have chosen cremation. . . .”

Although many funeral directors are willing to help their customers document their wishes for the funeral service, their patrons rarely come to them with these details in mind. Often, decisions about Scripture texts, as well as decisions on songs and musical accompaniment, are left for clergy and family. Some people may prefer to leave these decisions to others. But most people express a desire to shape some aspects of their own funeral service. In these cases, decisions to be made about specific funeral service arrangements should not stop at the funeral home.

Prearrangement and Ministry

I have found conversations with people who make an appointment to talk with me about their wishes for their funeral service to be extremely meaningful. Sometimes these conversations take place because disease or increasing age makes death seem closer. Sometimes the person is dying. Other times, though, a person who is in good health has begun to think about their mortality and wants to speak to his or her pastor. In all of these situations, conversation begins and ministry happens in a new way. Together we acknowledge our mortality, and together we are reminded that the relationship between parishioner and pastor is built on trust and love. Talking about death and funerals and texts and songs reinforces our roles in the relationship; we know these roles but seldom have opportunity to name them. Christ is present in these conversations, and his resurrection makes the dialogue lively.

It is good for us to think about our death. It is good for pastors and their parishioners to engage in conversation about these things. Such thinking and conversation remind us of our humanity but also help define our relationships with God and with one another.

Ever since the loss of the elderly woman whose funeral service arrangements were never found, I have made available a prearrangement form (download here) to my parishioners. Individuals, families, young people, and the elderly have used it. Completed forms can be kept on file with a funeral director or with a pastor. Several of my parishioners keep a fresh, updated copy in their Bible; some regularly ask for clean copies because of revisions. Most appreciate the idea, but not everyone is ready to have such a conversation. For those who are, however, I have seen engagement with death in this manner bear much fruit. Many, I have noticed, have found new meaning and purpose in their life because they have thought about their death. It seems to me that this is a pastor’s best undertaking.

All of us must die our own death.

 

Excerpt
A Funeral Pall and Easter Banner

“What a beautiful new banner!” someone exclaimed. Actually, “banner” was not quite the right word. It was a pall. We’ve all heard of pallbearers at funerals. But what is a pall?

The first time I saw a pall was at a funeral several years ago. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but then I worked with the Christian Reformed Worship Committee on preparing In Life and in Death, a funeral manual (available from Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1-800-333-8300). During that study, I learned that for centuries, palls were large cloths that were used to cover caskets or simply the body of someone whose family could not afford a casket.

Palls used to be black. But recently, in the liturgical renewal that has influenced so much of Christian worship, palls are returning—not black, the color of death and mourning, but white, the color of Easter, the color of life and hope for all who are in Christ. Revelation 6:11 speaks of those who died in Christ being given white robes. But an even stronger image is found in Romans 6, which speaks of baptism as being buried with Christ: “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” What a beautiful thought—that since we were buried with Christ, we will also be raised with him. That is true for every Christian, for those who can afford the most expensive casket and for those who cannot afford even the simplest one. We all come into the world with nothing, and we all leave the same way—but Christians leave clothed in the righteousness of Christ, which is all we need. A pall reminds us of that.

When my mother died, I borrowed the pall I had seen earlier. Then artist Ardith Klaasen, a member of my home congregation, began work on one for our congregation, so all members would have it available for their family members if they wished. Since then it has been used not only as a pall for many funerals, but even as a banner on Easter Sunday—a beautiful and comforting assurance of the resurrection of all those who have died in Christ.

The banner is all ivory, and uses different fabrics and textures. The shells are baptism symbols; shells at one time were used to scoop up the water for baptism. The vines are symbols of being rooted in Christ; he is the vine, we are the branches (John 15); they also remind us of the new creation that is coming. At the center is the cross, with an Easter lily reminding us of the resurrection.

—ERB