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Rethinking a Reformed Reluctance: A call for the church to reclaim the funeral as a worship service

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.

As a family of seven children (all married, with an extended family of thirty-five grandchildren and forty-two great-grandchildren), we had, with our mother, come to terms with this reality. We even talked about his funeral; he wanted us to focus on Lord's Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism. I asked him once, as he was dying, "Isn't it hard to be talking about your own funeral?" "Oh, not at all," he said. "I have lived my whole life with the awareness that this is what would happen in the end." Little did we know, as a family, that as we were waiting for our father to die, our mother would go first. She had a heart attack, and her funeral was exactly two weeks before Dad's. They had been married fifty-eight and one-half years. Suddenly they were both gone.

How Do We Do Funerals?

Having been in the ministry for nearly twenty-five years, and having conducted dozens of funerals myself, I had given much thought to this matter of funerals. I had seen a variety of customs surrounding the dying of both active church members and non-churchgoers—first in Alberta, then in Michigan, and now in Ontario. My parents had lived for several years in Holland Christian Homes in Brampton, Ontario. There they had acquired a taste for a new tradition: there would be a private burial service to be followed either immediately or some time later by a memorial service. Our father wanted us to do that for him; we decided that we would do the same for our mother.

What we ended up doing was having a family service (see box on next page) at the funeral home, followed immediately by the burial. From the cemetery we went to the church for a worship service, followed by a time to greet our friends in the church's fellowship hall. I recommend that procedure highly. We, of course, had a huge extended family, so there were plenty of people (about a hundred) at the family service in the funeral home. There we sang some hymns, offered prayers, and told one another stories about the person who had died. We laughed and cried together; it was intimate and holy.

We went from the private family service to the cemetery, knowing that the burial was not the end of the process. It was important, in my mind at least, to know that a worship service would still follow. I have stood at many gravesides and felt people wanting to linger. If the graveside is where the day is to end, there is almost no way to make that service a positive experience. As we gathered at the graveside, we knew we still needed to go to the place of worship to praise the God of the parents we loved. Those closing worship services were indeed worship services, not times of mourning. After our mother's funeral, my mother-in-law said to us, "That was so beautiful; now I am ready to go too."

A Call to Rethink

We in the Reformed tradition have not been given much help in preparing for Christian funerals. I often lamented that in my earliest years of ministry. Perhaps this special issue of Reformed Worship will go some small distance in alleviating this problem.

John Calvin gave the churches of Geneva simple instructions about avoiding superstitions in their burial practices, but he did not say what ought to be done instead. The Reformers objected to prayers while kneeling before the body or chanting in procession to the grave because they saw such practices as belonging to the church of Rome and denying the doctrine of "salvation by grace." So, as often happens when overreaction sets in, these Reformers abolished funeral ceremonies altogether (although Calvin did say that a sermon might be helpful following the burial). The Synod of Dort (1618-19) endorsed this attitude toward funeral services.

It's not surprising, then, that liturgies or prayers or readings at the death of a believer are not found in the Reformed tradition until some three hundred years after the Reformation. Until 1940, the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, for example, read "Funeral sermons or funeral services shall not be introduced." In 1940 that Church Order was changed to read, "Funerals are not ecclesiastical, but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly." It was left to individual taste and local custom to define "accordingly."

In the last decade or two, that thinking has changed. In fact, the Worship Committee of the Christian Reformed Church is producing a funeral manual (see inside back cover). And rightly so. In an age in which youthfulness and vitality are worshiped, and death and dying are covered up in hospitals and funeral homes, the time has come for the church to proclaim louder than ever that "Death has been swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor. 15:54). The church of Jesus Christ has never had a greater opportunity to witness to the world that death is more than an occasion for mourning; that while we grieve, we still have hope. Death is the greatest opportunity we will ever have to give voice to the hope of the resurrection.

If the question of Reformation times was, "How can we avoid the superstitions of the dominant culture?" the question today might be, "How can we celebrate the fact that 'Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep'?" (1 Cor. 15:20). If the multitude of the redeemed in heaven (Rev. 7:9-17) is rejoicing, and we believe our loved ones have joined that mighty chorus, that "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1), should we not also be rejoicing?

In our Christian funeral services we do not need to engage in the world's death-denying customs. Instead we offer the truth of the gospel, that for the Christian the sting of death has been removed (1 Cor. 15:55). Perhaps this issue of RW will help us rethink the church's ministry to the dying and the grieving. The world needs a stronger message, and the church needs an opportunity to testify to the victory Christ has given us. We have a new hope to shout about, a new song to sing!

Excerpt
The Family Service in Remembering the Life of and Celebrating the Victory over Death for Cornelis Meindert Hogeterp

Our Approach to God

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. Amen.

Our Hymn: "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"
[PH 404, PsH 493]

Our Prayer of Confession

Eternal God, before whose face the generations rise and pass away, you formed us in your image and willed us to live before you in peace and love; we confess that we are not the people you created or called us to be—we have not loved you with our whole heart or our neighbors as ourselves. Forgive our sin, O God, and create in us a new and willing spirit, so that in our living we may serve you, and in our dying enter the joy of your presence, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Assurance of Pardon

Our Hymn of Adoration: "My Jesus, I Love Thee"
[PsH 557, TH 648]

Prayer

A prayer of gratitude to God for the life and service of Cornells Hogeterp, concluded with everyone saying in unison:

O God, you understand our grief, for you have felt our pain. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus, and the heavens were darkened when your Son died upon the cross. Comfort us with the knowledge that Jesus raised his friend and will raise all who hear his voice, for he destroyed the darkness of deathwhen you raised him to the light of Easter morn.
We give thanks in this day for your servant, who, having lived his life in faith, now lives eternally with you. Especially we thank you for Cornells, for the gift of his life, for the grace you have given him, for all in him that was kind and faithful. We thank you that for him death is past, and pain is ended, and he has entered the joy you have prepared in the company of all the saints.
Give us faith to look beyond touch and sight, and in seeing that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, enable us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. Bring us at last to your eternal peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Our Hymn of Peace: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee"
[PH 383, PsH 262, RL 446, TH 528]

We Share Some Remembrances of Cornelis
Hogeterp

Our Hymn of Joy: "Father, We Love You"
[PsH 634]

We Give Testimony to Our Faith

Our world belongs to God.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus, Come
quickly.

We long for that day
when Jesus will return as triumphant
King,
when the graves will be opened,
the sea will give up its dead,
and all people will stand before his judgment.




We face that day without fear,
for the Judge is our Savior.
Our daily lives of service aim for the
moment
when God's Son will open the book
of life
and present his people to the Father;
when all who have been on the
Lord's side will be honored,
the fruit of our small acts of
obedience will be shown,
and the courage of martyrs will be
celebrated.











But the deeds of tyrants and
oppressors,
of heretics and enemies of the truth,
will be damned.


With the whole creation
we wait for the purifying fire of
judgment.
For then we will see the Father face
to face.
He will heal our hurts,
end our wars,
and make the crooked straight.
Then we will join in the new song
to the Lamb without blemish
who made us a kingdom and priests.
God will be all in all,
righteousness and peace will
flourish,
everything will be made new,
and each eye will see at last
that our world belongs to God!
Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus,
come quickly!

















[From Our World Belongs to God, adapted.]

The Benediction

Our Doxology: "By the Sea of Crystal"
[PsH 620, TH 549]

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