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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.

Because the funeral is such an important service for Christians, it may be time for us as individuals and congregations to take a closer and more thoughtful look at our funeral practices. On the following pages, Leonard Vander Zee, pastor of the South Bend, Indiana, Christian Reformed Church, answers some questions Christians often raise about funeral practices and traditions. Vander Zee is a member of the CRC Worship Committee and is the primary author I compiler of In Life and in Death, a pastoral guide for Christian funerals (CRC Publications, 1992, see inside back cover).

Q. What is the purpose of a funeral?

A. Like all Christian worship, the funeral has both a vertical and a horizontal dimension. Taking a phrase from an old sacramental form, we attend a funeral to "remember and believe." At the funeral we want and need to remember. Funerals throb with very human emotions and ought to both reflect them and minister to them. Funerals are, therefore, public rituals in which profound grief is expressed, precious memories are rehearsed, and lifetimes are thankfully remembered.

But at the funeral we also want and need to believe. When someone we love dies, our response as Christians emerges, at least in part, out of our faith. We believe that God is the creator and giver of all life, and that death is, in some sense, an intrusion into the goodness of God's creation. We also believe that Christ redeems us from sin and death by his cross and resurrection, and that therefore death ushers us into fuller life. The funeral affirms and celebrates these bracing realities of faith even under the shadow of death. At the funeral we listen to the death-defying words of Scripture, we sing of God's grace and of Christ's victory, and we place our loved one's life in God's loving arms.

It seems to me that a well-done funeral service will enable people to experience and express their grief and to remember their loved one, while, at the same time, pointing them to God for hope and comfort. This is no easy task, and funerals fail precisely when they lean too much in one direction or the other. Funerals also fail when neither of these purposes prevail, and the service becomes instead an evangelistic rally in which everyone is urged to prepare to meet his or her maker. People feel cheated when their needs and emotions are overlooked in the interest of saving their souls.

Q. Who should plan the funeral?

A.I think that the best funerals emerge out of joint planning between the minister, the family, and others involved in the service, such as musicians. (Funeral directors should not be involved in planning the funeral except where matters of logistics become involved.)

The minister brings experience and liturgical understanding into the planning effort and provides the structure on which the various elements of the service can be built. If ministers place the whole task of planning into the hands of an inexperienced family, the resulting funeral service may reflect their needs and desires but make little liturgical sense.

The family can provide many of the specific elements for the service, such as favorite hymns, Scripture passages, and, above all, memories of the deceased loved one. I often also ask family members to be involved in the service by offering a remembrance, reading Scripture, or offering a prayer. This kind of involvement, whether in planning or leading the service, helps the family work through their grief.

It is becoming increasingly common for people to plan their own funerals. I do not recommend this—although it can be helpful for those planning the funeral if the deceased has written down some favorite hymns and Scriptures. Funerals are for the edification and comfort of those left behind. Their needs and desires, not those of the deceased, should be the main focus. I remember one situation in which the deceased loved one directed that the funeral service be totally celebrative, without a hint of grief. Ignoring the very real feelings of the family left behind is obviously unhealthy. So although family and minister need to take into account plans and directions left behind by the deceased, the family should be encouraged to deviate from these plans when they do not seem appropriate.

Finally, I think it would be helpful for church councils to offer suggestions or guidelines for funeral planning, tailored according to local custom. In this way church leaders could help members understand appropriate elements in a funeral service, increase awareness of the resources the church can provide, and encourage members to use the church building for the funeral.

Q. Where should a funeral be held?

A. I feel very strongly that funerals of church members should be held in the church sanctuary. The word sanctuary itself implies a place of refuge as well as a place where we gather to meet our holy God in worship. Often the sanctuary has been the center of the deceased person's life of faith. Perhaps he or she was baptized and married there. Certainly, this is the place where his or her faith was celebrated and built up through Word and sacrament. The church building serves as a kind of spiritual home for Christians.

In addition, church sanctuaries are built for worship; most funeral homes are not. The open space, better acoustics, and musical instruments (most often the organ) of the church make it preferable to the often low-ceilinged, close, and dark spaces of most funeral homes.

Sometimes the choice may be determined by the number of people involved. One can certainly understand that a handful of people might feel a bit overwhelmed huddled into the front pews of a large sanctuary. But, on the other hand, the sanctuary need not be filled in order to have a meaningful funeral.

I find that sometimes people think that church funerals are only held for very prominent people whose funerals may draw large crowds. We may need to communicate to our people that in most cases the funeral should be held in the church sanctuary.

Q What is the difference between a funeral, a committal service, and a memorial service?

A. In the most basic sense, the body of the deceased person is present at a funeral and not at a memorial service. In most cases, memorial services are held after the body has been buried or cremated. The committal service is a usually brief service held at the graveside or crematorium.

The most common sequence in my experience is still the funeral followed by the committal service. But it is becoming increasingly common to hold a committal service (or even a full funeral service) at the graveside or crematorium, mainly for family and close friends, and to hold a memorial service later. One possible advantage of the second sequence is that it keeps the committal, which, while necessary is often most difficult for the family, from being the last stage of the process. The memorial service closes this public and communal stage in the process of grief on a note of faith and worship.

Q. Is the committal service necessary?

A. There has been a trend lately toward tacking on a committal service at the end of the funeral service. Sometimes there are good reasons for this: for example, inclement weather, a long distance to the cemetery or crematorium, or a large number of older folks who would find it difficult to walk across the cemetery grounds.

But there is also good reason for a separate committal service at the final resting place—either before the memorial service or after the funeral service. The committal service marks the end of our physical closeness to the deceased person. It demands that we face the finality of death with other loved ones. We have a profound need to see our loved one through to that "final resting place on earth," to say our final farewells and to allow ourselves to grieve.

In fact, in the past few years I have even seen a return to the practice of throwing or shoveling dirt on the coffin, a process that for a while was considered maudlin. At one funeral I attended recently the family decided to completely fill the grave themselves, shovelful by shovelful. At another funeral, even the young children of a deceased mother somberly threw handfuls of dirt into the open grave. I see these actions as therapeutic rather than maudlin. By this symbolic action, loved ones somehow find help in letting go.

At Christian funerals, we go to the graveside as an act of defiant faith.

There, standing over the grave, we say with Paul: "Where, O death, is your victory?" (1 Cor. 15:55). It is almost as though we shake our fists in death's face, believing in the bottom of our hearts that this is not the last word. The last word will be life everlasting.

Q. Are there appropriate times and places for open caskets at a funeral?

A. No. The casket may be open before the service for the sake of people who have traveled far and have not yet been able to view the body. But once the service begins, the casket ought to be closed. An open casket will grab too much of the attention of those assembled, making it hard for some, at least, to hear the words that are being spoken.

That brings up another matter addressed in this issue. I recommend the church make and use a pall, a covering for the casket, usually white and decorated with a few Christian symbols (see p. 14). Palls can also be purchased from church supply houses. A pall is important because it emphasizes that the casket comes into the arena of Christian worship. The white cloth beckons us to reflect on the deceased as a baptized saint, now with the Lord in glory. The pall also equalizes all caskets. It makes no difference whether the casket underneath is made of polished oak with brass handles, or is covered with a plain gray cloth; in Christ there are no rich or poor.

Q. Do you see situations where cremation may not only be permitted, but recommended?

A. The way the question is framed makes it seem as though burial is the normal method of disposal of the body and cremation an abnormality. I know that in many Christian traditions, cremation was thought to be somehow disrespectful to the body of one made in God's image. Some may even have naively assumed that cremation would somehow make it harder, or even impossible, for God to resurrect the body in the last day. To them, cremation smacked of an atheistic denial of the resurrection.

But today there ought to be no question about the Christian propriety of cremation. Nothing in the Bible gives us the slightest notion that cremation is any less respectful of God's creation than burial is. In fact, I've heard people argue the opposite case—that cremation is more Christian than burial since it respects the biblical principles of stewardship of land and resources.

Q. What do you see as essential elements in every Christian funeral or memorial service?

A. I believe that one can define essential elements in the Christian funeral from a liturgical and pastoral perspective. These are the elements without which God would not be the central focus and without which real human needs would not be adequately addressed. My list would include prayer, song, Scripture, sermon/homily/meditation, and remembrance of the deceased. Most of these, you will notice, are also essential elements in any Christian worship service.

Prayer and Scripture axe, I suppose, rather obviously essential. They provide the basis for the dialogue that is at the heart of Christian worship. During the funeral, Scripture allows God to speak to the grief and pain that people are feeling and provides a glimpse of the larger picture of God's redemptive plan. Prayer gives voice to the grief and the hope of the people in response to God's Word.

The sermon Ihomily J meditation is another essential ingredient. Some people question the place of the sermon in a funeral. They argue that it's best at times like these to let God speak in the full-throated voice of Scripture alone—and that may certainly be true if the preacher fills the time with banalities or mere sentiment. The preacher's job at the funeral is not merely to exegete and expound the Word, but also to express the feelings and thoughts of people who are too numb or too afraid to name them—to express the swirling hopes and fears of grieving hearts. The preacher needs to be both the voice of God and the voice of the people, and this is an exceedingly demanding and delicate task.

I also include the remembrance (I prefer this to the term eulogy, which implies praising the deceased) on my list of essentials. A remembrance is often part of the sermon rather than a separate or distinct element in the service. Part of the reason for the funeral or memorial is to remember the deceased person thankfully before God. When pastors fail to do their homework, when they fail to find out enough about the deceased person so that they can paint a meaningful picture of him or her during the funeral, they have not really served well.

I personally would also include song in the essentials. Christians sing when they worship, and the hymns of the church are often our best expressions of our faith and hope. Yes, it is hard to sing when lumps in the throat won't let the sound come through and when tears distort the words on a page, but even then, the music and words sing in the soul.

Q. Shouldn't different circumstances call for different types of services?

A. Yes, we cannot have a generic funeral service that will fit all situations. Pastors and worship leaders need to be extremely sensitive to the circumstances of the funeral. Still, I think the essential elements I mentioned above will be appropriate to a funeral under any circumstance. It might be helpful to think of them as a skeletal structure on which we carefully build the body of the service that fits the special circumstances of each case.

In my experience, the generic funeral is all too common, mainly because the pastor and other leaders are reluctant or afraid to give voice to the pathos of the situation. For example, at the funeral of a young child who died of physical abuse at the hands of a babysitter, I read dark verses from Lamentations. At the funeral of one who had committed suicide, I sympathetically addressed the anger of the family at the one who had killed herself. The prayers we utter must have the kind of range of emotion that can express relief and thanksgiving at the death of an elderly woman released from suffering, as well as rage and frustration at the murder of a young man. In almost every case, the family, though wrenched by the emotions expressed, have been thankful for the honesty that is permitted in giving them a voice.

Again, the essential ingredient in planning such a funeral is the time it takes to get to know the underlying needs and emotions of those involved, and the care it takes to put those needs into appropriate speech. In that sense, every funeral is unique because every family is unique. For example, superficially the funerals of two elderly men may seem similar, but when one becomes aware of the underlying family dynamics—say, dissention or warmth, greed or generosity, deep faith or hypocritical show—each funeral must meet very different needs and speak to very different situations. This is the challenge and the opportunity of every funeral service.

I should also add that there are certain circumstances of death that we tend to overlook, especially stillborns and miscarriages. Too often people who have experienced the very real and traumatic grief of these deaths are left alone by the church. Sometimes, to be sure, this may be the family's own choice. But we need to encourage people who suffer these kinds of losses to share their pain with the church and to let the church minister to them through a funeral or memorial service. Such funerals need not be full or elaborate, and may even take place in the home with close family and friends (see p. 28). But a funeral is an essential help to grieving, an occasion that opens this tragedy up to the community of faith and, more importantly, to God.

Q. lf a funeral is a worship service, could it be held as a part of the regular Sunday worship service? Would it be appropriate to serve the Lord's Supper during the funeral service?

A. lt seems to me that while a funeral service is a worship service, it has a unique focus and a personal dimension that is not present at normal Sunday worship. Therefore, I doubt that holding a funeral as part of a regular Sunday service would be appropriate. The only situation in which I would entertain it as a possibility would be if the deceased were so well known that everyone in the congregation would reasonably be expected to attend the funeral anyway. I understand that in some areas in the past, weddings were part of the regular worship service, and I suspect that practice ended for similar reasons.

On the appropriateness of the Lord's Supper, there are two issues involved. One is a church order question. In some Reformed denominations, the Lord's Supper is normally celebrated at a regular worship service and under the supervision of the elders of the congregation. If those conditions are considered essential, it becomes awkward to properly celebrate the Lord's Supper during a funeral. First of all, a funeral is something less than a full public worship service. Second, a large number of visitors can reasonably be expected to attend. They would need to be fully informed about that church's requirements for participation in the sacrament.

In situations where a church order does not place such restrictions on the sacrament, however, it seems utterly appropriate to me to celebrate the Lord's Supper at a funeral. Communion was given to us by our Lord to strengthen our faith in ways that mere words cannot. It is in times of grief, loss, and crisis that we especially need the "visible sign and seal" of the sacrament. Also, the Lord's Supper is clearly an eschatological meal that directs our attention not just backward to the death and resurrection of the Lord, but ahead to the consummation of all things. In the context of a funeral, this aspect of the Lord's Supper would shine with special brilliance and comfort.