Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986,104 pp. $7.95.
The only way, really, to review a book of this kind is to use it. However, for a retired seminary professor, that is next to impossible. In the past two years I have conducted only three funeral services. Therefore, in assessing this book I must rely on the next best method: reading each of these services out loud.
Before examining the contents of this book, however, I should like to mention some of the problems I had in the area of funerals when I was in the parish ministry.
One of the things I struggled with was how to overcome the predictable format of the funeral service: the ministerial monologue with no opportunity for congregational participation. Since almost every service was held in a funeral home, music was generally canned; people seldom were able tojoin in the singing of psalms or hymns. Usually the only chance for the congregation to participate audibly was in praying the Lord's Prayer.
The Funeral seeks to remedy that problem by providing a number of congregational responses, ranging all the way from a simple "amen" at the end of a prayer to the possible use of a litany or a common prayer of confession. I welcome these ideas, but a logistic question remains: of what use are these responses unless a copy of this book can be placed in the hands of each worshiper?
As a pastor I also struggled with another problem relating to funerals: I was unable to find any materials for what I might call the ancillary services connected with a funeral. For example, my denomination provided nothing for such things as ministry at a deathbed or to the bereaved. Also, in the area in which I served, it was the custom to hold a brief prayer service in the funeral home on the night before the funeral service itself. Again I had to improvise.
I was therefore especially glad to see in this volume both a suggested service for the dying and for the service of prayer preceding the funeral itself. Even if a pastor does not choose to use these liturgies as they are written, they offer guidance for what should be included—something I wish had been available to me in my ministry.
As far as the funeral service itself is concerned, this volume is similar to many other service books. What makes it distinctive are the rich supplemental resources for lessons and prayers. Having just shared in a funeral service in which the only music was "I Come to the Garden Alone," I am especially appreciative of the supplement entitled "Music for the Funeral," which offers helpful suggestions not only for hymns and psalms but also for anthems, solos, and organ voluntaries. I also found many helpful and useful suggestions in the "Commentary on the Services" which followed the services themselves.
The book suggests several additions to the usual service. The first is the placing of a pall over the casket before it is brought into the church. This is a custom now urged by the Presbyterian Church, though one wonders how often it is used. The second addition is the use of a unison prayer of confession near the beginning of the service. I have some real question about the appropriateness of such a prayer at a funeral. The third change is the insertion of a brief service of commendation at the end of the service, an addition which I find both meaningful and appropriate.
The most startling idea this book suggests—an idea that demands thorough theological discussion—is the celebration of the Lord's Supper in connection with the funeral service. I do not intend to present that discussion here, except to point out that while I should not want to underestimate the possibilities for comfort contained in such a provision, I do not think that those who prepared this volume have taken sufficient precautions against celebrating what could be a private mass. Much as I believe that the service on the Lord's Day should include both Word and sacrament, I am not at all convinced that every service of the church should be so structured. Indeed, I have experienced some of the dangers involved in the celebration of the Eucharist in connection with a marriage service, and I can readily see some of the same dangers occurring if the sacrament is used in the context of funerals.
The book offered no provision for a problem that I'm sure many pastors have difficulty with—what to do when asked to conduct a funeral service for someone who has not been a member of the church. Strangely enough, my denomination's old liturgy did provide some helps at that point. I should have thought that the problem was still sufficiently common to warrant the inclusion of some suggestions in this volume.
If one accepts The Funeral for what it purports to be—a book of resources and suggestions (rather than rigid requirements) for ministry at the time of death-I am sure that every pastor in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition will find it a useful volume to own.