Everybody loves stories. And, like children at bedtime, we never want our stories to end—we want them to go on and on. You could say we want an eternal story.
As Christians, this deep-seated longing makes sense. We know in our hearts and in our heads that our own story will not end. Even as we face our own death or grieve the death of a loved one, we know that our story is part of God’s story—God’s grand story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation—spelled out in his Word. It never ends. If we recognize this, we will know this comfort in life and in death.
But the keepers of this story, the church, have not always helped to connect the redeemed with the redemption story, especially with respect to funerals (see sidebar).
The effect of this separation between the story of salvation and the saved still lingers, and it’s evident in the content of many funerals today. Often we celebrate a life by telling that person’s story, but we neglect to tell the story of the Person who died that we might live. Without the second story, the first story ends. There’s no “ever after.” It’s over.
When the story of redemption is missing from a funeral, a hole remains, and we attempt to fill that vacuum with anything we can get our hands on.
Without the story of redemption pointing to the future, we must settle for memories of the past. Don’t get me wrong—it’s good to remember. It’s good to laugh. It’s good to wish we could go back and relive those memories. But when the story of the past is not part of the story of redemption, the memories must be sanitized. Flaws and failures, some of which may be well known, are shoved away from view. The memories are too painful, the failures too embarrassing. So we edit them out, and we’re left with an image of a beautiful human being, too perfect to be real. And when there’s no real person to grieve, grieving is impossible. Healing is hollow; grief lingers.
Of course, we need not point out our loved one’s specific sins, but we can acknowledge that he or she is a sinner saved by grace, as we all are. We can recognize that our loved one was not perfect, because it’s those failures that lead us to grace. It’s the sin that leads to redemption.
Without the story of redemption, we arrive at the funerals of our loved ones—and we arrive at the time of our own death—with an expectation of sorrow rather than a certainty of joy. This need not be. The apostle Paul tells us, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
Funerals in the Early Church
For the early church, in the first few centuries after Jesus returned to heaven, the funeral was a true time of celebration—not of the person’s life but of what had happened to the person. The memories were not the focus. Rather, they celebrated the death, because death, for a Christian, was relief. It was rest. It was the beginning of the new creation. In Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship, Karen B. Westerfield Tucker writes that the early church regarded death “as the time for passage from the temptations of mortal existence to the joy and peace of eternal life.” In fact, the day of a person’s death was called the dies natalis—day of birth—and was a cause for anniversary commemorations.
We can regain this hope by making our stories part of the story of redemption. As believers, our lives are already part of the Redeemer’s life. Hear again the words of the apostle Paul: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).
We who are believers are part of Christ. If Christ’s story continues forever, so does ours. And if the local church is the visible expression of the body of Christ, what better place to have a service where we look death in the face with triumph and defiance and declare that our story does not end—it goes on forever and ever.
A funeral service based on this story can help us understand that the stories of our lives are inextricably intertwined with the story of redemption. Following the thread of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation in funerals leads to a hope solidly grounded on truth.
Telling the Story
Funerals may be outlined using the four movements of the story. (See sidebar, p. 38.) First, we can be reminded that we are created by God as we remember the beginning of our loved one’s life—created in this year in this town to these parents. We see the entire life, the entire existence of the one we miss as having been planned by God. We remember his or her day of baptism. We may include something white in the funeral service, a banner or a pall (like the one shown on this page), to point back to the day Jesus washed away this person’s sins, the day he or she was clothed with Christ in baptism (Gal. 3:26). (See also RW 24, “A Symbol of Faith: Using a Pall in Christian Funerals.”)
Second, the funeral can tenderly acknowledge that we are all sinners. At some funerals, the sins are known and hurtful, the memories filled with pain. We don’t dwell on this. This is a small part of the service. But by facing the truth of our sin, we are ready to hear again the assurance of redemption.
Third, we rejoice with Scripture and song in the work that Jesus carried out on the cross. We celebrate the life of the individual by reading the obituary and sharing family memories. We hear the message brought by the pastor. We celebrate redemption.
This in turn gives us strength and courage to face the grave and look forward to the new creation. The time at the grave is difficult. The pain of loss is raw and terrible. But the time at the open grave can also be powerful. This is the spot where our bodies will be made new. This is where we come back out of the grave to live forever.
As believers, we don’t grieve like the rest of the world. That’s because we know our stories go on forever, as part of God’s never-ending story of redemption.
“A Family Affair”
According to the Synod of Dort (in reaction to the required rituals followed by the Roman Catholic church of that time) Protestant congregations were discouraged from holding funeral services in their church buildings.
Following this, the Christian Reformed church at the turn of the nineteenth century did not allow the deceased to be placed in the church. The church, it decided, was for the living, not for the dead. The denomination affirmed this in article 70 of its Church Order, stating that “funerals are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.”
While Synod 1886 softened on this stance, allowing that bringing the deceased into the church building was an indifferent matter, two years later it reaffirmed that consistories had the right to refuse the presence of a dead body in the church.
A Funeral Service Outline
Scripture: Isaiah 40: 21, 28; 43:1-3
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. But now, this is what the LORD says—he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Mighty God, you created us and you redeemed us. Now, Lord, redeem our grief. Be our comfort. Be our strength. You created our brother/sister [name], and you gave [him/her] to us to know and to love in our life here on earth. Give us courage, give us peace as we miss [him/her]. Remind us, convince us that not even death is strong enough to separate us from your love and care. Remind us, convince us that that even death is not strong enough to separate us completely from [name]. Remind us of the joy we know in the communion of the saints. Console us and comfort us in the guaranteed hope of the resurrection of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Scripture: Psalm 103:1-3
Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.
Scripture: Job 19:25-27
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
Song: “When Peace Like a River” CH 705, PsH 489, TH 691, WR 428
Song: “Because He Lives” CH 358, WR 447
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. Amen.
As we await the day when we see our brother/sister [name] again, we commit his/her body to the ground out of which we were formed. Knowing that [he/she] shares in the life of our resurrected Lord, we commit [his/her] spirit to the glorious care of our Father in heaven. Proclaiming that the tomb will transform to a womb, out of which [he/she] will rise again, we commit the grieving family and friends to the care of the body of Christ. We commit ourselves to follow our Shepherd, who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death into the glorious life after death.
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Lord, our brother/sister [name] is in your hands, as [he/she] always has been, as [he/she] always will be. We thank you for removing the sting of death. We thank you for the guaranteed promise of a resurrected body. As we mourn, convince us of the truth that death is dead, and [name] is living. Keep before us the day, the hour, the twinkling of an eye when we will see you again, and when we will see [name] right along with you. In the name of our triumphant Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.
The Apostles’ Creed
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. (Num. 6:24-26)