In Times of Death: Resources for Funeral and Memorial Services

Pastoral leaders are often puzzled by the varying expectations and needs that people have at the time of a death. What should a funeral service be like? What are the purposes of such a service? Is it worship? Is a memorial service preferable? What is the difference between a funeral service, a memorial service, and a committal service? Where can I find resources?

Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt

Introduction

Pastoral leaders are often puzzled by the varying expectations and needs that people have at the time of a death. What should a funeral service be like? What are the purposes of such a service? Is it worship? Is a memorial service preferable? What is the difference between a funeral service, a memorial service, and a committal service? Where can I find resources? These and many other questions whirl around.

The time of death is an opportunity providing the possibility of great good for the sake of ministry. The heart is often more ready to meet God in a time of sadness. People often come to the funeral/memorial service with spoken and unspoken questions and are ready to listen carefully. Many people who would not come to church on Sunday will come to a funeral or memorial service. Those with grieving hearts need help and hope to carry on again. The time of death is a time to think beyond this life.

Each culture has its own traditions associated with times of death. However, practices have been shifting during our generation. In the past, most funeral services were held at the funeral home; now more are held in church. In the past, a funeral service was the norm; today we often hear of memorial services. Increasingly, there are two patterns that have developed:

1. A funeral service, either in the funeral home or church, is followed immediately by a committal service. Sometimes the committal service at times is held at the graveside, and those who participate often go there by procession. Other times the committal service is the closing part of the funeral service and not at the graveside.

2. A memorial service is held in the church later in the day, usually in the evening, so that a broader group of friends and family can be gathered. In such an event, the committal and burial has likely taken place in a very private gathering at the cemetery earlier in the day, and the service takes on a different spirit than a funeral. The family gathers with relatives and friends to remember the life, give thanks for it, and seek help from God.

In either case, this event is essentially in the hands of the family members rather than the official jurisdiction of the church. All families desire to craft a funeral or memorial service that is reflective of the desires, personality, and faith of their loved one. For that reason, preplanning is wise. Those who write down their thoughts about the kind of service they prefer will make the time of grieving easier for survivors.

Resources

We point you to two very valuable resources that will aid you in thinking through the issues and finding many of the resources you may need.

In Life and in Death - A Pastoral Guide for Funerals, written and compiled by Leonard J. Vander Zee, published by CRC Publications (Grand Rapids, MI). Available through Faith Alive Christian Resources (1-800-333-8300 or www.FaithAliveResources.org). This valuable book will help you think through the issues and understand the need for pastoral care at the time of death, and also provides prayers, readings, model services, and many other resources.

Reformed Worship 24 is a theme issue on funerals. Helpful articles in this issue address the questions pastors have about funeral practices, give an analysis of funeral traditions from four different cultures, offer guidance in choosing music for funeral services, and provide a bibliography of organ collections.

You may find also find these other resources helpful:

A Service of Death and Resurrection: The Ministry of the Church at Death. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979. A resource from the United Methodist Church.

Your Ministry of Planning a Christian Funeral by Andy Langford. Nashville: Abingdon, 1989. This pamphlet is intended for families as well as pastors.

Weddings, Funerals, and Special Events by Eugene Peterson, Calvin Miller, and others. Waco, TX.: Word Books, 1987. The section on funerals contains six excellent essays.

Worship the Lord, edited by James R. Esther and Donald J. Bruggink. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987. Contains the “Order of Worship for Christian Burial.”

The Funeral: A Service of Witness to the Resurrection. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986. From the Presbyterian Church (USA); this book contains excellent essays and resources.

Pattern of the Service

A funeral service or a memorial service should include several stages through which the worshiping group must pass as they engage with God at the time of death. They need to (1) grieve before God and give expression to their pain at death, (2) give thanks for a valuable life and recall all that it involved, and (3) celebrate the hope and victory that is ours in Christ as proclaimed in the gospel. We have usually patterned such services in this way:

WE SORROW/LAMENT/GRIEVE OVER DISEASE AND DEATH

(The title used for this section of the service is usually determined by the circumstances, such as whether the death was tragic and traumatic, or a long time in coming through disease, and so on.)

This section usually includes worship items such as the following:

  • Reflections on the journey of the deceased one, particularly if he or she struggled with disease
  • Spoken words of lament, through a song or psalm
  • Prayers that give honest expressions of pain
  • Songs (see below for possibilities)

       WE GIVE THANKS FOR A VALUABLE LIFE

       This section usually includes worship items such as the following:

  • Ministry of music (songs that were favorites of the deceased one)
  • Reflections from friends and family members
  • Songs sung by all (see below for possibilities)
  • A litany in affirmation of the value of life
  • Scripture readings
  • Reflections on Scripture passages that affirm life

      WE CELEBRATE CHRIST'S VICTORY AND OUR HOPE

      This section usually includes worship items such as the following:

  • Songs (see below for possibilities)
  • Scripture readings
  • Reflections/meditations on the gospel of salvation and hope
  • Affirmations of faith and hope using historic creeds/confessions
  • Prayers
  • Words of blessing and assurance for the family

At times we have concluded a memorial service with the tolling of the bell seven times to represent the fullness of Christ's work for us and the completion of the life of the deceased.

Music Resources

(There are many hymns not listed here that are very appropriate for the occasion. What we provide here is representative, not exhaustive!)

Hymn Possibilities [listed alphabetically by tune name]
BROTHER JAMES' AIR, “The Lord's My Shepherd” (PsH 161, TH 86)
CRIMOND, “The Lord, My Shepherd, Rules My Life” (PsH 23, RL 89, SFL 201, TH 87, TWC 330)
CRYSTAL, “By the Sea of Crystal” (PsH 620, TH 549)
CWM RHONDDA, “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer” (PH 281, PsH 543, RL 50, TH 598, TWC 634)
EWING, “Jerusalem, the Golden” (PsH 618, RL 579, TH 539, TWC 754)
FAITHFULNESS, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (PH 276, PsH 556, RL 155, RN 249, TH 32, TWC 60)
HANSON, “Shall We Gather at the River” (Ferguson)
“I Am the Bread of Life” (RN 246, SNC 152)
“I Love the Lord” (SNC 227)
LEAD ME, “Lead Me, Guide Me” (PsH 544, RN 176, SFL 220)
NEUMARK/WER NUR DEN LIEBEN GOTT, “If You But Trust in God to Guide You” (PH 282, PsH 446, RL 151, TH 670, TWC 636)
NEW BRITAIN, “Amazing Grace” (PH 280, PsH 462, RL 456, RN 189, SFL 209, TH 460, TWC 502)
“On Eagle's Wings” (RN 112, SNC 185)
PRECIOUS LORD, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (PH 404, PsH 493, TWC 638)
RESIGNATION, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” (PH 172, PsH 550)
“Those Who Wait upon the Lord” (SFL 215)
TRYGGARE KAN INGEN VARA, “Children of the Heavenly Father” (PsH 440, RL 585, TH 131, TWC 84)
VILLE DU HAVRE, “When Peace Like a River” (PsH 489, TH 691, TWC 519)
WONDROUS LOVE, “What Wondrous Love” (PH 85, PsH 379, RN 277, SFL 169, TH 261, TWC 212)

Organ Music [listed alphabetically by tune name where applicable]
BROTHER JAMES' AIR, “The Lord's My Shepherd”
     Darke, Harold, “A Meditation on BROTHER JAMES' AIR,” Oxford [1948]
     Haan, Raymond H., O Worship the King, Broadman 4570-42 [1979]
     Held, Wilbur, “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” Morningstar MSM-10-420 [1999]
     Wood, Dale, Wood Works, SMP KK357 [1986]
     Wright, Searle, “Prelude on BROTHER JAMES' AIR,” Oxford 93.103 [1958]
CRIMOND, “The Lord, My Shepherd, Rules My Life”
     Held, Wilbur, “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” Morningstar MSM-10-420 [1999]
CWM RHONDDA, “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer”
     Albrecht, Timothy, Grace Notes VIII, Augsburg 11-10970 [1999]
     Carlson, J. Bert, A New Look at the Old, Augsburg 11-11009 [1999]
     Haan, Raymond H., Welsh Hymn Tune Preludes, SMP KK426 [1989]
     Held, Wilbur, Those Wonderful Welsh, Set 2, Morningstar MSM-10-842 [1992]
     Hobby, Robert A., Three Hymns of Praise, Set 6, Morningstar MSM-10-542 [2000]
     Krapf, Gerhard, Sing and Rejoice, vol. 6, SMP KK339 [1986]
     Manz, Paul, Ten Chorale Improvisations, Set 5, Concordia 97-5257 [1974]
     Rotermund, Melvin, Five Preludes, Augsburg 11-6040 [1990]
EIN FESTE BURG, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
     Held, Wilbur, Hymn Preludes for the Autumn Festivals, Concordia 97-5360 [1976]
     Hobby, Robert A., For All the Saints, Augsburg ISBN 0-8006-7537-1 [2002]
     Marpurg, Friedrich Wilhelm, Twenty-one Chorale Preludes, Augsburg 11-9506 [1967]
    The Church Organist's Golden Treasury (ed. Pfarreicher and Davison), vol. 1, Ditson [1949]
     Walcha, H., Chorale Preludes, book 1, Peters 4850
     Young, Gordon, Seven Hymn Voluntaries, Presser 413-41118-21 [1965]
FAITHFULNESS, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
     Cherwien, David, Interpretations, book 8, AMSI SP-105 [1991]
“Hallelujah Chorus”
     Handel, George Frideric, Handel: A Tribute, Lorenz KK300 [1984]
HANSON, “Shall We Gather at the River”
     Ferguson, John, “Shall We Gather at the River,” Augsburg 11-10824 [1997]
     (congregational accompaniment)
     Wood, Dale, Wood Works, SMP KK357 [1986]
     Young, Gordon, Preludes on the Familiar, Fischer 0 4886 [1972]
“Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring”
     Bach, J.S., “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring,” Marks 114 [1955]
NEUMARK, “If You But Trust in God to Guide You”
     Bach, J.S., The Liturgical Year (ed. Riemenschneider), Ditson [1933]
     Bach, J.S., Twelve Chorale Preludes (ed. Glynn), Schirmer 1441
     Cherwien, David, Interpretations, book 8, AMSI SP-105 [1991]
     Leupold, A.W., An Organ Book, Chantry Music Press [1960]
     Powell, Robert J., “If You But Trust in God to Guide You,” Morningstar MSM-10-873 [1994]
     van der Panne, Wim, “Variaties over Wie maar de Goede God laat Zorgen,” Musicript MR122
     [1986]
NEW BRITAIN, “Amazing Grace”
     Haan, Raymond H., The King of Love, SMP KK277 [1983]
     Held, Wilbur, Preludes and Postludes, vol. 1, Augsburg 11-9318 [1972]
     Hobby, Robert A., For All the Saints, Augsburg ISBN 0-8006-7537-1 [2002]
     Martin, Gilbert, Two Preludes on American Hymn Tunes, H.W. Grey GSTC 962 [1972]
“On Eagle's Wings”
     Callahan, Charles, This Is the Feast, CPH 97-6575 [1996]
RESIGNATION, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”
     Callahan, Charles, Six Meditations on American Folk Hymns, Concordia 97-6140 [1992]
     Held, Wilbur, The Lord Is My Shepherd, Morningstar MSM-10-420 [1999]
     Martin, Gilbert M., The Bristol Collection, vol. 2, Flammer HF-5078  [1975]
     Wood, Dale, Wood Works, book 2, SMP KK400 [1989]
“Sheep May Safely Graze”
     Bach, J.S., “Sheep May Safely Graze” (arr. Biggs), H.W. Grey 666 [1940]
“Shepherd Me, O God”
     Callahan, Charles, This Is the Feast, CPH 97-6575 [1996]
ST. ANNE, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”
     Krapf, Gerhard, Sing and Rejoice, vol. 1, SMP KK234 [1978]
     Manz, Paul, “Partita on ST. ANNE,” Concordia 97-5307 [1975]
     Young, Gordon, Eight Voluntaries, Presser 413-41034-30 [1961]
TRYGGARE KAN INGEN VARA, “Children of the Heavenly Father”
     Burkhardt, Michael, Seven Hymn Improvisations and Free Accompaniments, set 1,
     Morningstar MSM-10-847 [1992]
     Cherwien, David, Interpretations, book 2, AMSI OR-3 [1981]
     Hobby, Robert A., For All the Saints, Augsburg ISBN 0-8006-7537-1 [2002]
     Jordan, Alice, Worship Service Music for the Organist, Broadman 4570-27 [1975]
     Kerr, J. Wayne, I'll Praise My Maker, Augsburg ISBN 0-8006-7570-3 [2003]
     Rotermund, Melvin, Five Preludes, Augsburg 11-6040 [1990]
     Wood, Dale, Seven Folk Tune Sketches, H.W. Grey GB 357 [1966]
WONDROUS LOVE, “What Wondrous Love”
     Callahan, Charles, Six Meditations on American Folk Hymns, Concordia  97-6140 [1992]
     Johnson, David N., “Wondrous Love,” Augsburg 11-0821 [1965]
     Young, Gordon, Preludes on the Familiar, Fischer 0 4886 [1972]

Piano Music [listed alphabetically by tune name where applicable]
BROTHER JAMES' AIR, “The Lord's My Shepherd”
     Carter, John, Songs of the Shepherd, Hope 1967 [1996]
     Sanborn, Jan, Piano Music for the Care of the Soul, Ron Harris RHP0403 [1997]
     Shackley, Larry, Celtic Hymn Settings for Piano, Hope 8117 [2001]
CRIMOND, “The Lord, My Shepherd, Rules My Life”
     Carter, John, Songs of the Shepherd, Hope 1967 [1996]
CWM RHONDDA, “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer”
     Shackley, Larry, Celtic Hymn Settings for Piano, Hope 8117 [2001]
     Wilhelmi, Teresa, Hymns . . . Light Jazz Style, Word 301 0136 315 [1997]
EIN FESTE BURG, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
     Gerig, Reginald, Piano Preludes on Hymns and Chorales, Hope 251 [1959]
     Wilhelmi, Teresa, Hymns . . . Light Jazz Style, Word 301 0136 315 [1997]
FAITHFULNESS, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
     Wilson, John F., A Sacrifice of Praise, Hope 347 [1994]
     Wyrtzen, Don, Don Wyrtsen Piano, Hope 1711 [1994]
“Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring”
     Gerig, Reginald, Piano Preludes on Hymns and Chorales, Hope 251 [1959]
NEUMARK, “If You But Trust in God to Guide You”
     Boertje, Barbara, Piano Improvisations for the Church Year, Unity 70/1194U [1998]
     Nordquist, John, Four Hymns for the Concert Pianist, Hope 301 [1983]
NEW BRITAIN, “Amazing Grace”
     Albrecht, Mark, Timeless Hymns of Faith, Augsburg 11-10863 [1998]
     Carter, John, Folk Hymns for Piano, Hope 240 [1987]
     Leavitt, John, How Sweet the Sound, CPH 97-6891 [2000]
     Sanborn, Jan, Piano Music for the Care of the Soul, Ron Harris RHP0403 [1997]
“On Eagle's Wings”
     Carter, John, Today's Hymns and Songs for Piano, Hope 244 [1995]
     Organ, Anne Krentz, On Eagle's Wings, Augsburg 11-10711 [1996]
RESIGNATION, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”
     Carter, John, Folk Hymns for Piano, Hope 240 [1987]
     Carter, John, Songs of the Shepherd, Hope 1967 [1996]
     Leavitt, John, How Sweet the Sound, CPH 97-6891 [2000]
“Sheep May Safely Graze”
     Carter, John, Songs of the Shepherd, Hope 1967 [1996]
ST. ANNE, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”
     Albrecht, Mark, Timeless Hymns of Faith, Augsburg 11-10863 [1998]|
     Gerig, Reginald, Piano Preludes on Hymns and Chorales, Hope 251 [1959]
TRYGGARE KAN INGEN VARA, “Children of the Heavenly Father”
     Medema, Ken, Sanctuary, Genevox 4181-16 [1989]
VILLE DU HAVRE, “When Peace Like a River”
     Medema, Ken, Sanctuary, Genevox 4181-16 [1989]
     Porter, Rachel Trelstad, Day by Day, Augsburg 11-10772  [1996]
     Sanborn, Jan, Piano Music for the Care of the Soul, Ron Harris RHP0403 [1997]
WONDROUS LOVE, “What Wondrous Love”
     Carter, John, Folk Hymns for Piano, Hope 240 [1987]
     Carter, John, The Wondrous Cross, Hope 1747 [1994]

Choral Music
“Be Not Afraid,” Craig Courtney, Beckenhorst BP-1388 [1992]       
“Consecration,” John Ness Beck, Beckenhorst BP 1250[1986]
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” Craig Courtney, Beckenhorst BP 1522 [1998]
“He Has the Power,” Leon C. Roberts, GIA G2476 [1981]
“How Can I Keep From Singing,” Jeffrey Honoré, Choristers Guild CGA-567 [1991]
“I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” John Helgen, Kjos 8826 [1996]
“On Eagle's Wings,” Michael Joncas/Douglas Wagner, Hope A675 [1993]
“Shepherd Me, O God,” Marty Haugen, GIA G-2950 [1986]
“Shepherd of My Heart,” Francis Patrick O'Brien, GIA G-3770 [1992]
“You Are All We Have,” Francis Patrick O'Brien, GIA G-3663 [1991]

Suggested Scriptures

So many Scriptures are appropriate in times of death. It is helpful to have some information about the favorite passages of the deceased and share them with those gathered. These are some favorites often used. You will find many other helpful passages suggested in the book In Life And In Death by L. Vander Zee (see resources listed at top).

Genesis 49:29-50:3
Psalm 10
Psalm 13
Psalm 23
Psalm 27
Psalm 46
Psalm 73
Psalm 103
Psalm 139
John 11
Romans 8
1 Corinthians 15
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Ephesians 2:1-10
Philippians 1:21-26
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
2 Timothy 4:6-8
Revelation 21 and 22

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