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Christian Funerals: Going to be with God

Thomas Long makes a case for classic Christian funeral traditions. Howard Vanderwell and Leonard VanderZee offer pastoral considerations for planning funerals and memorial services. A feature story exploring the planning for Christian Funerals and Memorial Services.

Dying at home, in hospitals, at war. Old age, freak accident, cancer, suicide.

Washed by family, all-night vigil. Embalmed. Buried in a day. Ashes shipped in cross-shaped urns. Grave, mausoleum, church columbarium, family mantle.

Long lines. Hushed voices, quiet tears. Wailing. Photo displays. “Wasn’t she a hoot?” Chanting psalms.

Church somber as Lent. Flowers everywhere. Communion. Eulogies and PowerPoints to celebrate a life. Everyone there. “Let’s send a card instead.” Attending by webcast.

Private family burial. Walk to cemetery. Chartered bus. Orange-flagged cars ignore red lights, pedestrians stop and remove hats. Coffin lowered or left behind. Fasting. Cocktails and appetizers. Ham buns and fancy Jello.

Christian funerals vary so widely in part because the Bible doesn’t say much about how to do them. The Bible does, however, say a lot about dying and rising with Christ.

As John Witvliet explains in Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice“At the heart of the Christian religion is the history of a Jewish prophet from Nazareth who died and then, by the power of God's Spirit, conquered death. Everything in the Christian Scriptures either leads up to the account of this death and resurrection or reflects back on it.”

From a theological perspective, Thomas G. Long suggests we reclaim classic Christian funeral tradition—accompanying baptized saints as they go to be with God. From a pastoral perspective, Howard Vanderwell and others describe how to craft funerals that minister to those left behind.

Managing grief

Tom Long has spent so many years researching a book on Christian funerals, that his wife jokes his tombstone will read “still doing research.” Long is a prolific author and professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia.

“The Christian church has lost its way concerning funerals,” Long said during a lecture at Calvin Theological Seminary. Years ago he wrote in Theology Today, “Americans are in danger of losing the capacity to mark ritually the profound significance of the experience of death.”

Long often explains how Jessica Mitford’s scathing critique of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death (published in 1963), changed the way many North Americans, including clergy, plan funerals.

It used to be that burial was a major funeral event. The whole community attended the funeral—including the deceased. Funeral rituals were built around the metaphor of a baptized saint traveling from this life into God’s presence.

Long wrote that funeral goers mourned publicly, “raised a fist at death… praised the God who raised Jesus from the grave…and honored the body and life of the saint who died.”

Now more people attend visitation than the funeral. Memorial services happen without a dead body, which, to essayist and undertaker Thomas Lynch, “seems like…having a baptism without the baby or a wedding without the bride.”

Long said in his lecture, “Services are often brief, simple, highly personalized and improvised. They focus on the life and lifestyle of the deceased, emphasizing the joy, celebration, and goodness of the person instead of the grief and somberness of death.”

Mourners contemplate quietly, each managing private grief, moving on their own from sorrow to stability.

Reclaiming the sacred story

Times change, you might say, so why resurrect ancient history? Long would answer that, for Christians, an event as important as death needs to be experienced within God’s story. Just as baptism initiates people into Christian community, funerals usher them on to God.

“The rubric for early Christian funerals,” Long said in his lecture, “was ‘accompany them to the place of burial with singing.’ ”

He explained why this “sacred story is under attack or doubt.” Believers may feel embarrassed about bodies, prone to a “pseudo-Gnostic understanding of death.” Not understanding body and soul as a union, they fail to “see Christian faith in an embodied sense.” Instead, they think of the deceased as “dead and going nowhere, or at, best, going into the spiritual ether of the eternal present.”

Long offered these ideas for how Christian communities can do funerals as baptismal reenactments:

  • Ask pall bearers to bring the casket through the front door and down the center aisle.
  • Cover the casket with a white pall to recall baptism and symbolize that in God’s eyes, every person is precious. This could be done in the narthex or along with reciting, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
  • Have clergy meet the coffin at the center aisle, perhaps saying, “Our sister, Elena Garcia, a lamb of God’s own flock, a sinner of God’s own redeeming.”
  • The processional could stop from time to time along the center aisle, perhaps while someone announces significant events, such as, “Elena was baptized in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on January 31, 1928.”
  • As you help plan the funeral, welcome family and friends to speak about “how we have seen the grace of God refracted in this particular life.”
  • If the dead body cannot be present, then “evoke its presence with language. Don’t just talk about Jane’s spirit. Remember what Jane did with her hands and her feet, how she sat here with us on Sunday mornings.”
  • Consider having the pastor lead part of the funeral standing in the pews. Long recalls hearing a pastor say, at the funeral of someone who’d committed suicide, “God, we loved David. He was one of us. Now we entrust him to you.”

Embracing place and community

Many churches once had room in church cemeteries. Rural and suburban communities had plenty of burial space. Now cities are densely packed, family members live thousands of miles apart, and fewer people are “from anywhere anymore.”

Long said it takes imagination to “reclaim a sense of sacred space.” He suggested that churches use memorial gardens, brass plaques, or columbariums to make “a place where the dead continue to worship with us in the communion of saints.”

Churches can create liturgical space for those who’ve died. On All Saints Day, ring bells and read out names of those who’ve died in the last year. On ordinary Sundays, recall a story or favorite song or verse of someone who’s died. Remember anniversaries of deaths in congregational prayers.

To reclaim a sense of sacred community, Long suggested that people attend funerals even of fellow worshipers they didn’t know well. He said it’s a way to act out an understanding of the gospel. “This person was on a community journey that began with baptism. So the community travels the last bit with the deceased as they travel to be with God,” he said.

Funerals that Minister to Those Left Behind

Howard Vanderwell has conducted more than 160 funerals—marking deaths that were expected, and very unexpected; for newborns, children, youth, and aged; some involving high trauma. “Most of these funerals were for people with whom I was very close pastorally and personally,” says Vanderwell, a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church now working as a worship consultant.Over decades of ministry he’s seen several shifts:

  • More people visit the funeral home than attend the funeral.
  • Funerals or memorial services are more often in church instead of at funeral homes.
  • People are less interested in having an open casket at the funeral. Often they request a private family burial followed by a public memorial service.
  • Family members more often want to share reminiscences and reflections, especially in memorial services.

He accepts most of these changes because, he says, “There is little biblical directive on this issue. We craft our funeral practices on the basis of personal need and cultural emphases around us, as well as traditions.“ Vanderwell advises planning funerals or memorial services that include grieving, giving thanks for a life, and celebrating Christ’s victory over death.

Helping mourners confront death

“The funeral or memorial service is for those who are left behind, not for the dead,” Vanderwell says. “Those left behind include the direct family and the community. We minister to those who grieve, confront death, must make adjustments, and face their own mortality.” Confronting death includes facing its physical realities. In Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality, essayist and funeral director Thomas Lynch says that remembering the dead the way they were begins with dealing with the way they are. “Seeing is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it, better than fiction or fantasy….the grief ignored will never go away,” Lynch writes. Vanderwell agrees that pastors do a disservice when they ignore grief. “I cringe when I hear about a memorial service planned as a ‘Celebration of the life of….’ It seems to clamp the lid on whatever grieving and pain is going on, as if there is no right to experience it. This is unhealthy and I think it's very poor terminology,” he says. Still, since urban people often have less freedom to attend daytime funerals than past generations of farmers did, Vanderwell knows it’s not always possible for the whole church to attend a daytime funeral and burial. Also, he notes, “I’ve found that people are able to grieve in a different way if the most painful of all tasks, going to the cemetery for burial, is completed earlier in the day. Then the family has some quiet time together before coming to church for the memorial service.” People grieve even more intensely when a loved one dies young or suddenly or after great pain or trauma. Consider what it’s like to attend a funeral for someone who’s committed suicide or been shot or been abused by a babysitter. Anger, rage, frustration, and doubt color the grief. In an article in Reformed Worship, Leonard VanderZee urges pastors and other funeral leaders to overcome their reluctance to “give voice to the pathos of the situation.”He suggests using Scripture, prayers, songs, and other words that “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.”

Giving thanks for a life

Just as pastors should take time before the funeral or memorial service to understand the circumstances of a death, it’s essential to learn specifics about the deceased’s life. Vanderwell and VanderZee explain that liturgical elements for this giving thanks stage are the same as for any stage of the funeral…and the same as what’s needed in any Christian worship service. These elements include prayer, song, and Scripture. They say the service also needs a sermon, homily, or meditation. “These are the elements without which God would not be the central focus and without which real human needs would not be adequately addressed,” VanderZee writes. And addressing human needs requires remembrances specific to the person who died, not just generic funeral phrases. VanderZee often puts the sermon in this stage, including remembrances of the person in the sermon. Vanderwell more often puts the sermon in the third stage. “In this stage, giving thanks for this life, we choose Scripture readings, biographical references, family reflections, prayers, and songs that review this life. We see what that life involved and give thanks to God. We affirm the value of this life, regardless of the circumstances of death,” Vanderwell says.

Celebrating Christ's victory over death

As Vanderwell conducts them, the final stage of a funeral or memorial service focuses on celebration. Though these services certainly speak to the life and death of a specific person, the celebration is about what God has done, not what the deceased has done. “In this stage we celebrate our victory in Jesus Christ. Here the hope of the gospel is presented and the victory over death is clearly marked. Usually the sermon is in this part.“ This part also has Scripture readings, prayers, and songs of faith. This third part cannot come until after the first two. When we complete this third stage, we leave with an anticipation of resurrection,” he says.

Learn More

Don’t miss Anne Zaki’s account of Christian funerals in Egypt. Listen to Thomas G. Long’s lecture “Accompany Them with Singing: The Recovery of Authentic Christian Funeral Practices.” Read his Theology Today essay “Why Jessica Mitford Was Wrong: Recovering the American Funeral.” Read the last chapter of Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice by John Witvliet. You’ll find ideas on how to regularly include the worship theme of dying and rising with Christ, so believers are better prepared for death. The medieval book Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) helped Christian communities face all the emotions surrounding death.Use funeral resources gathered by Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt. Get ideas from a special Reformed Worship issue on funerals, with articles on columbariums and chapel gardens, funeral palls, questions about funerals, choosing music, addressing cultural traditions, and more.Give yourself an easy crash course on how Christian funeral rites have changed since the church began, vary by theological and cultural tradition, differ from other religions, and have changed in the United States.Consult or discuss these books:

Spark youth group or small group discussions on dying well. Use these activity and film suggestions fromPracticing Our Faith. Browse related stories about developing ancient future faith and worshipbaptismreclaiming the promise of ascension, and worship as a communal practice.

    Start a Discussion

    Talk about planning funerals:

    • What do you think of Thomas G. Long’s idea that baptism initiates a believer into a Christian community so the community should also accompany each believer on the final stretch of their faith journey to God?
    • Some religious traditions have always had prescribed death and funeral rites. Others have looked on funerals as family, not ecclesiastical, matters. Which religious, ethnic, and cultural practices shape how you understand funerals?
    • How do the first, second, and Egyptian stories about Christian funerals agree or diverge from each other?
    • After reading these stories, what would you like to change, add, or subtract from the way funerals are conducted in your Christian community?

      Share Your Wisdom

      What is the best way you’ve found to enrich or change funeral practices?

      • Did you seek out people from different theological or cultural traditions for a discussion on what’s the same and different about their death and funeral customs? If you produced a resource summarizing your findings, will you share it with us?
      • What has been most effective in helping your church make dying and rising with Christ a regular theme in worship? Was it a song, litany, dance, liturgical action, visual art, repeated Scripture refrain, seminar… something else?