Monday, May 17, 2010
Some Thoughts on a Funeral
But birth is not private. It is a public event. Record of the birth is made with the state to document this birth and make this child's birth and this family's new addition a matter of the public record. The birth giving may be private but the birth is a matter of public information. This is not due to some prurient interest on the part of people but because society and the nation counts children as their own and not simply belonging to a parent or family. Consider the census obligation as testament to this public interest in birth.
Neither is death private. It is a public event. Record of the death is made with the state to document the passing of this individual. Death records are part of the public record. The actual dying may be private but the death itself is public. Again, the state has an interest in this -- and not just a small one.
Now when it comes to the Church, the same is true. Birth and the subsequent reception of the child into the church by baptism is not some private act or ceremony. Even when baptism takes place in very private circumstances, the baptism is still public to the entire community of faith. I have baptized infants in the hospital immediately after birth and still the baptism is not private but announced to the church and, where death does not prevent, the child is received into the community in a public way following that baptism. I am not an advocate of non-service baptisms. Baptism is an act for the entire Christian community and belongs to the Church -- not to the Pastor or the candidate or the candidate's family.
In case you are wondering where this is leading, here is the part where I will lose some of you. I believe that just as baptism belongs to the Church, so does the funeral of the baptized belong to the Church. It is my earnest conviction that funerals of Christians should not be held in funeral homes but at the Church. I believe that it is not simply a matter of the family's wishes that we need to balance but also the place of the deceased as a member of Christ's body the Church. I am not trying to be callous against the desires of a family, but there is another family to which the baptized belongs and this family expects and deserves to be a part of the earthly completion of that baptismal beginning in the Christian funeral liturgy (which I would suggest should more often than not be a Eucharist).
I am not condemning or trying to heap guilt upon those who have done otherwise or who disagree with me. I am trying to think this through from the perspective of our fellowship together as the baptized believers whom our Lord calls His Church. We have certain obligations as members of the community. Part of that involves sensing and seeing how the birth, public confession, joining, and death of the individual baptized involves the whole community of faith. I would say that we have a duty to our brothers and sisters in Christ to hold the funeral in the Church and provide an opportunity for those who share in this household of faith to join us in commending the deceased to the mercy of God into which that person was baptized. It is, as it were, the cycle of life within the Church and do deny the ending to the community of faith or to treat the funeral as a private act betrays this public connection.
My point is not to condemn what others have done or not done or to change by the means of guilt, but to hold forth the fact of our connectedness in baptism and the logical conclusion of that connection. So, when people tell me they do not want any service for their loved one who was also a member of the congregation, I find myself caught between what people expect of me -- to honor the wishes of the family in order to assist their grieving -- and what is our duty to one another within the fellowship of believers -- to share in this grieving and to join together in hope in the liturgy of the Christian funeral.
I have had folks come to me and ask if they could have a grandchild baptized on the sly -- parents do not wish to raise the child in the faith and do not approve of the baptism but grandparents want to do the right thing. I confess to them, as much as I would like to consent to their request, I cannot because baptism is not a private act. I wish that I knew how graciously to say the same when family members say there will be no service or no public service or that this is what so and so would have wanted or this was the last request of the person or whatever.
We may not like or understand it but certain parts of our life and certain parts of our life as Christians are public -- they belong not simply to us but to the community. This is true in the sense of citizens in a nation and it is also true of members of the Church by baptism and faith. So I encourage us to talk about this and to think about the choices before us, and which of those choices is most consistent with our identity as a child of God by baptism and faith and a member of the Church...