Monday, May 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on a Funeral

Perhaps because of our notions of privacy, we have come to believe that certain parts of life belong to us -- it is not that they are hidden from others but they do not belong to the public arena.  They are private.  We think of birth as private -- just try to get into to see a new mother in a hospital and even if you are a Pastor with a clergy badge, it is pretty close to impossible.  We think of death as being private in the same way.  In fact, death is so private that many, many folks die all alone -- even when they are in the hospital.  I cannot tell you how many times even families have chosen not to be with a family member when that person is near death.  The ultimate privacy, I guess.  We treat our names as private things -- spelling ordinary names in strange, new ways, making up names, and using words never meant as names to name our children.  We do not see the name as anything more than a private choice between the parent(s) and the child.

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...


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I would ask a question - what would you think of there being a brief service at the funeral home and then the graveside (as per the request of a hypothetical family), but then a service at the congregation for the congregation?

I can think of this having happened when a member has died while out of state (my dad was in New Mexico for a while - this happened with snowbirds fairly often) - the physical burial was not present at the Church, and so a "memorial" service (might need a better name) was held. Would this be something that could be applied to one who is local, but whose family doesn't wish for service to be held in the congregation?

Also, another random thought - sometimes people shy away from having a service in the Church because they don't want to burden the church (we have dinners here, and our ladies who prepare them are getting old) and things like that. Hence most of our funerals happen between 10 and 2 so they can butt up against lunch. What of doing evening worship services with the graveside the next day? (Or even an evening service when the family demands only a funeral home service)? Folks could attend without missing work, and we do mostly have some idea and understanding of hitting Church at 7 pm or so around 10-15 times a year already.

Excellent post -- what wickedness is done in this land under the guise of privacy!

Larry Everett said...

Our Pastors used "Final Victory" by Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller as a basis for study on Contemplating the Death and Funeral of a Christian (CPH). It is an excellent tool to educate layman on practices of the church catholic through the ages. It also has a form for individuals to fill in with favorite hymns, scripture, etc.

The pagan influence of our culture causes some to deviate from sound Christian funeral practices of the ancient church.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

This is a subject worthy of discussion. Funerals are a long standing peeve with me especially when I attend free-for-alls that happen in neo-evangelical/non denominational churches. I seldom have members who wish to have a funeral in some place other than a church. And when they do it is usually because the church isn't big enough, or because there is a family member who cannot travel very far and so they ask to have the funeral in a school gymnasium or a funeral home. To those requests I usually look for a sister congregation with a larger facility than mine.

I have only had one instance where the bereaved insisted on having a private service for their mother, and in fact did not want a pastor present, or to even have the burial in the cemetery next to their father's gravesite. This involved two teenagers whose mother died suddenly and whose father had died three years ealier. Their attitude I put down to shock, grief, youth and immaturity. Fortunately their older sister convinced them that a public funeral in their church was much more fitting.

I can understand the desire for privacy in that some people prefer to not put their grief on parade, so to speak, or become a public spectacle by being seen breaking down in front of hundreds of people. This could be helped immensely if funerals were not deliberately choreographed in such a way as to jerk as many tears from us as humanly possible. We as Pastors can do much in this regard to steer away from sentimentality and toward the Cross, to comfort the bereaved with what Christ has done for their loved one, rather than taking them on a trip down memory lane.

My experience however has been the opposite of what you mention in this post. I tend to get more requests for funerals in the church for people who have not darkened the doorstep of our congregation or any other since the day they were baptized. I get requests for memorial servcies and committals for people who are not Christians at all.

"The Right Rev" said...

Good thoughts.

I encourage member families towards a church funeral by saying "I consider a church funeral to be the final act of service that the church can give to a beloved member."

That is typically received--and understood--very well.

Steve said...

A few thoughts from pews...

Are you referring to the funeral service being conducted by the funeral home and NOT a pastor? Or are you just referring to the service being HELD in or out of the church building - yet still perfomed by the pastor? I'm asking for clarification on this because I've known pastors to hold the Christian Funeral (just as they would have in church) AT the funeral home. So, it's still the SAME funeral, just in another setting.

If it's just the LOCATION issue, then I don't agree. I personally PREFER the church location/service, but I wouldn't be against it away from the church as long as the pastor conducted it. This being based on what the definition of "church" is.

If you cannot convince the family that a Christian service be held at the church or anywhere, then I would STRONGLY encourage a brief graveside service. I would even go so far as to say that feel you, as pastor has EARNED that right. Earned it in the sense that you have been the spiritual shepherd to this individual. Maybe that's where some of the issue might be. Perhaps pastor's feel slighted in a way? It's understandable - we're human.

We have to remember that a public display isn't going to do anything for the deceased. It's ONLY for the living. For their comfort in reminding them of God's promise of eternal life. That promise that was made valid upon Jesus' death for our sins and his resurrection. That promise that he preparred a home for us in His Heavenly Kingdom as baptized believers. Is THAT thought behind the Christian Funeral being conveyed when approaching the family? In a nutshell....this is more for YOU, the survived, grieving family. Your loved one is at home with their Father in heaven. We need to have an opportunity to praise and thank Him first and foremost for all he has done for your loved one. Secondly, ask for His help with US accepting OUR loss.

Generic funeral home services NEVER do that. You might get a nice pamphlet with the 23rd Psalm, and the Lord's Prayer....and that's about it. The rest is "how wonderful that deceased person was." How empty that is for Christians! We know they're gone and we know they were (hopefully) good. What we should want to know and be reminded of is how God is still carrying out his promise for our loved one - as we grieve, they LIVE!

Maybe on THAT thought...(I know I'm rambling a bit and all over the board).....pastor's might even take a "business-like" approach to the matter. Drawing a line down the center of the paper. Listing the "pro's and the con's." Really making those who OBVIOUSLY don't UNDERSTAND the VALUE of the Christian Funeral. So many more "Pro's" on the Christian Funeral side! Sometimes those people are the one's who NEED to hear what Jesus has done again. They are probably so consumed in their grief at that point due to THEIR lack of faith and understanding. It can be approached in exactly what it is. Comfort for you - the grieving. I, the pastor need to know that you and your family are OK. I FULLY believe your loved is in God's loving arms. We need to focus on you, once we thank God for what he has done.

See part II

Steve said...

I think those people obviously shy away from the church due to their faith and lack of understanding. When they see the pastor coming at them all they see is another obstacle in their way that they "just don't need to deal with." Pretty selfish on their parts really. Also, not following God's command. We are to give thanks in EVERYTHING. They don't understand that it isn't about the BIG PUBLIC PRODUCTION that the church is trying to control. They aren't thinking as a Christian. They are putting themselves and their needs (disguised as wishes of the deceased)in front of honoring God.

Question 1. (you'll probably need to wear your football helmut here..) HAVE YOU HONORED GOD BY ASKING YOURSELF IN EVERY ACTION OF YOUR LOVED ONE'S FUNERAL ARRANGMENTS "what would God want?"
Or is really about what I have wanted?

Question 2. Do you fully understand the chain of command in God's eyes? God is FIRST. Where did you put him in these arrangements? 1, 2, 3 or nowhere at all?

Question 3. Where are YOU in these arrangements - How are YOU doing??? You need to be #2. God needs you to know it will ok! The church can help in a greater way than just providing a nice setting and a dinner afterwards....This is the day we prepare for as Christians. Going home to our eternal home. We need to re-group and focus as One in Christ. We hurt as we are human. Yet, as Christians we have a much easier road ahead in that department.

I would HATE to think we have to go so far as to associate this with money. But I'm sure it's going cost a whole lot more to have the funeral home do a service vs. the church. Obviously that's NOT the reason we want, but maybe you have to talk to them in their terms to get to their hearts in the long run. No lies were told,'s still sad.

Baptism - two things are needed. Water and God's word. Church isn't needed - but certainly should be in our hearts in the right places. BUT, we don't stop God's command of "Baptizing all nations" I don't recall reading it HAD to be done in a church or publicly. Luther might say we are thinking like Catholic's here!
:0) Is it about pomp and circumstance, or God's word?

I’m not a pastor…nor do I even play one on TV. But, rather just constructive comments/suggestions. I'm in no way implying none of the above hasn’t been done. I don’t know, I’m not there. It’s all said in a positive light, yet still trying to focus on the TRUE Light.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Steve, those are good observations from the pew. Instruction on what a Christian funeral actually is helps quite a bit. Most people who go to generic funeral home services, or to heterodox church service that does nothing but eulogize know what's wrong because we pastor's hear it all the time 'thank you for preaching the gospel' is often the comment because it is so rarely heard.

I do think that sometimes there is an aversion to having a funeral in church because the bereaved are uncomfortable with being in church, they just don't know what to do there. And I think its also a reflection of our 'power individualism' that people who would write their own marriage vows will probably want to write their own funeral service too. Have it your way, is the creed, and you don't necessarily get it your way in the church.

Sometimes a Church funeral does save the family money, but that is because of our charity and that's okay. Recently I had a funeral for the husband of one of my members who was very hard pressed to pay both funeral expenses and the considerable medical bills that he had. What a relief for her that a nearby Lutheran cemetery charged nothing for their plots.

Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

Church funerals, as I explain to families, are a testament of the faith of the deceased. Why have a funeral in the church building? Because it makes sense for a Christian to be there!

A few years ago, a faithful person died. In her family were some who had become part of a non-Christian religion. Had we carried out the funeral in any other place than the church, what would that have said to these unbelieving relatives?

By the way, there is a second reason families have been persuaded to have a church funeral. Unfortunately or not, it's cost.

Steve said...

I've tried sitting on my fingers, but I can't resist again....

It's sad, that this issue arises to begin with! But, we are sinful human beings.

Obviously, the deceased doesn't have much to say. So it's the FAITH or lack thereof from the individual making the arrangements for the desceased. These poor decsions.....I'm going to say poor CHRISTIAN descisions.... have to come from a lack of faith. The lack of real understanding.

This has to be the MOST upsetting to a pastor. "Have I not gotten through to this person? Why can't they see?" The answer isn't the pastor getting through per se, but the pastor helping the individual to listen to the Spirit. Making them aware it's there, you just have to listen and let it into your heart. God's word THEN becomes more than just mire words in a big book. It's the Holy Spirit that brings us to the word. The pastor can only AID in shining a light and help in understanding that word they now see in a new light. That's why they went to the Seminary, and we didn't!

Where and how else would a Christian want to have their final moments for their earthly remains? I would assume in God's house as I would! BUT..for THIS reason: So OTHERS could hear of God's great love as well - hopefully just a reminder to most. Know of that love that carried me through my own life on earth. Hoping others will see... "my life has just begun!...please worship one last time with me. I have good news! Jesus DID what he told me he would do for me as His child. I will miss you all -for now. BUT I've waited for this day and it's here!!" Isn't THAT what a CHRISTIAN would want???? For his or her surviving friends and family to hear and know? I'm good!....Please be happy for me! Please ask God to help YOU though any sorrow you may have in my absence, but know I'm home and better than I've EVER been.

You know the New Orleans tradition of the dixieland jazz bands with lively music aren't too far off. The only thing is.....I think the FOCUS is lost there once again as well. It's a celebration of one's life....BUT in what form? It should be a celebration for the NEW LIFE in HEAVEN of that person! The brass should play for God and his goodness and grace.

My argument on the LOCATION being in a church is this. I've seen church funerals be "generic" or empty too. Just because a funeral is HELD all wrapped up nice and pretty inside a beautiful sanctuary, doesn't make it a CHRISTIAN funeral.

We are doing EVERYONE involved a spiritual diservice if we have failed to TEACH them WHY it's best in the church. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY.....the Word they will hear there. Again, I will say - THAT WORD in the CHRISTIAN FUNERAL is what makes it a CHRISTIAN FUNERAL. NOT THE BUILDING it's heard in. This has to be taught FIRST in order to recognize WHY we would want to do it IN GOD'S HOUSE. But we all know, God's house or church is in the hearts of believers gathered in His name. Whether or not they are in the middle of the Santa Monica freeway, a field in Nebraska or a church.

I just hope our hang up's on location aren't just aesthetics or control. But rather a true desire to share God's word once again. This time with proof of God's great love - Thanking God for taking our loved one home!

A.K.A "Mission Accomplished"

Steve said...

@Pastor Bergstrauzer -

Thank you for recongnizing my point. Defining a Christian Funeral. I get so caught up trying to say things, I begin to ramble aimlessly and lose track at times.

One thing I wanted to throw out at Pastors - is working backwards.

I mentioned that the education on the the value of a Christian Funeral and it's location can't happen in the midst of one's death. This has to be taught EARLY on for one to digest and the WANT for a Christian Funeral to only increase as one's faith increases. THE NEED FOR A CHRISTIAN FUNERAL doesn't exisit. God's plan will happen with or without that. But rather THE WANT for a Christian Funeral needs to be discussed.

Certainly a funeral is a great place to make a statement such as "what if this was you in the box?" And working from there (aka...WORKING the END of one's life) using God's word and how it SHOULD apply to us BEFORE we get this far.

BUT, I think we need to be using this as great topics to base sermons on. And, keep referring it to it. We often hear of what the Sacrament of Holy Communion does for us as Christians - as we should. BUT maybe we need to start planting the seeds of what statement we want to make as Christians when we can't speak any longer. That Sacrament of Holy Communion is valid for us as God's children HERE ON EARTH. "Do this......until you come to my Kingdom"

My point is, let's start there. At the door of His Kingdom! And work backwards. Stop and realize how we got that the door. We're all here woking on our faith by coming and hearing his Word, asking AND receiving forgiveness through out our lives. Now.....why would we want to leave him out in the END?

Great light to examine our hearts even deeper. Not only does is remind us what our goal is, but strengthens our faith and desire to live as God's children until that time comes. Because why?? We could not have done this without His grace.

Not having a Christian Funeral when at all possible in my eyes is dishonoring God.
It's like running a race. Winning the blue medal for first place and then not showing up for the celebration and recognition!

We won a blue medal. But....we all know HOW we won that medal. Someone had to die. Jesus' death earned us a blue medal on that first Easter morning. All he asks is for us to hold it, and wear it proudly. We need to show up for the ceremony and show the world what we got! Perhaps we as Christians should start having blue medals pinned to us in our caskets. As a statment of our faith - at our CHRISTIAN funeral.

What a statment or a great head scratcher for a non believer to come to a funeral and see. "Why does the dead guy have a blue medal? That's stupid....He's dead, he lost!" On the contrary! We, the surving friends in Chrsit know....he won!!

Certainly a great conversation starter.........
Putting the soap box away now.......