THE CHRISTIAN FUNERAL

No one likes to think about death, their own death or the death of one in their family.  The utter finality of death and the sharp sorrow of separation from those we love cause us to avoid this painful subject as much as possible.  For this reason few of us have carefully discussed funeral arrangements with our ministers or families.

Death usually comes with such a shock that it is difficult to think clearly or make decisions wisely.  Sometimes the emotions of the moment prevent us from making decisions that are consistent with our Christian convictions, and the result is that the funeral of a Christian believer is not distinguishable from the funeral of an unbeliever.  So it should be helpful to recall our Christian belief concerning death and to make funeral plans before death comes.

You will want to make certain that at the time of death your pastors are notified first of all. The pastor will be able to counsel with you and coordinate with the funeral home to make sure that the funeral will be a truly Christian service for the comfort, witness, and protection of the survivors.
To begin, what are our convictions about death? What do Presbyterians believe?

  1. With all Christians, we believe that death has been conquered by God in Jesus Christ.  We recall that death brings a painful separation from friends.  We likewise remember the bold claim of the New Testament that God in Christ is the Victor over death.  This is the very center of the Gospel, the Good News of Christ’s conquest over the power of death.  Every New Testament book declares or assumes that Christ rose from the grave.  “Jesus Christ is risen today” is not only the Easter message, it is the message of every day in the year, and it is the foundation and life of the church.
  1. We believe that as Christ’s followers we will share in His victory over the grave.  “And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by His power.  “(I Corinthians 6:14) The fact of His resurrection is the rock upon which we place our faith that we will be raised to new and everlasting life.  What will the resurrected life be like?  No one knows.  The Apostle Paul tells us that it will not be a fleshly resurrection, but God will give us “spiritual bodies” which seems to mean that we will be individual persons with means of expression and identification.  The resurrected body will be like this body, yet different from it.
  1. We affirm that at death the believer goes to the presence of God, who is our eternal home.  This hope of life eternal is not based upon man’s worth, which could only bring judgement, but upon the graciousness of God.  Christians can, therefore, commit to God’s care those who die, trusting that by His grace, all who believe will be raised to life eternal.

If this is our faith about death, then the funeral should be determined by this faith and it should witness to this faith.  For nowhere are Christian convictions drawn into sharper focus; nowhere should our witness be clearer than in a Christian funeral.

What is a funeral?

Is the funeral an opportunity to exhibit our grief publicly?  Is it an act of social therapy to help us overcome our sorrow?  Is it a gathering to pay our respects to the deceased and to eulogize his good deeds?  Is a funeral an occasion for the display of family wealth in a costly casket?  Surely, these do not adequately describe a Christian funeral.

A funeral is a Worship Service.

A funeral should be therapeutic to those who mourn.  The concern of gathered friends does minister to our grief, but essentially a funeral is a service of worship to God and a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (USA) gives these guidelines:

“The service, which should be conducted with dignity and simplicity, is a witness to God’s love for the children of God” given to all people, a love which strengthens and supports even in the midst of grief.  It is a witness to God’s promises in Jesus Christ, as attested by Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and to the sure and certain hope that Christ has gone to prepare a place.

As Worshippers We Participate in the Funeral.

We are not observers in worship; we are participants.  This is one of the distinguishing marks of Presbyterian worship; let it be so of the funeral.  The congregation may share in the responsive reading of Scripture, in the Affirmation of Faith, in the singing of the great victory hymns of the Christian faith.  Nothing so definitely gives the worship its intended note of faith and victory as the united voices of Christian people singing such great hymns as the following:

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

Glory Be to the Father

Abide With Me

I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art

O God, Our Help in Ages Past

For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest

At no other time can the words of the Creed be proclaimed with such depth of faith, “I believe in the

Communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

We Pray.  We praise God for His goodness in creating life and for His grace to the particular person who has died.  We thank Him for His triumph over death in Christ and for the confidence of everlasting life.  We pray for His strong comfort to those present who mourn.  We intercede for all in need of His steadfast love.

With a person of faith, normally the funeral should be in the sanctuary.  This is the place where faith is born and nurtured, where marriage vows are made, where children receive the covenant, where we break the bread and drink the cup.  This is the place where, week by week, the congregation gathers for the Word, for praise and prayer and dedication.  Of course, we can worship anywhere, in a home or funeral chapel, but the setting and the association of the House of the Lord help to give us an awareness of the presence of God, which brings assurance and comfort.

Viewing

What about the practice of “viewing the remains”?  The instructions of The Book of Order are simple.

“The casket, if it be present during the service, shall be closed at all times and may be covered with a white pall in order that the attention of those assembled may be directed to the Author and Finisher of their salvation.”

If the family desires viewing, this can be done at the funeral home or the church before the worship service of witness to the resurrection.

Funeral Costs

Are expensive furnishings necessary to a Christian funeral?  By no means!  Again let The Book of Order be our guide.

“In the case of interment, ostentation and undue expense are to be avoided in the choice of a casket, flowers, and other appointments.”

Extravagant expenditure detracts from the purpose of the funeral, which is to worship God.  A lavish display of wealth does not display the gracious love of God and the victory of Christ over death, but rather draws our attention to what is earthly and transient.

Memorials

What about flowers or other memorials?  Many Presbyterians feel that gifts to their favorite religious or charitable causes form a more fitting memorial for a Christian than do lavish displays of the flowers at a funeral.  Often a family will indicate to friends their preference for such memorial gifts.  A family should be prepared to instruct the funeral director in this regard.  The Eastminster Foundation Trust stands ready to accept gifts from family and friends who might seek an appropriate and lasting memorial.

Other Rites

Should fraternal or civil rite be included in the funeral?  The Book of Order states:

“The Christian service of witness to the resurrection shall be considered complete in itself, and another hour and place should be appointed for any fraternal or civic rite.”

Internment

What about having the interment before the funeral service?  This procedure is being followed by some Presbyterians, and it is in complete accord with our belief.  First, a brief graveside service of Scripture and prayer is held for the family.  Then the family and the congregation go to the church for the worship service of praise and thanksgiving.  This practice was followed by the early Christians and by the early American Protestants.  Bringing the body to the church was the practice of the Roman Catholics and was done in order that prayers might be said for the dead soul suffering in purgatory.  Having the interment first is a Presbyterian procedure.  It was the required practice of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Directory of Government Worship and Discipline, 1644.  If the committal of the body occurs before the funeral, we are then free to turn our thoughts to God, our Refuge and Strength.

Cremation

What about cremation?  The practice of cremation is left to the judgement of individual families.  Cremation is completely acceptable in Christian practice and belief.  Because of the possible financial saving, and because many people prefer the immediate return of the body to the earth, cremation has found increasing favor among Christians.

Body or Organ Donation

What about giving my body or organs for medical purposes?  One who intends to have his body used for such purpose should indicate this in a will, file copies of any specific agreements with several persons, and obtain agreement from one’s next-of-kin who have the final legal responsibility for disposition of the body (contact the church office for a copy of “Expressions of My Personal Wishes for Procedures at the Time of Death” or “Suggestions to Those Who Plan My Funeral” to outline your preferences).  Organ donation should be covered by similar written and agreed upon procedures.

Deacon Service

Our Deacons would like to offer families assistance during this crisis time.  Primarily the care they can offer is receptions before or after the memorial service.  This service, if it is desired, may be requested through the pastors at the time arrangements are being made.

Bibliography

Funerals in a Presbyterian Congregation

The Reverend Edward D. Robertson

The Book of Order of Presbyterian Church (USA)