Dear Church Family,

In our sermon this past Sunday from John 11:1-44 – where Jesus miraculously raised Lazarus from the dead – we found that even as Jesus wept in the face of death (John 11:35), He also spoke words of true hope for those who believe in Him: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Thus, we learn that Christians grieve in the face of the ugliness of death, but not as those who are without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). By the way, the title of our sermon (“Alas, Poor Death”) was taken from the opening line of a poem by George Herbert called, A Dialogue-Anthem, the full text of which may be found here.

While we’re talking about life, death, and funerals, this might be a good time to talk about some of those things associated with death and funerals that most people don’t often think about. Understandably, most people don’t think about death or funerals until it comes time to personally deal with these things when a loved one passes away. At that point, it’s difficult to think clearly while the minister, funeral director, extended family, and friends are all weighing in on what should be done. So, here are some things to think about concerning funerals before you are forced to make all kinds of decisions while also mourning.

(1) Seek Pastoral Advice

Before a death: Just as some people financially prepare for their deaths so as not to place too much of a burden on their loved ones, it is not a bad idea to plan and write down some of the things that you would like for your own funeral (hymns, Scriptures, etc). This may sound a bit morbid, but it does take some of the pressure off of those who have to plan the service once you’re gone. My only caution would be to speak to your pastor about these details. He can give some helpful advice.

After a death: If you are responsible for making the funeral arrangements with the funeral director, it is a good idea to speak with your pastor first – or even ask him to come and be a part of the conversation. Not to be too crass, but the funeral director is usually simply providing a service for a customer; the pastor will work with you as much as possible, while also helping you to think biblically about the arrangements and provide pastoral counsel and care for you and your family.

(2) Funeral Service, Memorial Service, or Celebration of Life?

Personally, I prefer the designation and function of “funeral service.” In describing the purposes of such services, the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order states: “The funeral services are to be left largely to the discretion of the minister performing them, but he should always remember that the proper object of the service is the worship of God and the consolation of the living” (BCO 61-2). And, it is proper to include in these services: singing, reading of Scripture and remarks by the minister, along with prayer for the bereaved (BCO 61-1).

As I understand memorial services (especially as I have seen them in the military), they are designed to honor and celebrate the life and achievements of the deceased. Memorial services are usually associated with public figures or those who have served in the military. In my opinion, the only other time that one would have a memorial service, is if the service was an additional one at a place that was removed from the funeral (e.g., someone dies in in one part of the country where they live, but the funeral and burial takes place in another part of the country – a memorial service might take place where they lived because there are many family and friends who could not attend the funeral).

“Celebrations of life” seem to me to be a relatively new invention which have led to the tragic death of the funeral. While we do want to celebrate the faith of the believer who has died, so-called celebrations of life often tend toward narcissism and become overly focused on the individual. Personally, I believe that celebrations of life have grown out of a more pagan way of thinking, and a desire to focus on the temporal (this worldly) life to the exclusion – and even denial – of the eternal life-to-come.

(3) The ordering of the visitation, funeral, and the committal (aka, the graveside service or interment)

First some definitions. The “visitation” is typically the time set aside to visit with the family and friends of the deceased. This usually takes place at the funeral home (sometimes the body is present in the casket, but not always). The “funeral service” is typically when the family and friends gather to mourn, sing praise to God, pray for comfort, and be reminded of the promises of God in the reading and preaching of Scripture. This usually takes place in the church of the deceased. The “committal” (sometimes called the graveside service or interment) is typically the gathering at the cemetery where the body of the deceased is committed to the ground, to await the day of resurrection.

Traditionally, I have found that the order of events which is most helpful is as follows: (1) visitation (on the previous day or day of the funeral); (2) funeral service (with casket present at the church); (3) committal (immediately following the funeral in the place of interment); (4) fellowship time (sometimes families will have a more informal time of fellowship with some refreshments). I find that this order makes good sense in that it gives a natural progression of paying respects, mourning, worshipping, and then burial.

In recent years, a trend has arisen in which the committal of the body precedes the funeral service. I’ve asked around, trying to find out where this change of order has come from. Most people have told me, “The funeral director suggested it” (again, one of the reasons why it’s helpful to talk to your pastor about such things). So, I’ve asked some funeral directors why and when people started having the graveside service before the funeral service.

According to one funeral director, the change of order began with the Presbyterian Church (not our denomination, but the PCUSA) and most other denominations (except for the Church of Christ and Pentecostals) have followed suit. So, I did a little research and found that the 1993 edition of the PCUSA’s Book of Common Worship inserted this line in the section under the committal: “If preferred the committal service may take place before the general service” (p 939). The 1946 edition makes no mention of this.

Personally, I believe that the reversal of the order (putting the burial before the funeral) has been embraced due to the desire (usually unconsciously) to gloss over the reality and harshness of death, and to move on as quickly as possible to, not a funeral service, but a memorial service or celebration of life. For me, there’s something very tangible and real (as well as hopeful) about concluding by holding the dirt in your hand from the grave and knowing that one day that body will rise and be transformed as the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

(4) Burial or Cremation?

One last area that people often think about is the question of burial versus cremation. If you haven’t thought about this, or think the question irrelevant (it doesn’t matter how we treat the bodies of those who are deceased), then I would encourage you to read and think about this question some more. While it is true that God’s power in the final resurrection is not determined or limited by the disposition of the body, how we treat the body is not inconsequential. How we treat the body – even after death – communicates certain things that we believe (whether those beliefs are explicit or implicit). Cremation is an historically pagan practice that communicates a more gnostic way of thinking.

For further reading on this subject, I recommend a very interesting booklet published by Banner of Truth called Burial or Cremation: Does it Matter? by Donald Howard (you may find a short synopsis and link to purchase this booklet here). Nick Batzig, a minister in the PCA, has also written an article entitled, “A Biblical Theology of Burial” which highlights how burial is the last great act of faith of a believer.

Conclusion

Cultural practices and customs vary from country to country, and even from region to region in our own country. Even when it comes to funeral practices and how we deal with death, there are many different ways in which people approach such things. At the same time, as Christians the way we think about life and death, burial and resurrection, this world and the world-to-come, ought to be shaped by the teaching of Scripture. And, the teaching of Scripture ought to be reflected (at least where applicable) in our funeral practices.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch