The subject of death is a very uncomfortable one in 21st century American culture. It is a reality ever present, but also one we do our best to avoid. Many of the advancements that have taken place over the past century have been for the purpose of improving life and avoiding death. As life expectancy continually rises, so does the un-expectancy of death.
One of the distinguishing markers of the Church is the way the Church deals with death. On the one hand, the church recognizes that physical, earthly bodies decay and die. There is a beginning and an end to the mortal life. Therefore, grief and mourning are appropriate expressions of loss as the Church experiences the departure of another body. Even the scriptures present Jesus grieving at such an occasion.
On the other hand, the Church acknowledges that through Jesus Christ death has been defeated and no longer reigns. In his death and resurrection, the Church is given promise of new life and does not mourn as those without hope. Thus, there is a response of incredible magnitude that proceeds from the Church – worship.
It is important to recognize that Christian funerals are services of worship. Christian funerals not only celebrate the Christ-event at work in the life of the deceased, but the Christian funeral also helps the Church express and demonstrate how the whole of the Christian life involves the praise of God. As Constance Cherry writes in The Special Service Worship Architect, “There are two primary purposes for the Christian funeral: worship and witness” (63). Though funeral services are not purposed for the comfort of those who are mourning, Cherry believes such comfort will be a natural byproduct if the two primary purposes are done well. So what does it mean for a Christian funeral to be a service of worship and witness?
First, the focus of the funeral must be redirected from a human-centeredness to a God-centeredness. If worship proclaims and reenacts the story of God, then each service of worship will draw worshipers deeper into the life, death, resurrection, and hope of new creation found in God’s story. The final element of hope is crucial, especially in a funeral service. The deceased person is not ignored, but the person’s life is placed within a much grander context, one that stands in worship of a risen Lord and Savior. Cherry writes, “Funerals are occasions for worship where God in Christ is exalted, and as a result the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence is experienced” (64).
Likewise, the Christian funeral is a service of witness in that it testifies to the truth of the faith found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Cherry states, “During the funeral we make direct and personal reference to our loved one who has died, but more importantly we will stake our claim on the truth of scripture that Jesus has returned to the Father so as to prepare a place where our loved one and all believers will reside with him forever…” (64). In the Christian funeral service, all who are gathered both hear and experience the Gospel story. Darkened in the midst of death, the hope of eternal life shines brightly.
Since the service of the Christian funeral is a service of both worship and witness, it needs to be conducted with careful thought and intention. Therefore, as we seek to do the often difficult task of designing a funeral service, the following questions are important to consider:
- How does a Christian funeral remain Christ-centered, especially considering the grieving family, the desire to honor the deceased, etc?
- What are appropriate ways for the gathered congregation to participate in worship at a Christian funeral?
- What songs, scriptures, symbols, and prayers are appropriate within the service of a Christian funeral?
- What responses will help guide the congregation into an experience of worship that centers the funeral in the Christ-event?
- How might the Eucharist be thoughtfully employed, or should it be? What statement does the Eucharist make as both worship and witness within the service of a Christian funeral?
Note: My gratitude goes out to the following resources for helping formulate my reflections on funerals as services of worship:
Cherry, Constance. The Special Services Worship Architect: Blueprints for Weddings, Funerals, Baptisms, Holy Communion, and Other Occasions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.
James White. Introduction to Christian Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1976.