The service begins in silence. The casket with the body inside is carried to the front of the sanctuary, followed by the family, who take their seats before it. Two granddaughters take the pall, unfold it, and drape it over the casket. The pall is a white cloth used to cover the casket, an ancient practice that symbolizes baptism. This simple, beautiful pall with a symbol of baptism embroidered on it was made by the congregation for use in funerals.
While the pall is placed over the casket, the following words are spoken:
Leader: For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ (Gal. 3:27). People: If we have been in united with him by baptism into his death, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection (Rom. 6:5).
Then, still in silence, a close family member lights a large "resurrection candle."
The service proceeds with hymns, Scripture readings, prayer, remembrances, and sermon. At the end, again in silence, the body is carried out first, followed by the family, and then the rest of the congregation. On this occasion, the body remains at the church while family and guests are served a light lunch.
An announcement is made, inviting anyone who wishes to follow the body once more by meeting at its last resting place on earth, the grave. There, the somber and comforting words of committal are read:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our brother/sister, and we commit his/her body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
This is a description of a recent funeral service at which I officiated. I offer it not as a prescription for everyone, but as a way of introducing some important considerations regarding Christian funerals.
In the Christian Reformed Church Order, funerals—like weddings—are called a "family matter." So, while churches, and certainly pastors, may be involved, the Church Order chooses not to regulate funeral practices except for the consistory's supervision of the pastor. I think this is right.
However, it may be very helpful for pastors and churches to offer guidance to families in this time of bereavement when there are so many decisions to make while carrying the crushing burden of loss.
What I have to say here is not meant to criticize anyone's preferences, practices, or the rituals they have chosen surrounding the death of a loved one. I do want to invite people to think about those practices from the perspective of how our Christian faith may guide our them.
I've noticed a distinct trend in funerals over the past few years: the body is missing. Strictly speaking, without the body, it's a memorial service rather than a funeral.
There could be a number of practical reasons for this. One may be an increase in cremations (to which I have no objection). In many cases the cremation takes place before the memorial service, though, in fact, cremations can take place before or after a funeral. Another reason that the memorial may need to be delayed quite a few days in order to allow time for widely scattered family and friends to gather. Loved ones may feel that they need the closure of burial or cremation. But often neither of these reasons apply.
We also need to consider a deeper reason for preferring memorials to funerals. Many commentators have noted that in our culture, people increasingly tend to distance themselves from the reality of death. The dead body makes us uncomfortable.
A memorial service, rather than a funeral service with the body present, appeals to many people. It tends to focus on the “celebration of a life” rather than mourning a death. Its central theme is thanksgiving rather than sober reflection. None of this is bad in itself and, of course, the presence of a body at a funeral does not exclude the element of celebration either.
But the presence of the body does serve several important functions. First, it emphasizes the reality of death. In the midst of our thankful remembrances and the deep hope of our faith, we also squarely face the sheer, incontrovertible fact of our mortality. A funeral reminds us of the fragility of life, our finiteness.
Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. . . .
Teach us to number our days. —Psalm 90:10, 12
The presence of the body also points to something even more important. For Christians, the body is profoundly important; we are created as embodied creatures. We are not just souls imprisoned in a decaying body. We cannot separate body and soul so neatly. Our humanity is incomplete apart from bodily existence.
Paul, speaking of the body as a kind of clothing, says, “We do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4). The goal of our salvation is not to die and go to heaven, but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” according to the Apostles’ Creed. Our promised future is not some amorphous spiritual existence; our future is with our bodies glowing with resurrection life, fitted out for a new heaven and new earth.
That is another reason I believe it’s important for Christians to honor the body, even when it has breathed its last on this earth. Honoring the body means that we don’t hide it away somewhere, especially at the funeral. Why shouldn't it be, literally, front and center?
When I consult with a family about arrangements after death, my pastoral advice comes down to three words, follow the body. It's an ancient and deeply Christian tradition that we often see portrayed in films and described in books. Follow the body to the funeral home. Follow the body to the church (the best place for a funeral). And finally, follow the body to the grave or the crematorium. It's an ancient practice because, over the centuries, people have found it to be good.
One of the most touching and revealing aspects of Jesus’ death is the care that was taken in his burial. A suitable burial place was offered by Joseph of Arimathea. The women who loved Jesus followed the body to the tomb, but because sunset brought in the Sabbath, they could not properly prepare the body for the grave. They hurried out before dawn the day after the Sabbath to perform these loving acts of burial. But they were too late. Christ had risen!
In the same way, we follow the body of one baptized into Christ to its last place on earth. We do so with that strange and awesome mixture of love, grief, and hope. Unlike those who hopelessly followed Jesus to the grave, we can follow the body in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Questions for Discussion
- What are some significant memories you have from past funerals or memorials? Why are they significant to you?
- How do you feel about the author’s distinction between funeral and memorial services?
- How do you respond to the claim that “people increasingly tend to distance themselves from the reality of death”?
- How common do you think is the belief that we are simply “souls imprisoned in a decaying body”? What are some possible consequences of such a belief?
- How does the hope of the resurrection to eternal life affect your life today?