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Anyone for a Christian Funeral? Or just the ordinary kind? (and would you like fries with that?)

August 23, 2010

Reading Thomas Long’s book Accompany them with Singing: The Christian Funeral has been both stimulating and disconcerting. The disconcerting part is that it reminds me how much I live in what R. R. Reno calls the ‘ruins of the church’ and how much I contribute to those ruins. As a minister in congregations largely devoid of people between the ages of 18 and 65 I find myself steadily called upon to bury the faithful and also those who feel drawn to a hint of religion upon their demise (and many in between). This is my context and it is into that context that Long’s book speaks powerfully. Long writes out of the context of the American church, and from my perspective it looks both more and less secular than my own in New Zealand. It is more secular in that individualism and consumerism have had greater impact on the society, even than they have in NZ. It is less secular in that there seems to be a greater acceptance of some form of Christianity and the language of that faith, even if it has been relegated to the realm of the private individual. In short it seems that the American funeral tends to be more religious (on average) than the NZ one even if it is a religion tailored to the individual consumer.

Let me be more specific about my context. I get the impression that in NZ there is even less of a mandate to speak of Christ and the Triune God at a funeral than there appears to be in the US. What’s more I find that even if I am leading a funeral for a believer it tends to be shaped by the next generation – the children of the deceased. These are usually those who have left the faith, possibly for a more private spirituality with less soteriology. However, in loyalty to the deceased they call on a representative of the faith of their loved one.

The challenge of Long’s book is that it seeks to articulate what it means to do a funeral as an event of Christian worship in which the whole congregation gathers around Word (and sometimes Sacrament) with the body of the deceased in their midst and sends them on their way with singing, bearing witness to the gospel of the risen Christ. If I am honest, much of what I do in the name of the faith is a rather thin reflection of this full-bodied drama that is the Christian funeral. I certainly have been conscious of seeking to bear witness to the resurrection in my own contribution, in the gathering, the prayers and the committal. However, I fear I have all too often capitulated to the tradition that I encountered as I entered the ministry – namely that of making the funeral primarily a therapeutic event for the sake of ‘those who remain’ and are closest to the deceased. I was taught, often enough, that the funeral was first of all an opportunity to be of pastoral service to the grieving and thus an opportunity for mission. This view reinforced the separation of the professional ‘pastor’ from the congregation who worship. In fact it tended to lose sight of the fact that the funeral was an act of worship and see it in quite pragmatic and therapeutic terms. Long argues that in fact the therapeutic and mission outcomes of a funeral are not primary but are secondary outcomes of the witness of the worshipping community. The funeral is properly missional as it witnesses to the resurrection.

If Long is right, it is as we enter into the drama of God’s salvation and locate the life of the one we loved within the life of the God who loves us that we find comfort and healing. This is a drama which looks forward in hope and confidence and not merely back on the life of the deceased. It does not need to eulogize the life of the deceased in a way that puts it in a rose-tinted glow since we have reached the end and all we have are memories. Rather, in the light of its eschatological hope, the Christian funeral can have the courage to include the life of its saints ‘warts and all’. To want a Christian funeral is not, after all, to want to be the center of attention at the end, it is to want to one’s life to bear witness to the glory of God’s life till the end.

I say this not as an excuse, but merely an observation – it is difficult leading funerals in the ruins of the church. After 15 years I’m still learning.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Pam permalink
    August 24, 2010 10:38 pm

    Many people (even churchgoers!) are acquainted with religious rituals and ceremonies, but they are totally unfamiliar with theological ideas and insights. At a time of grief emotions are raw and perceptions a little bit askew – it’s understandable that those “left behind” would opt for a therapeutic approach (especially when the church is not speaking, or being permitted to speak, in the public square).

    • September 6, 2010 2:31 am

      Yes, you’re right, it’s understandable. But I wonder if we often sell them short on the true therapy offered by the gospel. I also wonder if there is a time when we are better to leave people’s request for therapy for those who offer non-theological ‘celebration’ and its correlative therapy.

  2. Andrew Nicol permalink
    August 29, 2010 2:11 am

    Thank you Bruce,

    This gives me much to ponder as I prepare myself for the day in which I will be called upon to take funerals too.

  3. September 5, 2010 9:18 am

    I like your sentence, “it is as we enter into the drama of God’s salvation and locate the life of the one we loved within the life of the God who loves us that we find comfort and healing.” I read Long’s book. I think it could have been more persuasive and less cumbersome. It needs to allow more for those traditions which are by nature less liturgical and have a higher regard for the spontaneous. These traditions, too, can enter into the Greater Story. But his point stands. I think there would be more true comfort at funerals (I know-Long says that’s not the primary point) if there was less emphasis on the eulogy and more on the worship aspects. It goes to absurd degrees. It makes me uncomfortable, particularly when family members who have no commitment to Christ “take over the service” and bring to it values and emphases that do Christ no honor. There needs to be some firmness about these things.

    • September 6, 2010 2:33 am

      Thanks for your insights Don. I’m only beginning to learn what these things might mean

  4. September 7, 2010 3:19 am

    A thoughtful reflection on a vexing subject. My experience in 30 plus years of pastoral ministry is that if I absorbed the lack of understanding among the congregation it led me to despair, but if I saw it as an opportunity to witness to the resurrection it often became a graceful moment. And the kerygmatic moment is often also the pastoral moment at its best. Does this always happen? No. But good ministry needs heroic risk-taking on behalf of the Gospel.

  5. bruce hamill permalink
    September 7, 2010 4:35 am

    Thanks Rick, sometimes you do take your heart in your hands on this one.

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