By Chris Duckworth
When someone dies, loved ones — family and friends, neighbors and church members — need space to grieve, to remember the deceased, and to give thanks to God for their loved one’s life. A church funeral service is an important part of the grieving process that may also include a visitation at a funeral home, family’s home or at church; a reception where friends and family gather to tell stories through laughter and tears; a public act of memorial, such as planting a tree or donating a park bench in memory of the deceased; and any one of many other possible acts of grieving and remembering the deceased.
The funeral service
The Christian funeral service is a chance to come together to hear God’s promises for the deceased and to take comfort that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not even death (see Romans 8:38-39). In the Christian funeral service we remember the baptism of the deceased by draping the remains of the deceased in white, the color of baptism and resurrection, and splashing the casket or urn with baptismal water. We hear from Holy Scripture words of God’s comfort and promise — comfort for those who grieve and promise that the deceased is in God’s everlasting care. We sing such promises in hymns and/or hear them sung in a solo.
Holy Communion is celebrated, as we believe this sacred meal to be a mystical gathering of God’s people — from the past, present and future — around our Lord’s table of grace, mercy and life. The deceased, and all those who have gone before us in faith, are truly in communion with us as we share in this sacred meal. Only in cases where significant portions of the funeral gathering would not receive — e.g., if a large portion of the family is not Christian or cannot receive Holy Communion in a Lutheran congregation because of the teachings of their faith — would we consider not celebrating the sacrament.
At funeral services we give thanks to God for the deceased and commend the remains of the deceased to God’s care. One or two remembrances (eulogies) are shared in the service, about 3-5 minutes each. If additional people would like to speak about the deceased, the reception is a very appropriate time to do this. In the sermon I strive to weave stories of the deceased into the story of God’s saving and gracious work in the world, and so in this way to tell the story of God by, with and through the story of the deceased. A prayer near the end of the service, said with a gesture blessing the remains of the deceased, asks God to graciously receive the deceased into everlasting care.
Funeral service or memorial service?
At a funeral service the remains of the deceased are present, and it is often held within four to eight days of the death. A memorial service is very similar to a funeral service, though the remains of the deceased are not present. Though there is no religious teaching in our faith that requires funerals to be held within a certain timeframe (as our Jewish sisters and brothers traditionally have the funeral within a day or two of death), funerals taking place within a week of the death give family and friends a meaningful and timely opportunity for grief, prayer and mutual comfort. Memorial services are held at a later date, when funeral services are not being held closer to the date of the death, or when the funeral is held in one location and a memorial service is desired in a different location.
Services need to be scheduled with the church staff. Though the staff and the pastors have schedules that are generally flexible, there will be times when other congregational events, pastors’ vacation time or other extraordinary circumstances would prevent the church or pastors from being available at particular dates and times. In these rare circumstances, the staff and the family should work to find another date for the service or seek out another location and/or another clergyperson for the service.
Full body burial or cremation?
The Lutheran church teaches that cremation is a perfectly appropriate way to care for the remains of the deceased. Remains are appropriately buried at sea or in the earth, giving a dignified final resting spot to the deceased. Burial of remains — cremated or not — often takes place immediately following the funeral service but may also take place at a later date.
Make some plans
I encourage everyone to consider making preparations for their death — medical plans, financial plans, legal plans, and yes, funeral plans. If there are hymns or readings that are your favorite, or that you believe would give comfort to your family members upon your death, write those ideas down. Meet with your pastor to talk about your funeral or that of a loved one.