End of life matters – the funeral

by Fraser Pearce

In this article, I’ll briefly respond to a number of questions about funerals. I’ll give my opinion as a relatively experienced pastor of the LCA (ordained in 1997), and I’ll also quote from the commentary on the funeral rite from the Church Rites of the Lutheran Church of Australia.

Why have a Christian funeral? What is the purpose of a Christian funeral?

In the commentary to the funeral rite, three reasons are given for having a Christian funeral:

  1. The funeral is very much for mourners. It comforts them in their grief with God’s own word, it and sustains them in their separation from their loved one and their various feelings of sorrow, depression, anger, guilt, bewilderment and numbness. It helps them remember their loved one with thankfulness for his/her life. The rite progresses from depths of anguish to heights of hope and assurance, helping mourners to resume life without the loved one.
  2. The funeral rite is also for those who come to pay their last respects and give support to grieving friends. The rite prepares them for their own dying.
  3. The funeral is also for the church. The rite is anchored to the crucified and risen Lord, and proclaims him and his work of redemption. It publicises the faith and message of the church.

So, while on the one hand it could not be said that Christian funerals are mandated by the Lord, Christian people in different times and places have found that it is natural in the life of faith (for the reasons just given) to conduct funerals.

Why does there appear to be a trend away from having funerals in a church and having them at a funeral home instead?

I’m assuming this question is about an apparent trend of Christian funerals moving from the church building to a funeral parlour. It seems likely to me that there is such a trend, and I imagine that this is largely due to practical reasons: it is often easier (in terms of parking and catering) and less expensive to hold the whole funeral at one location.

As it happens, the funeral rite of the church does not assume that the funeral will be held in a church building. In terms of location, the rite assumes the funeral will be held at ‘the church or funeral parlour’. Wherever the funeral is held, the mourners are referred to as ‘the congregation’, with the evident understanding that at the funeral the church is present and gathered in the name of the Triune God. In the rite, there are readings from Holy Scripture, prayers, confession of faith, and commendations and blessings in the name of the Triune God. If a funeral is held outside the church, there is also the recommendation that the congregation’s paschal candle be placed at the head of the coffin.

There appears to be a trend of having no funeral (just a private burial or cremation), but having a memorial service later? Does it matter that the body is not present?

Certainly, during the time of COVID (and due to state regulations), it has been more common to have a memorial service offered after a relatively private burial or cremation. Although there is in my opinion nothing wrong with this practice, it seems to me preferable to have the body (or even the ashes) present at a funeral service where possible. This is because, as is evident from Scripture and tradition, the church has always shown respect for the human body from conception to natural death and has honoured the human body even in death (think, for example, how the bodies of John the Baptist and Jesus were treated in death).

Cremation vs burial – is there a biblical reason for choosing one or the other?

This is a good follow up question, and it deals with some of the same issues as the last question. In the commentary to the funeral rite we read these words:

The Christian respects the human body. God created and redeemed it, and his Spirit sanctifies bodies of believers to be his temple. Furthermore, God in Christ took on a human body himself, and in dying and rising again overcame the power of death, so that our bodies can be resurrected from death. In the past Christians have usually preferred to return the body to the earth; in cremation, the body is returned to the elements.

It is here evident that the Lutheran Church of Australia sees either burial or cremation as acceptable ways to deal respectfully with the human body after death. In the wider tradition of the church, there has been a clear preference for burial over cremation. This preference comes from the biblical teaching on the body as the good creation of God, and the scriptural witness of the hope that we have in Christ of the resurrection of the body. Based on this biblical testimony, burial has been seen to most suitably express Christian belief regarding the place of the body in the order of creation and the resurrection.

When and where cremation has been seen to be tied up with pagan beliefs, including a denial of the resurrection of the body, then the church has actively forbidden cremation. In today’s context, such an understanding does not appear to hold. My own church, Bethlehem in the centre of Adelaide, does not have room for a graveyard, but there is a memorial garden for the ashes of members of the congregation adjacent to the church.

How do you make sure your wishes for your funeral are followed if your surviving family are not Christian?

The first step is to have your wishes for your funeral settled in your own mind, and then committed to writing with copies given to your family members and the pastor of your congregation. It is good to make these preparations while you are still in relatively good health and able to communicate clearly.

As part of this process, you will want to make it clear that you would like a service conducted by a Lutheran pastor according to the rites of the Lutheran Church of Australia. You will also want to make it clear whether you have any preference for the service to be held at a church or funeral parlour and whether you would prefer your body to be buried or cremated.

You might also want to consider what hymns or songs you would suggest for your funeral, as well as what Bible readings or funeral text you would suggest. It might also be helpful to write down information that could be used when putting together an obituary.

It’s not uncommon for people to have made such preparations years before their deaths, and for their instructions to be kept on file at the church office or pastors’ study, as well as with family members.

Fraser Pearce is the senior pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Adelaide. He is vice-chair of the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations and was a member of the Department of Liturgics.