What Makes a Funeral Christian?

I’ve been reading a book about funerals. That may sound morbid or melancholy but it’s a subject worth exploring because sooner or later we are all involved in a funeral — someone else’s or our own. Death breaks into all families. When it does, for Christians, one question should dominate: What will make this funeral thoroughly Christ-honoring?

The book I’ve been reading is by Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. It is the fruit of 12 years of research and reflection. His research took him throughout the entire United States, including Alaska, to get a clear sense of current funeral customs continent-wide.

Long registers with me as almost a universalist, believing that in the end all will be saved. It appears to me that he views baptism, rather than the new birth, as the key to heaven. At the same time, he appeals for the centrality of the Christian gospel at a Christian funeral. In this respect, he brings valuable resources to his subject.

According to Long’s findings, modern trends tend toward the replacement of the funeral with a memorial service — a “celebration of life” event. Following this newer custom, the body of the deceased is buried separately in a private ceremony, typically for just the family. At the memorial service, stories are told by those who knew the deceased best. There is usually laughter. On occasion, an open mike is available for anyone who wishes to share memories spontaneously.

Long responds to this trend with two particularly helpful contributions. First, he sets forth what is known about the early Christian way of dealing with death. In the early church, there was no effort to diminish death’s reality. The body was washed, cared for lovingly, and prepared for burial by family members. In the service that followed, at one and the same time, human life was celebrated as sacred and death was recognized as irreversible and transitional, a towering reality.

Among the early Christians there was joy because of the deeply-rooted conviction that resurrection, not death, has the last word. The body of a believer was carried to its grave with singing. Hence, the title of Long’s book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral.

A second point of great value in Thomas Long’s book is that the central motif of a Christian funeral must be the gospel narrative of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. That must mean that hymns and other songs sung, Scriptures read, prayers offered, and sermons preached must glorify him. Long points out that the trend toward memorial services and the absence of the body diminishes the reality of death and tends to displace the great hope of the gospel.

The life of the departed should, for sure, be recognized in tributes, but this ought not to take center stage in such a way as to overshadow or even mute the gospel narrative about the Christ who came to live, suffer, die and rise again — the very ground of the Christian hope! The good reason to keep the gospel central to the event is that death, according to the Scriptures, has a penal aspect (“by sin came death”), but Jesus Christ defeated death when he “tasted death for every one.”

Our culture tends to progressively secularize all things Christian. But there should be some hard thinking and teaching going on in Christian circles to assure that Christians continue to face the reality of death and at the same time keep the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ central in any Christian event — particularly in funerals — carried out in his name.

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