The funeral for Barbara Bush was held on April 21st of this year in Houston, Texas. Wife for 73 years to George H. W. Bush, a former president of The United States, Mrs. Bush died at 92 years of age.
Days later I located the funeral service on the Internet and watched it throughout in my study here in Canada. Fifteen hundred by-invitation-only worshipers packed the sanctuary of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.
Only a day or so before her death Mrs. Bush had decided there were to be no more ambulance rides to the hospital. She was 92 and said, I’m not afraid of death, adding, I know there’s a great God who will care for me.
The sanctuary of St. Martins appeared simple and beautiful; the tones of the pipe organ were mellow; the choir richly resonant; and the ordained personnel wore white clerical robes.
The Episcopalian liturgy was more fully prescribed than I am used to but that is partly a matter of training and taste.
I was interested in the content of the service — what was said and sung — because in the last fifty years funerals have changed fundamentally on this continent. Thomas G. Long writes about this change in his highly researched book: Accompany Them With Singing —The Christian Funeral.
These days, the words “funeral service” are less often used than in the past. Now, the event is more commonly called, “A Celebration of Life.”
Observing a death with a “celebration of life” may mean some or all of the following: that the body of the deceased is not present, having been interred or cremated a day or so before; the time between death and the celebratory service may be more extended than usual; and tributes to the deceased may be the main feature of the service. These gatherings are intended to be positive events, often punctuated by moments of laughter as memories are reviewed.
In a service for the “celebration of life” the Christian content may not be lacking. There may be singing and Scripture readings and even a brief homily but these are subordinated to the many and various tributes. The reason put forward for this change is that it is better to rejoice over the life of the departed than to grieve over the departed’s death.
As I watched and vicariously participated in the St. Martin’s service I was moved by the dominant place the Bible was given. The passages as read actually bound the service together and grounded the whole event in the Sacred Scriptures.
As the casket was brought slowly down the aisle, the Pastor read from a medley of Bible passages:
He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die we belong to the Lord. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.
Later in the service a layperson read the passage from Ecclesiastes beginning, There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die… Another read a portion of 2 Corinthians 5.
At a later point in this traditional funeral service, a group of young women, whom I took to be Barbara Bush’s daughters and/or granddaughters, gathered around a microphone and read in succession from Proverbs 31, which describes “a wife of noble character.
Interspersed among these several readings, a soloist sang the Gospel song, I Come To The Garden Alone, and the choir filled the sanctuary with the jubilant measures of The Holy City.
There were tributes, one from President Bush’s historian, John Beacham, one by a special friend of Mrs. Bush, Susan Garrett Baker, and one by her son, Jed. The remarks in each case were carefully prepared.
The pastor told of Barbara Bush’s request back in 2015 to be confirmed: that is, to formally affirm her Christian faith during a rite of the church and be made a church member. She said, “I’m a Christian and I want to be confirmed.” Her son Jed, speaking on behalf of the family, told of her recent comment: “I believe in Jesus and he is my Savior; I know I’ll be in a beautiful place.”
Near the end of this funeral service, the congregation was called upon to recite together The Apostles’ Creed — a corporate statement of orthodox Christian truth
It was not just Scripture and Creed that made the Gospel dominant in this service. At the outset the congregation sang, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Creation, and toward the end, at Barbara’s prior request, the congregation sang, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, God of Glory, God of Love — both lyrical confessions of faith worshiping the Majesty of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the book previously mentioned, Accompany Them With Singing — The Christian Funeral, Thomas G. Long writes that a good funeral draws private grief and personal loss so fully into the Gospel that mourning becomes not only consoled but transformed.
In essence, a good funeral combines acknowledgement of a great loss, the good news of the Gospel, and for believers, the celebration of a life in Christ, all in proper proportion.
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives (Image in Public Domain, via flickr.com)