A loved one has died. The spouse left behind is overwhelmed with grief. Parents who have lost a child or children who have lost a parent are crushed beneath the heavy burden of their loss. Death has left them dazed, disconcerted, and numb. It is all like a bad dream. But death does not allow them time to remain inactive in their grief. The body must be buried. A funeral service must be planned. Unless the family has had opportunity to plan the funeral before their loved one dies, the family can be so overwhelmed it is hard even to think of what must be done to let go.
Because of the vulnerability of the family at this time, others might immediately take control of the circumstances and plan the funeral for the family. The funeral director is more than willing to take care of all the arrangements of the funeral service. To plan a funeral that will meet the spiritual needs of a believing family it is important, therefore, first to find a funeral home that does not dictate the funeral itself but is willing to assist the family in planning their own funeral. During the time of the Reformation, Reformed churches in the Netherlands chose to depart from the custom of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), which officially assumed control of the funeral service. Already in 1572 our Reformed fathers deemed it necessary to discontinue sermons at funerals. In 1914 it was decided to add this article (64) to the Church Order of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands: “Funeral sermons and funeral services shall not be introduced.” This original article forbids the church institute from officially preaching funeral sermons as well as controlling the content of the funeral services. The reason for discontinuing the official function of the church in funerals was the many superstitions surrounding the funeral in the RCC—praying for the dead and the mass, among others. The implication of this article is that the church must leave the funeral entirely to the discretion of individual families. This was clarified in the Protestant Reformed Churches when in 2000 the old article of the Church Order was replaced with the one we have now: “Funerals are not ecclesiastical, but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly” (Art. 65). Funerals are not a part of the official work of the church, therefore. The family decides for itself what is to be included in the funeral service. VanDellen and Monsma comment on this particular article in their Church Order Commentary,
The Consistories are not in charge of these funerals but the relatives are. If our homes were large enough, or if funeral homes were large enough, we would not, and should not, resort to the church building at all. At funerals, moreover, the minister does not preach a sermon; he does not administer the Word of God officially and to the congregation of God….Many ministers give their remarks the form of a sermon. This should not be done” (p. 269).
The consistory may not call the congregation to worship at a funeral service. It does not have oversight of the Word spoken at a funeral. A funeral is not an official function of the church. It is a family affair. This is why I also gave the title I did to this article: “Pastoral Reflections on a Proper Funeral.” As a minister of the gospel, I may not officially dictate to the families of my church what they must include in a funeral service. I may merely point Reformed, believing families to what I believe is important for a proper funeral service.
This article of the Reformed Church Order does not mean, however, that the church abandons the bereaved family to fend for itself after the death of a loved one. The church is an organism, a body of believers. Families belong to the organic life that transpires within the church. If a family lives within the fold of the church, it also means a member of that family dies within the fold of that church. Is it not true what we read in I Corinthians 12:26, “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it”? The first place those who have lost a loved one will need to turn is to the church, her officebearers, and fellow saints for help in this time of need. Especially the pastor whom Christ has appointed to care for the needs of His people with pastoral advice and comfort ought to be sought out. In fact, a good pastor will unhesitatingly respond to the death of one of his members by being with the family if possible before, during, and after the loss of a loved one. The pastor, the elders of the church, or close friends in the church will certainly be of great help in the planning of the funeral service as well, if need be. Certainly, the church ought to be involved from an organic point of view giving direction, advice, and comfort.
In order to make good judgments regarding what ought to be included in (or excluded from) a proper funeral service, we ought to understand the purpose of a funeral. An increasing amount of people in our unchurched society no longer see any need for a funeral service. They maintain that funerals are based on the illusion of a life hereafter which, in their mind, does more harm than good. A new trend in funerals is a “celebration of life.” The idea of death is avoided, replaced by stories and laughter about the life of the person who has departed. Again, such funerals are based on the idea that this life is all there is. To the mind of many, to think on death only brings heartache and pain. It is much better to recall the good times we may have shared with the individual who has died. The purpose of a funeral, then, is to give one last ‘hurrah’ before that person will soon be forgotten in the grave.
The purpose of a funeral service for the believer is substantially different from that of an unbeliever. In the first place, it is our final farewell. It is a time of closure. It is true that already before the funeral the family has come to the grim understanding that their loved one is no longer with them. Already the reality that the “silver cord is loosed or the golden bowl is broken” (Eccl. 12:5-7), has hit them like a punch to the stomach. It does not take the funeral service for them to experience that the bond they shared with that person has been severed. But the funeral service is a time when the family together with fellow saints come to say their final goodbyes. Thomas Long and David Lynch in their book, The Good Funeral (p. 218) write, “A funeral moves from embrace to release, a sign that to be human we must learn to hold the living in love and to let go of the dead in hope.” A funeral service is held in order for those who mourn to understand in their grief that their loved one is no longer with them here on earth. He or she has passed from the church militant on earth to the church triumphant in heaven, and we must let go in order to find comfort in the hope of eternal life. After all, for the believer who dies in the Lord, death is but a doorway from this life to the life to come. It is the end but also the beginning; and in that beginning we can actually find joy and peace. This is why the apostle Paul speaks of the truth that believers who mourn do so in hope (I Thess. 4:13).
In the second place, the purpose of a funeral service for a believing family is to remind those who are present of the transience of life. We sing together a versification of Psalm 90, “O teach thou us to count our days and set our hearts on wisdom’s ways” (Psalter #246). Funeral services remind those who attend that “it is appointed to every man once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). By saying our farewell to the one we love, everyone is faced with the reality that he or she has gone the way of all flesh. A funeral service serves to be a hard reminder that everyone is going to stand before the judgment seat of God. The purpose of a funeral service is to place before everyone present the question: what is your relationship with Christ?
But this leads the believing family to the third purpose of the funeral service: to be comforted with the blessed truth that in life and death the believer belongs to his faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This is the greatest reason for the funeral service, to lead God’s people to the cross of Christ where we discover what it is to live and die happily. It is in Him, after all, that we find the hope of eternal life. On the basis of Christ’s work God promises the grieving family that in the worst of hardships in life He will never leave or forsake them. He will sit with them in the darkness and walk with them in their pain and sorrow. With His strong right hand He will continue to hold them up each step of the way, giving them the strength each day to carry on. That, too, is the purpose of the funeral service—for those who believe.
Keeping in mind the purpose of a funeral service, we can also ascertain what ought to be included in the funeral service. Again, this will vary from family to family. It is not an official worship service of the church. Neither I nor the church may dictate what must be included in a funeral service. But what is it that should be included in order that 1) we might say a proper farewell; 2) we can learn of the transience of life; and 3) we might find the necessary comfort while letting go? Certainly, wisdom must be exercised in choosing what makes up a proper funeral service.
Where do believers go when faced with important events in our lives? What alone truly satisfies us when we are confronted with sorrow and hurt? Without a question, we desire the pure milk of God’s Word. For that reason, we ask that the pastor be involved in our funerals, even if this is not a requirement. I suppose that someone else who is capable of speaking words of edification to his family and friends could speak. But we know that the minister of the gospel (who has been with the family through it all) is qualified to bring us the Word of God in order to assist us in saying our farewells to our loved one in hope. This means that Scripture, first of all, needs to be read. The pastor must bear in mind that God’s Word addresses death and the grave as well as the resurrection from the dead. Many different passages explain to us the wonder work of Jesus Christ in delivering God’s children from the power and sting of death. Passages should be read that inspire peace and contentment even when there is sorrow and grief.
Sermons may not be preached in the official sense of the word, but certainly the Word of God should be explained and applied. VanDellen and Monsma may advise that a funeral speech ought not to be given in the way of a sermon. I suppose this is true in a strictly formal sense. Funeral sermons need not explain detailed exegesis or extend to the normal length of a sermon. But surely the Word of God must be proclaimed. It alone can comfort. There are many different causes of death that may arise. Death may come to an old saint, but death at times robs us of an infant, a young child, or a teenager. Death may come suddenly without warning. It may come after months of suffering. Death may come by a person’s own hands. It may come by means of an accident. But God’s Word addresses all of these. There are passages of God’s Word that can be applied to every circumstance and manner of death.
The pastor needs to bring the Word of God in such a way that the family is comforted and those who are disobedient are warned. There is always a need to call to faith and repentance. Funerals are no exception. There is also the important need to be applicatory when speaking at a funeral. A theological treatise on death and the resurrection is uncalled for. God’s Word needs to address the particular need and circumstances of the family that is mourning. The pastor must speak personally of the person who has died and to the family left behind. May he bring up circumstances out of the life of that one who is departed: a godly example, the expression of his or her faith? Of course! But what always must stand on the foreground is the fact that the departed one was a sinner saved by grace! Attention, as always, ought to be drawn to what Christ has done for us and the one taken to glory. That in itself serves as a warning to those who are not in Christ Jesus and that alone gives strength and comfort to those who believe.
A funeral service ought not be spent eulogizing a person. A funeral is not a ‘celebration of life.’ Those who overly spend time relating the achievements and endearing traits of that loved one whom God has taken forget that there were also sins and not-so-endearing instances in that person’s life too. Our joy is not found in the accomplishments of the deceased but in the fact that he or she belonged to Christ. The funeral, therefore, is a celebration of our hope in the resurrection and life everlasting. Again, how much time is spent eulogizing our loved one is up to the family, but we ought not to forget that it is important for our comfort to look to the things that are above and not the things that are below. Our thoughts ought to be drawn heavenward where our Savior receives us to Himself in our Father’s house of many mansions.
One last element should be included in a proper funeral service: singing.
We learn in Scripture that God’s people sing when they are happy. They raise praises to God. But God’s people sing when they are overwhelmed with grief too. We find this throughout the Psalms, the inspired song book of the Scriptures. Singing is a window into one’s soul. Songs lift the spirit when we are down. They can bring tears to our eyes when we mourn, but they also lift us in joy to the place of our desires. A special number or two is not out of place at a funeral. But what beauty when God’s people join their voices together in supplication to God! In Psalm 17 (Psalter #32) we sing, “When I in righteousness at last Thy glorious face shall see, when all the weary night is past and I awake with Thee to view the glories that abide, then, then I shall be satisfied!” How many of God’s people have been comforted when singing that Psalm!
May other elements properly be added to a funeral service? That is up to the family. But for a funeral service to achieve its desired end, that of comfort, it should be kept simple and focused on what God says to His people who mourn. The ties that bind have been severed by death. Now we commend the soul of our loved one into the hands of an ever-merciful Father where there is joy unspeakable and full of glory.