The Burial of the Dead

“Funeral sermons or funeral services shall not be introduced.”

—Article 6.5, D.K.O.

At one of the first synods of the Reformed Churches it was ruled that funeral sermons should be discontinued as soon as possible, and that localities which had not yet introduced them should not do so, in order to avoid the danger of superstition. Four years later, in 1578, this ruling was reaffirmed and in 1905 it became part of the established Church Order in the form that it appears above. In 1914, when the Church Order underwent a rather extensive revision, this article remained unchanged. The Christian Reformed Church in 1956 proposed a revision according to which this article would read: “The burial of the dead is the responsibility of the near relatives, and funeral services are not ecclesiastical.”

Unquestionably this rule prohibiting the introduction of funeral sermons and services is designed to refute the burial practices of the Roman Catholic Church especially in so far as these presuppose the doctrines of purgatory, the mass, and the mediation of the church. Many undesirable superstitions were attached to these burial rites. Various ceremonies had their meaning: the holy water sprinkled, on the body was supposed to protect it from demons; charcoal. indicated that there was a grave there and thus kept it from profanation; incense supposedly kept away the odor of decay, and was a symbol of prayer for the dead, as implying that he was a sacrifice well pleasing to God ; ivy and laurel symbolized the imperishable life of those who die in Christ. With these official burial enactments by the church of Rome the churches of the Reformation looked askance and maintained that the church as such has no function to fulfill at a funeral. The church labors for and with the living. Her contact with those who have died is severed. Those that die in the Lord have no need of further labors by the church for they are with the Lord and not in purgatory. And those that die out of the Lord are forever lost, and beyond the reach of the church. In the technical or official sense of the word the church has nothing to do with burials.

The burial of the dead, is properly a task which can and should be taken care of by relatives or friends of the deceased. As believers in Christ it is better that we use the term “burial” or “interment” than the term “funeral” in referring to this. The term “funeral” is derived from the Latin word “funero” which contains in it the idea of something that is “deadly, mortal, fatal, cruel.” To the believer this is no longer true of death. “To die is gain,” says the apostle. The sting of death is gone. The power of death is swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism, in referring to the death of believers, does not speak of this as a fatal experience but describes it as “only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life.” Viewed in this light it is not a funeral but an interment. The latter term is derived from two Latin words: “in” and “terra” which means “in the earth” and so denotes the act of depositing a dead body in the earth. It is a burial and that too is done in hope of the resurrection and by faith.

Our present practice of burying the dead is not in conflict with the ruling of the Church Order. The article does not prohibit the conducting of a burial service at which the minister of the Word is requested to address those that mourn with words of comfort and instruction. It merely forbids the church to officially institute burial services and in doing so warns against certain dangers and superstitions being introduced.

In the “Church Order Commentary,” Monsma and Van Dellen seem to feel that a superstitious element still adheres to our burial practices. They write: “And let it not be overlooked that though we have no funeral services officially, yet unofficially we have introduced something of the kind. Confer what was said regarding the funeral addresses by many ministers. They are as to form very often actually ‘sermons.’ Now this surely is not serious, but neither is it advisable and practical. It also happens that people insist on a ‘church funeral’ when their home can adequately accommodate the relatives and friends. Why? Is there perhaps a lingering bit of superstition in this demand?”

There are two things in this quotation concerning which we would make brief comment. The first has to do with the burial addresses by the ministers. The criticism is that these should not be “sermons.” The authors write, “At our funerals, moreover, the minister does not preach a sermon, he does not administer the Word of God officially and to the congregation of God. He only addresses the mourning relatives and their friends appropriately. As we bury our dead, we pause for reflection, instruction, and comfort.” This is all very well. But what objection can be registered when this address is put in the “form” of a sermon and the “content” of it is taken from the Word of God as is the case with every real sermon? Can there be any true reflection, instruction, and comfort apart from the Word? Certainly the “form and content” of the message do not make it the “officially preached Word.” We are well aware that the burial service is not an officially convoked gathering of the congregation. It is a gathering of mourners whose need is to be comforted by the Word. The servant of the Lord is asked to bring that Word in an unofficial capacity. This he must do and then it is virtually unavoidable that the “form” and “content” of his message is similar to a sermon. The alternative of this is what we find today. We have attended a number of burial services where the word spoken was nothing more than an elaborate eulogy of the deceased suffered by a brief moral lesson for the bereaved. It is a message devoid of spiritual content leaving you comfortless. Let the minister bring the Word in all its beauty on these occasions. He must not be encouraged to substitute this for anything else.

The second matter concerns the rise of the church building for burial services. More and more this practice is becoming obsolete. Funeral homes are built in which adequate facilities are provided for most burials. There is nothing wrong in this but we question whether it is a token of superstition when some prefer or insist on burial from the church building. The building itself is nothing but it cannot be denied that it is here that the people of God gather throughout their life on earth to receive the blessed comfort from the preached Word. It is in the church that the believers center their life. Why then in the time of death when comfort is so sorely needed should we not go up to the house of God?

It is not to avoid superstition that the former custom of holding burial services in the church has changed and is changing. It is obviously for another reason. We can recall that only about ten years ago when we first came to this community, funerals were held at which almost the entire congregation was present. Churches would be full. Today this is no more the case in some communities. If burial services were held in the large churches the attendants would not fill one fourth of the seats. Hence, it becomes more practical to hold them in the smaller chapels or funeral homes. It appears that even in the church today there is a spiritual lack of care for one another. The passing away of a member of the congregation appears to be of concern only to a few. We are much too occupied with other things to concern ourselves with the burial and comforting of those that are bereaved. If this would change it might again become mandatory for practical reasons that burial services be held in the church.

It may not be superfluous to say a few things yet about the burial customs of our day. The arrangement of these services is properly left to the relatives of the deceased and so whatever may or may not be included in the service is the product of individual taste. All will agree, however, that the burial process today is unduly commercialized. It is one thing to show respect for our loved ones by providing a proper burial but the emotional element must not become a wedge which forced by the lucrative pressure of business men coerces us to do what is foolishly unreasonable. Our burials ought to be kept as much as possible within reasonable means.

In the burial service proper we have preference for the simple custom of the past. Held in the church the congregation gathers with the bereaved to hear the comforting truths of the Word from the mouth of God’s servant. The congregation too joins in singing of her hope and assurance in the promises of God. Prayers are offered for grace to be reconciled to the Lord’s ways and to commit all things to Him in faith. Years ago the church bells tolled to tell in their own way the solemnity of death.

Today elaborate floral displays are common at the funeral. We cannot refrain from asking what is the significance of this? Oh, to be sure they are expressions of sympathy from the donors to the bereaved but in cases of the poor that expression would be much more meaningful if, instead of spending large sums on flowers, the sympathizers would assist in paying the burial costs. Some have claimed that the beauty of flowers overshadows and hides a bit of the gruesome reality of death. This we fail to see for what is a flower—especially a cut flower—other than a symbol of death itself. Today it is fragrant and colorful and tomorrow it is wilted away and lost its beauty. Others have said that the blooming flower symbolizes life and therefore properly directs us in the sorrow of death to the hope of resurrection. If this is so, it is well, but even then an elaborate display is quite unessential. A wreath or a spray or two upon the casket is adequate for this symbolism.

As to the burial itself we may say that interment is the proper custom among Christian people. Cremation is rather common among the unbelieving who regard death as the end of all. Although the Bible does not specifically forbid the burning of bodies, this practice is associated in Scripture only with the deaths of great sinners and seemingly betokens an act of special condemnation upon them. (Cf. Joshua 7:15Lev. 20:14, 21:9.) The examples of the saints whose bodies were laid to rest in the grave, or in a tomb are many. The Christian burial is expressive of the faith that the corruptible body, planted as a seed in the earth, shall be raised again in incorruption and immortality. “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).