Funerals

A funeral can be a great help to people who are grieving.  A funeral can also make matters worse.  A funeral can be built around the strong Word of God, helping people face death, while serving as a catalyst whereby sorrow is resolved into hope.  Or it can open all the wounds, cause people to cry even more, and stir up their sadness.   The first kind of funeral works by cultivating faith.  The second kind works by creating a catharsis, so that the grievers simply cannot cry anymore, are emotionally burned out, so that, out of that numbness, they can get on with their lives.

This is not a matter of denomination.  A funeral that follows the Lutheran Order of Christian Burial will be the first kind, though the most painful example of the second type that I have experienced was  in a Lutheran church.

The funeral we just went to was mostly of the first type, for which I am grateful.  It was led by an old-school elderly preacher who made good use of the Bible and proclaimed Christ.   A few elements of the other kind were tacked on, such as some of the bereaved getting up to make statements about their loved one, but that didn’t get painfully tormenting as it usually does. And there were some neutral elements that I didn’t really approve of (a video slideshow of the deceased; recorded music).  Still, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I came out strangely comforted.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Is grieving a problem? I don’t think so. It’s in grieving that my memories of the loved one I’ve lost are most alive. And if I let grief run it’s own course, without trying to “get on with my life” (as if grieving isn’t a vital part of life) then those memories become embedded – instead of fading away. Which is a good thing, as memories of my loved one are all I have left of them. Until I see them again on that Day.

  • Tom Hering

    Is grieving a problem? I don’t think so. It’s in grieving that my memories of the loved one I’ve lost are most alive. And if I let grief run it’s own course, without trying to “get on with my life” (as if grieving isn’t a vital part of life) then those memories become embedded – instead of fading away. Which is a good thing, as memories of my loved one are all I have left of them. Until I see them again on that Day.

  • Orianna Laun

    I often cringed when the senior pastor of the congregation where my husband served as associate did a funeral. He spent more time talking about what the family would miss about the deceased than he spoke about Christ and resurrection.
    For some people, a funeral may be one of the only places they hear about Christ. The living need to know of sin and death and resurrection before they end up as the one for whom the funeral is held.
    I’ll always remember the funeral when my husband was on vicarage. A member died of AIDS. The pastor talked about the consequences of sin, Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection for forgiveness. After the service one of the deceased’s friends came up and railed on the pastor for talking about sin, “considering the circumstances” (the speaker clearly implied that homosexuality was not sin ). The pastor calmly stated that he had given a similar message at the previous funeral a couple weeks earlier where the man was killed in a head-on collision. (In that case, the car which hit the man was driven by drug-runners.) It’s not A sin which kills, but sin. When sin is lying before one in a pine box, the Gospel must needs be delivered. Not more Law, not warm -fuzzy feelings.

  • Orianna Laun

    I often cringed when the senior pastor of the congregation where my husband served as associate did a funeral. He spent more time talking about what the family would miss about the deceased than he spoke about Christ and resurrection.
    For some people, a funeral may be one of the only places they hear about Christ. The living need to know of sin and death and resurrection before they end up as the one for whom the funeral is held.
    I’ll always remember the funeral when my husband was on vicarage. A member died of AIDS. The pastor talked about the consequences of sin, Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection for forgiveness. After the service one of the deceased’s friends came up and railed on the pastor for talking about sin, “considering the circumstances” (the speaker clearly implied that homosexuality was not sin ). The pastor calmly stated that he had given a similar message at the previous funeral a couple weeks earlier where the man was killed in a head-on collision. (In that case, the car which hit the man was driven by drug-runners.) It’s not A sin which kills, but sin. When sin is lying before one in a pine box, the Gospel must needs be delivered. Not more Law, not warm -fuzzy feelings.

  • paul

    The funeral is not a “memorial” to the person but to Christ, the Life of the world, the “anti-death.” The fact that we’re at a funeral reveals that we already know that Fred is dead. The Law is apparent. Pointing me to dead Fred doesn’t give me joy or hope. There’s plenty of that already going on at the time of a death. The Christian funeral should point me to what is not apparent. Don’t let me forget that death has been swallowed up in victory in spite of what I’m already seeing, hearing, and feeling in my grief!

  • paul

    The funeral is not a “memorial” to the person but to Christ, the Life of the world, the “anti-death.” The fact that we’re at a funeral reveals that we already know that Fred is dead. The Law is apparent. Pointing me to dead Fred doesn’t give me joy or hope. There’s plenty of that already going on at the time of a death. The Christian funeral should point me to what is not apparent. Don’t let me forget that death has been swallowed up in victory in spite of what I’m already seeing, hearing, and feeling in my grief!

  • paul

    Catharsis is for coping with death. Christ is for destroying death.

  • paul

    Catharsis is for coping with death. Christ is for destroying death.

  • Samuel

    Contrary to the general tenor here, a funeral is a memorial for the person who died, just as a wedding celebrates, not marriage in the abstract, but the union of the particular couple tying the knot. And a baptism is about the baptized’s salvation. Plainly, these are events at which the minister must speak about larger Christian graces, particularly if the event is a sacrament, but he or she must also talk (or let others talk) about the person(s) without whom the event would not have taken place.
    A funeral, moreover, is not judgment or judgmental day; it’s a unique time, like Herring said above, for public grieving and remembering. Surely at such times we are comforted by the gospel, but Christ Himself wept with Lazarus’ mournors, even as He reassured Lazarus’ family. In that culture, mourning lasted for some time. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Samuel

    Contrary to the general tenor here, a funeral is a memorial for the person who died, just as a wedding celebrates, not marriage in the abstract, but the union of the particular couple tying the knot. And a baptism is about the baptized’s salvation. Plainly, these are events at which the minister must speak about larger Christian graces, particularly if the event is a sacrament, but he or she must also talk (or let others talk) about the person(s) without whom the event would not have taken place.
    A funeral, moreover, is not judgment or judgmental day; it’s a unique time, like Herring said above, for public grieving and remembering. Surely at such times we are comforted by the gospel, but Christ Himself wept with Lazarus’ mournors, even as He reassured Lazarus’ family. In that culture, mourning lasted for some time. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Jonathan

    @ Samuel,

    Funerals are to proclaim Christ and Him crucified for the deceased as well as those in the audience. It is about the triumph of Christ over death that the Chritian deceased now shares. Emotion aside, a Christian funeral is a worship service that joins us with the communion of the saints. It is law and gospel based.

    Perhaps a “Wake” or a visitation is a more appropriate process for the mourning, grieving and remembering process that you describe.

  • Jonathan

    @ Samuel,

    Funerals are to proclaim Christ and Him crucified for the deceased as well as those in the audience. It is about the triumph of Christ over death that the Chritian deceased now shares. Emotion aside, a Christian funeral is a worship service that joins us with the communion of the saints. It is law and gospel based.

    Perhaps a “Wake” or a visitation is a more appropriate process for the mourning, grieving and remembering process that you describe.

  • Samuel

    @6 And your authority would be ….?
    I respect what appears to be only your tradition, but you must realize it is not binding on Christians.

  • Samuel

    @6 And your authority would be ….?
    I respect what appears to be only your tradition, but you must realize it is not binding on Christians.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    The particulars of a funeral are, indeed, details that are not binding on Christians, Samuel (@7). But you appear to be making the case against Christians “proclaiming Christ and Him crucified for the deceased as well as those in the audience” (@6) at funerals. On what authority would you make this suggestion?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    The particulars of a funeral are, indeed, details that are not binding on Christians, Samuel (@7). But you appear to be making the case against Christians “proclaiming Christ and Him crucified for the deceased as well as those in the audience” (@6) at funerals. On what authority would you make this suggestion?

  • Samuel

    @8 That’s not what I said.
    You and @6 may see a funeral as either or – either we preach Christ or we speak about the deceased, but not both. I don’t agree. Both are clearly appropriate.
    My point was to counter the assertion that it’s somehow wrong to speak about the deceased, that is, to emphasize that a funeral is a memorial service, where grief is appropriate. Certainly the gospel ought to be proclaimed as well.

  • Samuel

    @8 That’s not what I said.
    You and @6 may see a funeral as either or – either we preach Christ or we speak about the deceased, but not both. I don’t agree. Both are clearly appropriate.
    My point was to counter the assertion that it’s somehow wrong to speak about the deceased, that is, to emphasize that a funeral is a memorial service, where grief is appropriate. Certainly the gospel ought to be proclaimed as well.

  • sg

    A friend of mine recently attended her father in-law’s funeral. She said it was the best funeral ever because all of his old buddies got up and told stories about his antics and had the crowd roaring with laughter. That was the memorial service not the graveside religious service. Anyway, she said everyone really felt pretty well and really appreciated him. It was all good.

  • sg

    A friend of mine recently attended her father in-law’s funeral. She said it was the best funeral ever because all of his old buddies got up and told stories about his antics and had the crowd roaring with laughter. That was the memorial service not the graveside religious service. Anyway, she said everyone really felt pretty well and really appreciated him. It was all good.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Samuel (@9), I don’t think anyone is arguing that grief is inappropriate at a funeral. The question is: how do we address that grief? Do we focus on the only true comfort, our Savior? Or do we focus on the deceased and the positive aspects of his life?

    No one arguing the former (a focus on Christ) is saying that it’s “wrong to speak about the deceased” — his death being the occasion for the funeral. But, again, what should our focus be? As with every aspect of life (and death), the answer is that our focus should be on Christ and the good news of the Life he gives. This is not something to be merely “proclaimed as well”. What’s more, we are talking about a gathering of Christians, aren’t we? In what manner would it not be fitting to focus on Christ and his Gospel, as we do at every other gathering of Christians? Note that I’m not saying that everyone at a Christian funeral is a Christian, but at the very least the man leading it and, hopefully, the dead man were. And those at the funeral who are not Christians, who are in that very moment confronted with death and the effects of sin — can you think of a message they need to hear more than the Gospel?

    To place the emphasis on the dead man and the good he had done while alive may mollify some people’s grief for a short time, but it’s not a real response.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Samuel (@9), I don’t think anyone is arguing that grief is inappropriate at a funeral. The question is: how do we address that grief? Do we focus on the only true comfort, our Savior? Or do we focus on the deceased and the positive aspects of his life?

    No one arguing the former (a focus on Christ) is saying that it’s “wrong to speak about the deceased” — his death being the occasion for the funeral. But, again, what should our focus be? As with every aspect of life (and death), the answer is that our focus should be on Christ and the good news of the Life he gives. This is not something to be merely “proclaimed as well”. What’s more, we are talking about a gathering of Christians, aren’t we? In what manner would it not be fitting to focus on Christ and his Gospel, as we do at every other gathering of Christians? Note that I’m not saying that everyone at a Christian funeral is a Christian, but at the very least the man leading it and, hopefully, the dead man were. And those at the funeral who are not Christians, who are in that very moment confronted with death and the effects of sin — can you think of a message they need to hear more than the Gospel?

    To place the emphasis on the dead man and the good he had done while alive may mollify some people’s grief for a short time, but it’s not a real response.

  • Samuel

    @11, I’m not able to make my point any clearer. Sorry.

  • Samuel

    @11, I’m not able to make my point any clearer. Sorry.

  • Booklover

    It seems the funeral service can be spent in glorifying Christ/declaring the gospel/giving thanks that the departed’s soul has been saved by Christ; and the slide shows and remembrances of friends can be kept for the reception afterward or the viewing the night before.

    That way the funeral service can be kept from a possible free-for-all as the mike is being passed around. And the congregation can be spared from one waxing eloquent about the virtue of the one passed. As my dear departed dad used to say upon returning home from a funeral in which the departed had been eulogized overmuch: “That preacher knew a different man than I knew!”

  • Booklover

    It seems the funeral service can be spent in glorifying Christ/declaring the gospel/giving thanks that the departed’s soul has been saved by Christ; and the slide shows and remembrances of friends can be kept for the reception afterward or the viewing the night before.

    That way the funeral service can be kept from a possible free-for-all as the mike is being passed around. And the congregation can be spared from one waxing eloquent about the virtue of the one passed. As my dear departed dad used to say upon returning home from a funeral in which the departed had been eulogized overmuch: “That preacher knew a different man than I knew!”

  • Tom Hering

    If a funeral service isn’t about Christ, and the forgiveness offered to sinners, and the resurrection of those who die in Christ, then why have the funeral in church?

    God forbid it’s because the deceased was a good person! Or because we’re sure the deceased must have had some goodness – somewhere in their heart! That would be the wrong message for those assembled in the church. (A Lutheran church, anyways.)

    There will be plenty of time and opportunity for a full expression of grief, both private and shared, after the service.

  • Tom Hering

    If a funeral service isn’t about Christ, and the forgiveness offered to sinners, and the resurrection of those who die in Christ, then why have the funeral in church?

    God forbid it’s because the deceased was a good person! Or because we’re sure the deceased must have had some goodness – somewhere in their heart! That would be the wrong message for those assembled in the church. (A Lutheran church, anyways.)

    There will be plenty of time and opportunity for a full expression of grief, both private and shared, after the service.

  • Booklover

    Although some of what Frank Schaeffer has written about his father, the great Francis Schaeffer, is rather disrespectful, the words he has about his father’s funeral may be worth listening to:

    “Dad’s funeral embodied all the chaos, make-it-up-as-you-go insanity of evangelicalism. It was to funerals what ‘personalized’ weddings are to marriage, one where the young couple compose their own vows while some friend ‘really like into guitar’ provides the music.
    “There is a good reason we humans take refuge in the collective wisdom accumulated over time as expressed in liturgies and cultural habits of long practice. And the arrogance of the Protestant notion that one’s individual whims are equal to all occasions manifests itself in innumerable bad hair moments and in dreadful church services, let alone at innumerable do-it-yourself weddings. But funerals are supposed to be serious. Creativity isn’t always good.
    “How do you bury a Protestant pope? There was nothing to fall back on. When Mom decided to use his funeral as a ‘witness,’ throw open the doors, and turn the-burying-of-Francis-Schaeffer into what amounted to a farewell seminar/trade show, no one could stop her.
    “. . .The atmosphere was a cross between a farewell Beatles concert and a more solemn than usual NASCAR event. . .Movies, music, and rambling freelance tributes from Dad’s sons-in-law were punctuated by tributes read out loud, seemingly forever, that had poured in. . .
    “Ten years later, the first Greek Orthodox funeral I went to filled me with envy. I decided that whatever else happened, I didn’t want to die as a member of a religion that has no clue about what to do with the most sacred moments of life, and death.”

  • Booklover

    Although some of what Frank Schaeffer has written about his father, the great Francis Schaeffer, is rather disrespectful, the words he has about his father’s funeral may be worth listening to:

    “Dad’s funeral embodied all the chaos, make-it-up-as-you-go insanity of evangelicalism. It was to funerals what ‘personalized’ weddings are to marriage, one where the young couple compose their own vows while some friend ‘really like into guitar’ provides the music.
    “There is a good reason we humans take refuge in the collective wisdom accumulated over time as expressed in liturgies and cultural habits of long practice. And the arrogance of the Protestant notion that one’s individual whims are equal to all occasions manifests itself in innumerable bad hair moments and in dreadful church services, let alone at innumerable do-it-yourself weddings. But funerals are supposed to be serious. Creativity isn’t always good.
    “How do you bury a Protestant pope? There was nothing to fall back on. When Mom decided to use his funeral as a ‘witness,’ throw open the doors, and turn the-burying-of-Francis-Schaeffer into what amounted to a farewell seminar/trade show, no one could stop her.
    “. . .The atmosphere was a cross between a farewell Beatles concert and a more solemn than usual NASCAR event. . .Movies, music, and rambling freelance tributes from Dad’s sons-in-law were punctuated by tributes read out loud, seemingly forever, that had poured in. . .
    “Ten years later, the first Greek Orthodox funeral I went to filled me with envy. I decided that whatever else happened, I didn’t want to die as a member of a religion that has no clue about what to do with the most sacred moments of life, and death.”

  • http://barrybishop.blogspot.com/ Barry D. Bishop

    tODD @8, @11
    I totally agree with you–well said.
    I wanted to say this to you because we have disagreed on other things on this blog but we find common ground on this subject.
    May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you .

  • http://barrybishop.blogspot.com/ Barry D. Bishop

    tODD @8, @11
    I totally agree with you–well said.
    I wanted to say this to you because we have disagreed on other things on this blog but we find common ground on this subject.
    May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you .

  • helen

    The “best” funeral I can remember took place in a country church cemetery. My uncle, who died in Texas, requested burial beside his parents in Minnesota. Knowing that relatives would have to come from many places, he suggested immediate cremation and burial at a mutually convenient time. So on Memorial Day weekend we gathered in the old cemetery… a nephew on the board arranged permission; younger relatives did the grave digging; a brother brought his garden roses; my Pastor son led the service for the family.
    Afterward the facilities of a small restaurant were reserved for coffee, food and a leisurely family reunion. The stories and the laughter took place there. Someone remarked that the gathering only lacked the deceased, one of the “life of thefamily” people and my mother, who had been the other one.

  • helen

    The “best” funeral I can remember took place in a country church cemetery. My uncle, who died in Texas, requested burial beside his parents in Minnesota. Knowing that relatives would have to come from many places, he suggested immediate cremation and burial at a mutually convenient time. So on Memorial Day weekend we gathered in the old cemetery… a nephew on the board arranged permission; younger relatives did the grave digging; a brother brought his garden roses; my Pastor son led the service for the family.
    Afterward the facilities of a small restaurant were reserved for coffee, food and a leisurely family reunion. The stories and the laughter took place there. Someone remarked that the gathering only lacked the deceased, one of the “life of thefamily” people and my mother, who had been the other one.

  • fws

    Samuel @ 9 & Todd @11

    I believe what you both say comes together at Tom Hering @14?

  • fws

    Samuel @ 9 & Todd @11

    I believe what you both say comes together at Tom Hering @14?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Here in Utah most funerals are nothing more than eulogy after eulogy, and the eulogies might be nothing more than a fish story with “I say this in the name of Christ” tacked on at the end.
    I’m serious that is what they are.
    So they get offended when I don’t let so and so stand up and say ex. Planning the funerals I am upfront. “No one speaks but me. You can sing the hymns, confess the creeds etc. But I speak, and only me. If you want to rent the bar and talk about the man over a beer go ahead. ”
    They are normally at that point a bit upset, though sometimes just relieved, because lets face it not everyone gets the point of a Eulogy, and who knows what you are going to hear about the person when everyone and their brother gets up to relate what ever experience they had with the person.
    But when the funeral is over everyone wishes they could have one like that when they die. I tell them they can if they become Lutheran.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Here in Utah most funerals are nothing more than eulogy after eulogy, and the eulogies might be nothing more than a fish story with “I say this in the name of Christ” tacked on at the end.
    I’m serious that is what they are.
    So they get offended when I don’t let so and so stand up and say ex. Planning the funerals I am upfront. “No one speaks but me. You can sing the hymns, confess the creeds etc. But I speak, and only me. If you want to rent the bar and talk about the man over a beer go ahead. ”
    They are normally at that point a bit upset, though sometimes just relieved, because lets face it not everyone gets the point of a Eulogy, and who knows what you are going to hear about the person when everyone and their brother gets up to relate what ever experience they had with the person.
    But when the funeral is over everyone wishes they could have one like that when they die. I tell them they can if they become Lutheran.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    At my grandma’s funeral a few years ago the pastor let the teachers’ union get up and talk about my grandma at the end of the funeral, even though the family had specifically requested that he not allow people to do this. It was pathetic as the women came up and put a big photo display of her etc on the altar. Anger replaced grief very quickly. Pathetic.
    At my Grandpa Bror’s funeral earlier this year there was none of that, the pastor did a good job talking both about my Grandpa, and Jesus Christ. It was a wonderful funeral.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    At my grandma’s funeral a few years ago the pastor let the teachers’ union get up and talk about my grandma at the end of the funeral, even though the family had specifically requested that he not allow people to do this. It was pathetic as the women came up and put a big photo display of her etc on the altar. Anger replaced grief very quickly. Pathetic.
    At my Grandpa Bror’s funeral earlier this year there was none of that, the pastor did a good job talking both about my Grandpa, and Jesus Christ. It was a wonderful funeral.

  • fws

    Bror Erickson @ 19

    You make me proud to be a Lutheran for the humblest of reasons.

    I bought the white funeral shroud for my coffin and the white chasuble and stole for my pastor to match.

    My casket will be closed.

    The sermon will be about how God in Christ could even save someone like me, so then that means there is some hope for the rest of you.

    I will see you in the resurrection dear brother Bror if you don´t manage to get down to Brasil for that cold beer I promised you before then!

  • fws

    Bror Erickson @ 19

    You make me proud to be a Lutheran for the humblest of reasons.

    I bought the white funeral shroud for my coffin and the white chasuble and stole for my pastor to match.

    My casket will be closed.

    The sermon will be about how God in Christ could even save someone like me, so then that means there is some hope for the rest of you.

    I will see you in the resurrection dear brother Bror if you don´t manage to get down to Brasil for that cold beer I promised you before then!

  • molloaggie

    I have to say that the weirdest funeral I ever went to was a Mormom funeral. There was almost a forceful “I just know she’s in the celestial kingdom” repeated constantly, as if they couldn’t quite say for sure but kept talking about her good deeds as proof of this. The ex-husband of the deceased did most of the talking about God, connecting Bible verses in the most disconnecting ways. The ex-hubby kept talking about the promises they had made to each other and, even though they were divorced on earth, made sure we, the audience knew that they were going to be married still in heaven. My skin began to crawl and suddenly I felt more empathy for the ex-husband’s current WIFE sitting in the audience than the good friend I’d come to support.

    Our pastor recently distributed a flyer and asked us all to fill it out and file it with the church secretary. It asked us basic question like “What is our favorite Bible verse?”, “What are your favorite hymns?”, and special dates in our lives just for our funerals. Seems Pastor asks the kids of the deceased but they don’t know ANYTHING. I thought it was a great idea.

  • molloaggie

    I have to say that the weirdest funeral I ever went to was a Mormom funeral. There was almost a forceful “I just know she’s in the celestial kingdom” repeated constantly, as if they couldn’t quite say for sure but kept talking about her good deeds as proof of this. The ex-husband of the deceased did most of the talking about God, connecting Bible verses in the most disconnecting ways. The ex-hubby kept talking about the promises they had made to each other and, even though they were divorced on earth, made sure we, the audience knew that they were going to be married still in heaven. My skin began to crawl and suddenly I felt more empathy for the ex-husband’s current WIFE sitting in the audience than the good friend I’d come to support.

    Our pastor recently distributed a flyer and asked us all to fill it out and file it with the church secretary. It asked us basic question like “What is our favorite Bible verse?”, “What are your favorite hymns?”, and special dates in our lives just for our funerals. Seems Pastor asks the kids of the deceased but they don’t know ANYTHING. I thought it was a great idea.


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