Making Funerals Christian

Funeral.jpgTom Long, well-known American Presbyterian preacher and professor, decided more than a decade ago that it was time to do a state of the art book on the Christian funeral. “What I did not anticipate discovering,” he confesses, “that the reigning understanding of the ‘state of the art’ funeral, which I shared along with many of my colleagues in ministry, was theologically impoverished and that examining the history, theology and practice of Christian funerals would dramatically redefine what I consider to be a ‘good’ funeral” (xiv). So Tom Long in his new book, Accompany Them with Singing–The Christian Funeral
, and one that all pastors will want to read.

It’s not often we begin our day talking about funerals, but pastors often begin days knowing that funerals are in their plans.  So today we need to begin our discussion with questions and just a taste of what Long will offer us.
What’s the purpose of a Christian funeral? What are the most important elements? And what have pastors learned about funerals that needs to be emphasized? What are the mistakes “not to make”? What makes a good Christian funeral?

Long opens up with three ideas that are part of the good Christian funeral: simplicity, majesty and the Christian community. Then observes that funerals have shifted from the deceased’s part in the gospel story to the grieved … funerals have become too individualistic, too narcissistic, psychological, shallow, spiritualized and disembodied and too much about spirituality and not enough about resurrection. Too much memorial and not enough eschatology; not enough embodiedness.
I read the whole book; it’s got a great sketch of the history of funerals; the importance of dramatizing the gospel at the funeral; pastoral sensitivity on every page; and the ingredients of a good Christian funeral. 

Four necessary elements:

Holy Person
Holy People
Holy Place
Holy Script
Eight purposes: kerygmatic, oblational, ecclesial, therapeutic, eucharistic, commemorative, missional, and educational.
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  • John W Frye

    This sounds like a timely book. I think funerals offer some of the most sensitive, sacred moments in pastoral ministry. While not being narcissistic, the funeral should memorialize the deceased with dignity and *honesty.* A pastor (of the fundamentalist/evangelical stripe) should *never* use the funeral service as a captive audience to “preach the Gospel” and call unrelentingly for conversions as if the service was a revival meeting. Bringing in the gospel slant takes wisdom, skill and discernment.

  • Phil

    As we speak I’m putting the finishing touches on a homily for a funeral today of an older saint. She wanted 2 Tim 1:3-14 read, which is great and fitting for her family. As far as gospel, Scot, I’m using a condensed version of the testimony of Andrej from your Conversion in the Gospels book. I’m an associate pastor that does only 1 or 2 funerals a year, and so far they have all been believer funerals and aging related deaths, but I still focus on gospel and the Blessed Hope of Resurrection.

  • Scot, this could not be more timely and appropriate for my ministry as a hospice chaplain. I’m looking forward to reading it.
    Does the author deal with doing funerals for non-Christians, in non-religious settings?
    Another question I have relates to different customs in different places.
    In the Midwest where I live, the funeral home and not the church is the primary location for funerals, and for the most part, funeral home directors oversee the process, not pastors. And this is the case for almost everyone, unless the deceased was a “pillar” of the church.
    Right away, that makes it more difficult for many pastors because the task of commenting on issues of life and death from a Christian perspective and proclaiming the Good News of hope in Jesus has been taken out of its religious context before one even begins.

  • This sounds like a much needed book. We have forgotten how to grieve with hope. We wither make funerals into simply a celebration of the person’s life, which denies the grief of the loved ones, or we focus so much on the grief and pain that we lose sight of how this person’s life fit into the corporate life of God’s people and ultimately into God’s story of redemption.
    Not only do we not know how to do do funerals well anymore, but we also don’t know how to go through the dying process well. Rob Moll has a great new book coming out from InterVarsity Press in June (disclaimer–that’s where I work!) called “The Art of Dying” that would make a nice complement to “Accompany Them With Singing.”

  • Aaron

    I’m a pastor who owns this book and has used it to help me in preparation for several funerals in these last few months. I have found it to be timely, appropriate, and incredibly helpful in placing proper theology in its place as we deal with the death of our loved ones. This is a great book.

  • Terry

    I appreciate the suggestion as I have been discouraged by the ‘funeral method’ in my tradition (especially the Gospel for Conversions scenario that John Frye mentioned) and have been “reinventing it” over the last few years. We have had success — if that’s possible for funerals — but I am genuinely hopeful of conveying even greater hope and more effectively. I’ve been walking alone and am thankful for a serious look at this.

  • Barb

    our church is heavy into Memorial services where people get up and tell stories about the departed.–so i was pleasantly surprised last week when attending a funeral in another church for my neighbor. They had an order for the service in the front of the hymnal and we had parts to read outloud.–the service was definitely pointed at the Gospel–but not the conversion of the participants. the last thing we read aloud was the Apostle’s Creed.

  • Barb, I like your comment and description of the service you attended. I intend to write down my wishes for my own funeral, and it will involve following a historic liturgy.

  • Yes. Looks very good. My father’s service was in the church and had singing and a gospel message. Maybe something of the element of both today’s fare, but I’m guessing more in line with what Long is getting at. An excellent pastor who is now with the Lord (too early for us) himself.
    Where can I list all of these excellent reads from your blog? Glad they are here, at least.