Monday, April 13, 2009

Some Pastoral Thoughts on Funerals

One of the more popular topics raised at pastoral home visits would have to be that of funerals. To their credit many simply want to know the ethical and appropriate way to proceed with certain customs, like the disposition of their remains. One topic in this category is the subject of cremation. Over the years I have taken the position that the church and the scriptures have been neutral on this matter. I am aware of Dr. Alvin Schmidt's little volume Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: A Biblical and Christian Examination of Cremation (2005), although I have yet to more than skim and spot read sections of the book. The link here is to the Amazon site, and the customer reviews may be worth your time if you would like to investigate this further. My view at present is with the reviewer who held this practice to fall within the area of adiophora, those things neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. Readers of this article may take a very different view of this, some based on Schmidt's well written argument, and I would certainly be willing to hear your points. I would also like to know how one would deal with such a sensitive matter in the most pastoral way possible. I honestly have not found any Christians who choose cremation for reasons even remotely approaching those of the ancient pagans. The link above to the article in Wikipedia is also worth reading for background on this practice and the wide range of reaction to the practice within Christian circles. The Roman Catholics at one time vigorously opposed it. The Eastern Orthodox church still does. In the Roman church allowance is made provided those disposing of the remains are not doing so as a denial of the resurrection. Again, I have yet to run into such people in my many burials. Undoubtedly they exist. Somehow I can't imagine them wanting my services, though.

Beyond these issues there is also the matter of where the funeral is held. For a Christian who is also a baptized member of a given congregation, the natural choice would be the sanctuary of the church to which they belonged. Or so I once thought. This is an area with which I struggle more as a pastor. While I am not opposed to the funeral home as a place of the funeral (as this, too, is adiophora), the witness of the act falls short of what we would want as Christians. By this I mean that a Christian would want the final act to be a witness to Christ and the place where this child of God encountered Christ in Word and Sacrament. Since our moral bodies were once the "temple of the Holy Spirit" as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 6:19, would we not want their final passage to be through the "temple" where God is present in Word and Sacrament? As much as I am able I always strongly encourage the use of the church sancturary for funerals.

Finally, the last item is a 'catch all' area where one deals with the details of the service itself. Like weddings this often falls to the preference to make of the funeral a personal display rather than a testimony to Christ. Somehow there is a felt need to glorify the deceased one last time before they are buried. Does this arise, in part, from hidden guilt that we did not attend to the living as much as should have? Or does it become an issue that the living want to have a 'stage' to speak and show their own views and insights? Or is it a matter that we think those attending the funeral don't know the really important details of the life of the deceased and it is our duty at the end to make them better informed on this important matter? Or is it a matter that we really believe that the deceased was a great person from whom we can learn one last lesson in life?

If some of these latter points are true, one can dispense with this quite easily by writing an article or a longer obituary and letting people read it at their leisure. If the person was that important while alive, why did we not sing their praises then? At any rate, there are other ways to do this.

For the service the point is to comfort the grieving with the only hope we have: Jesus Christ risen and alive, the source of eternal life to all who believe. That's it. Period. Nothing else helps here. Sure we can 'comfort' ourselves with memories, reminiscing about all the good things we remember doing and how it once made us feel happy (or so we choose to remember it now!). But does this really get to the issue of life in the midst of death? Does it offer any real hope beyond the grave? No. Why then should we spend valuable time on shallow matters of our own feelings and memories when we have the chance to hear the living voice of Christ?

This is all the more critical when we realize that funerals often attract a fair amount of unchurched and unbelieving people. Unlike weddings (don't get me started here...), people are far more open to the message of the Gospel. They may also be more conscious of their own mortality and desiring to know more about the possibility of eternal life. I have probably made this point before, but of the funerals I attend as a "guest," I have been sorely disappointed time and again by the obvious absence of Christ in these so-called services. What a wasted opporunity for genuine mission work! I wanted to stand up and say, "Before anyone leaves this place, we need to hear about Christ risen. Your eternal future depends on it."

Unfortunately, though, funerals fall to the vagaries of our culture as much as anything else. It is a pastor's work to catechize and inform as often as possible to counter the trends. At this season of Easter I am especially aware of this need. For nowhere else does the reality of Christ, life, and death become more vivid than at the grave. Thus, I have always been thankful that the last words of the graveside rite have been the Easter greeting: Christ is risen, He is risen indeed. These should be the only words left in the air as the grieving depart.


John said...

Interesting blog. I like it.
Cremation Services

Bob Hunter said...

I'm not a fan of cremation at all and would prefer to be buried in "one piece," so to speak. However, it appears that in the Old Testament days and early church, only the bones were kept in a box and the flesh (or resulting dust) presumably disposed of after decomposition, correct? If that is the case, then even cremation and the ashes being put in an urn retains more of the body than that of the Old Testament times. Would I be correct?

Don Engebretson said...

Hello Bob -
I'm also not a real "fan" of cremation and would likewise prefer a traditional burial for myself. When people decide on cremation, I do, by the way, try to encourage a viewing before, especially for immediate family members. I believe this is necessary for "closure."

As to your OT insight - Interesting. I hadn't thought of this before. It does make sense, however.

I believe that Dr. Schmidt's argument stems in large part from the pagan use/ origin of cremation, and how this would be inappropriate for Christians to use now given its connections. While I understand his argument, I'm not convinced that this connection means anything after all this time. One could make a similar argument for those basilicas that the early church converted from pagan Roman temples after Christianity became legal in the 4th century.

Christian Soul said...

I am not sure what Scripture teaches about cremation vs. burial, but I would like to be buried next to a church or in a church grave yard. I like the idea of having my body planted like a seed in a church garden, ready to spring forth from the earth when Jesus returns to call His people from their sleep.

I have a question. Is it alright to celebrate the Divine Service at a funeral? I like the comfort we have in the knowledge that when we commune with Christ and receive Him in the Lord's Supper the faithfully departed are also there with Him in heaven celebrating that same feast.

Pr. Bestul said...

Regarding Jewish burial practices in the Old Testament period: ossuaries weren't used until about 35 BC and the practice didn't continue much beyond the destruction of the Second Temple about 70 AD. Why that 100 year period? There are different theories, the favored view being that the common ---and erroneous--- view at the time was that the sinful "flesh" had to decompose before the soul could receive its immortality. So, the 'boxed bones' practice was really but a bleep in the timeline of Jewish antiquity...not really an Old Testament practice.

Respect for the body is, I believe, the issue. Though I agree with the 'Seelsorger' re: the admissibility of the practice, I can find no scriptural precedent or imperative which authorizes us to proactively assist nature in doing what it must do to fulfill scripture's dust to dust' response to sin.

Increasingly, the remains of the cremated are being divided to be scattered in various places and even contained in jewelry to be worn by family members. Such practices show little regard for the body and its ultimate resurrection from the dead.

For the committal, the pastor makes the baptismal mark of the cross for the last time upon the deceased, saying, "May God the Father who created this body... God the Son who by His blood redeemed this body...and God the Holy Spirit who sanctified this body to be His temple, keep these remains unto the resurrection of the dead;" There's something about the Father created, Blood bought temple of the Holy Spirit which seems inconsistent with cremation...especially in that our bodies are called 'temples' even as the Body of our Lord was.

Don Engebretson said...

Dear "Christian Soul,"

My apologies for answering you so late. Regarding your question, "Is it alright to celebrate the Divine Service at a funeral?" - I can think of no reason for which it would technically be wrong. The only difficulty comes in the area of communion fellowship. Since funerals attract a number of family and friends from a wide range of background, it might be somewhat awkward especially if attendance by members of the congregation and other LCMS Lutherans are in the minority.

I do agree with you, however, that the Supper is a great place to find true comfort in the face of grief.

Don Engebretson said...

Pr. Bestul,
Thank you for the history of the use of ossuaries in the OT/NT period. It is an interesting addition to the discussion on cremation.

As a pastor who over the years has been asked to provide 'committal' services for cremated remains, I sympathize with your concerns with regard to how people treat them. Scattering them to the wind, dumping them in the river, or simply dusting them on the ground seems to fall short of the dignified when laying to rest the remains of this 'temple' created by God.

The challenge we face in our time, it seems, is the pressure of cost. While I realize that money should not dictate how we treat the remains, the reality is that many people are looking for more and more economical ways to finance a funeral. When I buried my mother it cost me $10,000, and that did not include the cost of the burial plot, since she had purchased that prior to her death. I am always quick to recommend to people that the church is a very economical alternative to the funeral home, especially with regard to the 'viewing.' Perhaps if we can assist people in finding more or equally economical alternatives to cremation, the choice of burial may come more easily.

Carl Vehse said...

A lively discussion regarding cremation is in a Steadfast Lutheran blog, "A story worth your while", starting at Comment 5.

Included in Comment 35 are links to a set of much longer discussion threads from June-July 2005 on Bunnie Diehl's blog.