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.