Services for the Dead
A Christian response to death includes mourning. For all “there is a time to weep (Eccl. 3:4).” We are to “weep with them who weep (Rom. 12:15).” But a Christian response should be noticeably different from a non-Christian response. We are enjoined by Paul not to sorrow “as others which have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).”
The services for the dead in our society vary with religious tradition, or whether the person was religious at all. They may consist of funerals (services conducted prior to the final disposition of the corpse) or memorials (services conducted in memory of the deceased without the remains being present). A Roman Catholic service is much different from a Baptist one, while an atheist’s funeral or memorial will be without religious display. A common thread might be the listing of the decedent’s survivors, eulogy and a committal. Curiously, religious families often want “religious” services for their irreligious departed. Fine eulogies may be dishonest, or tend to immortalize (overly glorify) a person.
Due to the strong Christian background and tradition in the United States, pastors and churches are seen by many as indispensable to funeral services – the responsibility of pastors to conduct the service and the church to host it. Rather than the “home to grave” services typical of Bible times, a modern scenario is more likely from hospital to mortuary to church facility to cemetery. A lengthier time is likely to pass as well, possibly three or four days from death to burial and even longer in some cases. During this time the church and pastors may join with the family in mourning, including some type of visitation or wake. During this time pastors minister to survivor and help mourners confront death. In the funeral service itself they may give thanks for the life of this person and preach a biblically-themed message. At the gravesite the theme is usually that of celebrating Christ's victory over death.
According to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, "Christian funerary ritual reached its fullest development in medieval Catholicism and was closely related to doctrinal belief, especially that concerning purgatory...Changes in these rites, including the use of white vestments and the recitation of prayers emphasizing the notions of hope and joy, were introduced into the Catholic liturgy only following the second Vatican Council (1962–65)."
Christians should consider the background and growth of funerary practices – even the “Christian” funeral tradition. The traditions should be exposed and rigorously tested by the plumb line of God’s Word. That which is agreeable should be saved and savored. That which is contradictory should be marked and avoided.