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Preparing for a Christian Funeral

The Purpose of a Christian Funeral

+  to hear, at a time of mourning, the good news of forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ

+  to proclaim to the congregation and the community that God has power over death and the grave

+  to remember that Jesus Christ is "the firstfruits from the dead" and, for that reason, the only source of hope beyond the    grave

+  to receive comfort from the promise that we will be reunited with our loved ones at the last day through the resurrection of Jesus

+  to praise God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - for all these blessings in our lives and in the life of the departed fellow believer

Please let the Pastor know!

     Family members should call the pastor whenever a serious illness or injury occurs so he can minister to the dying believer, pray with them, strengthen them in their faith, and help them prepare for death. The pastor especially appreciates private opportunities to do this, in addition to the visiting and counseling he does at other times with other family members present.

     When a death occurs, please let the pastor know immediately so he can meet with and offer support to the family. He also needs to be involved in selecting the time and place for the funeral and, if at all possible will welcome the opportunity to, along with the family, meet with the funeral director in planning the service.

Don't try to "overcompensate" in death

     Sometimes, following a death, family members try to overcompensate for real or perceived failings in their relationship with the departed believer by spending a lot of money on the funeral. Social custom, too, pressures people into "showing our respect for the dead" by "going all out" as a sign of our love.

     But Christians know that we will see our loved ones again soon enough in heaven, so our "goodbyes" said now are only temporary. We know the time to "make things right" in difficult relationships is while our friends and relatives are still alive, and we trust that Jesus' forgiveness covers even our failures in doing so. We recognize that it is futile to try to "change things" or "fix things up" after a person's soul has already left this world for the next.

     Funeral directors provide quality service in specific and professional ways. They are trained not to capitalize on grief or resort to "emotional blackmail" to see their services. Instead, they are eager to help you deal with your grief, and limit their services to what you desire. There are also regulations and laws in the various states that protect the rights of families who are being cared for by funeral directors.

Care for the body, not the soul

     Christians through the centuries have always shown great consideration and care for the bodies of those whose souls are already with the Lord. We see in the example of the disciples a great care for Jesus' body after His death on the cross. He was given a first-class tomb and we see great love went into all the arrangements for His burial (although, in hindsight, it was all a "wasted effort" after the third day).

     Our bodies, though, don't share in Jesus' resurrection quite so quickly. They stay in the ground and decompose; this is natural and proper for the body of a deceased since "dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). We believe this, and show our faith by the way we treat the bodies of those who have died. The objective is never to try to preserve them forever, but allowing them to return to the dust from which they came.

     Even so, we still continue to honor the body that God created. It always remains a precious and sacred gift. We understand from Scripture that the body that was conceived corruptible shall be raised without corruption.

"So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

Thus while we will show care for the body, we remember that it is but an empty vessel once the soul of the departed believer is separated from it.

Pre-Arranged Funerals

     Letting your wishes be known to your family members before you die may make many decisions much easier for them. Many arrangements can in face be made well in advance of your death - not only with a funeral home and cemetery but also with your pastor. See Appendix A for a planning guide. Here you can make special requests regarding music, Bible readings, and other, relevant parts of the funeral service. In this way, your wishes will be known and respected, and the praised of your fellow believers offer to God for your life and faith can be crafted along lines which help them remember you. Your pastor is willing (upon request) to discuss any of these matters with you, and also to help you with any pre-funeral arrangements. Appendix B is the policy for the Bethel cemetery for those desiring to be interred there.

On the matter of cremation

     The Bible says nothing about cremation; it is neither advocated nor condemned. Its origins, though, lie outside of the Christian faith and has sometimes been used as an attempt to deny or prevent the resurrection of the dead (unsuccessfully we might point out). The important thing, then, in deciding whether or not to cremate is the motive behind the decision. But, in the matters of faith, it is still a matter of adiaphora (neither commanded nor condemned) for the sake of disposing of the remains of a believer.

The Place of the Congregation

     Funerals are not arranged for the mourning families and their friends alone; funerals are important for the Christian congregation. Funerals give us opportunities to worship our Lord and thank Him for our brothers and sisters, living and dead. Regardless of where they are held (in the funeral home or the church), funerals are primarily the congregation's responsibility.

     One of the reasons this is true is because believers who die are not "cut off" from the church. Many Bible passages assure us that those who die that believe in Jesus are with their Lord (and ours, as a congregation) forever; their souls are already with God from the time of their death, and their bodies are waiting in the ground until the resurrection at the Last Day. In fact, those who die in the Lord are still members of Christ's Church Universal, the "Church Triumphant." We of the "Church Militant" still carry on our ministrations on earth, but we join with their chorus when our lives have run their course (see 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18). Part of the congregation's place in the funeral of their fellow believers is that while we mourn their earthly passing, Christians still enjoy their fellowship in the faithful family of God that transcends life on this side of heaven. The care and reverence and honor shown in a Christian funeral is one of the finest ways of all to demonstrate the reality of this "communion of saints" that link our lives together.

A Church Funeral?

     Considering the "transcendent" nature of the church - that is, because the Church is made up of Christians on both sides of the grave - the church is the best place to hold funerals for believers. Worshing there preaches a powerful message about the bonds that link us together with our Lord and with each other, come what may. Some people might still not to use the church. For some it may be a matter of logistics; for others, it may be a matter of costs. Yet holding the funeral of a believer in the church should be considered carefully.

     Some funeral homes are designed in a way that can seem "artificial." Family members are often "shielded" from other mourners, in spite of the fact that there's nothing wrong with being seen grieving for a loved one. Jesus' own tears at the death of His friend, Lazarus, legitimize our feelings of mourning. Sitting the family off by themselves also separates them from the encouragement and support of the rest of the congregation, which is a significant source of comfort and support in a time of grief. God's family belongs together at funerals even more than at other times.

     Singing is another factor that should be considered. Some funeral homes have been designed in a fashion that makes them poorly equipped for singing, which is a key ingredient in Lutheran worship, especially as we rejoice in God's love for our brother or sister. Singing the praises of our gracious God at the farewell of a beloved believer is what the focus of a funeral is really all about for the Christian: A funeral is not about sweet and sentimental soothing, but the goodness and mercy of God who is ours in life and death, because of His love for us in Jesus, His Son. Funerals give us a perfect reason to sing the great, old hymns of the Christian faith - confidently, boldly, and hopefully even in our grief as we confess our faith together in Jesus' death and resurrection.

Arrangements at Church

     Bethel Lutheran Church holds that a funeral service is also (and especially) a "worship service" of the congregation and, as such, will be conducted in a reverent and orderly manner consistent to the faith that the church believes, teaches, and confesses as a community of the saints. While a variety of service formats may and have been used, the "Order of Service" from The Lutheran Service Book (which is the current hymnal of the congregation) outlines the funeral service in the following manner:

+  Pre-Service Music

+  Invocation

+  Remembrance of Baptism (with the covering of the casket with the Funeral Pall)

+  Entrance Hymn

+  Kryie ("Lord, Have Mercy")

+  Salutation and Collect of the Day

+  Old Testament or First Reading

+  Psalm or Gradual

+  Epistle or Second Reading

+  Verse

+  Holy Gospel

+  Apostles' Creed

+  Hymn of the Day

+  Sermon

+  The Prayer of the Church

+  The option of celebrating Holy Communion

+  The Lord's Prayer

+  Nunc Dimittis ("Song of Solomon")

+  Concluding Collect

+  Benedicamus and Benediction

+  Closing Hymn

Requests from family members for specific hymns, Bible readings, or special requests will be honored whenever possible so far as they add to the expression of the faith of the deceased believer and are not disrespectful to the Lutheran faith in any fashion.

Additionally, the arrangements in the church will include (but not be limited to):

1.  The church will provide its organist to play during the funeral as well as janitorial help before and after the service.

2,  If the viewing of the casket is held in the Narthex, the casket will be placed in the center against the windows with chairs set up on one side of the room; if the viewing is held in the Sanctuary, the casket will be placed at the front of the space, parallel to the altar. The casket may be opened and closed during the viewing at the family's request.

3.  In the case of veterans or current military personnel, the American flag will be draped on the casket whenever it is outside of the Sanctuary; when in the Sanctuary, the Funeral Pall (which represents Christ's righteousness covering the baptized believer) will be draped over the casket. Once the casket is removed from the Sanctuary, the Funeral Pall will be removed and folded and the American flag will be draped for the journey to the graveside (as noted in DOD policy).

4.  Funeral sprays may ordain the casket while it remains outside of the Sanctuary. Once the basket enters the Sanctuary, it is covered with the Funeral Pall (see above).

5.  Holy Communion is noted as an option in the LSB as part of the funeral service. However, the communion policy of the Bethel congregation will be maintained and (thus) people outside The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod would find themselves unable to participate. Care should proceed the celebration of Communion among a congregation of mixed-religious and differing Christian denominations.

6.  Prior to the funeral service, the pastor will offer brief thoughts and a prayer with the family while still in the Narthex. The casket may be rolled to the front while the family follows, or may be placed in the front prior to the family's entrance into the Sanctuary. The casket enters with the deceased's feet at the front and head at the back (as the person would have entered the Sanctuary facing forward when alive).

7.  When the casket is taken out into the Narthex, the pallbearers process immediately behind the casket, led by the pastor, and followed by the family. The pallbearers will help to place the casket into the hearse for the journey to the graveside.

8.  A meal following the funeral service and committal may be held either in the Parish Hall or the Family Life Center, depending upon the number of people attending. Bethel congregation provides the food for such a reception.

What about a eulogy?

     Some of the churches within Christendom offer the practice of a "eulogy" during the funeral service. A "eulogy" is generally a statement of appreciation for the deceased that often focuses on their personal character, actions, or an offering of stories reflecting the nature of the person being mourned. However, the funeral of a Christian is not about the person, but about the grace of God who takes the sinner and, through the righteousness of Christ that comes with one's faith in Jesus as Savior, and declares them a saint. Eulogies that focus on a person's character or actions take the emphasis away from God's work. Therefore it is more appropriate for such eulogies to be offered at the reception rather than during the actual funeral service.

What is a "memorial service"?

     A "memorial service" is very similar to a funeral service with the exception that the body of the deceased is not present. The body, for instance, may have been buried in another place or at another time; the family may elect to have a graveside service in private and hold a public, memorial service separate from the committal service.

Flowers versus Memorial Gifts

     Flowers are symbols of life, providing beauty and enjoyment. They also symbolize the resurrection, because of the way they grow up from a single seed or bulb that's planted in the ground. Their presence at a funeral can, therefore, be a sign of our hope that we too will rise to new life beyond the grave. Placing a basket or arrangement of flowers in the chancel area is especially meaningful since it is because of our baptism that we are "buried with Christ" and therefore share in His resurrection (Romans 6:4). [Flowers are not placed on the altar for it represents God's presence in the midst of His people.]

     A gift of money in support of a gospel ministry or a charitable cause is a particularly useful and long-lasting way to remember and honor a loved one. This is especially true in the case of a memorial gift to the deceased believer's congregation, which then remembers in an on-going way that person's faithful life and continuing members with them in "the communion of saints." In consultation with the pastor, the family may designate memorial gifts for a specific cause or project within or outside the congregation. Undesignated memorial gifts will be used for special projects when the church can choose from time to time. A list of possible needs is available in the church office.

When would our pastor decline to serve?

     The Lutheran funeral service says, as its opening statement, "This service is intended for the burial of those who departed this life in the Christian faith." Lutheran pastors are not ambulance-chasers, undertakers, or preachers-for-hire. It's simply too hard to officiate as a Christian pastor at the funeral of someone who gave no evidence of being a Christian during their life.

     Christian funerals are worship services of the church and not conducted solely for the sake of the family of others who mourn. Some pastors conduct funerals whenever they are asked, thinking that doing so gives them an opportunity to reach the living. And to a certain extent, that is true: the Word certainly can be presented very clearly and powerfully at funerals. But ultimately Christian burials are for Christian people which are opportunities to thank the Lord for creating and nurturing saving faith in the deceased believer's life.

     People who have refused or turned away from God's gift of faith should therefore not receive a Christian funeral. Pretending they were believers when in fact they were not benefits nobody; neither the deceased (whose eternal destiny has already been established), neither the family nor the congregation. Consider these words from Scripture: "The gospel they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard it did not combine it with faith" (Hebrews 4:2). Additional, if a member was under church discipline that had not been resolved at the time of their death, the pastor will conduct the funeral service.

     If our pastor(s) are in a pastoral relationship with a non-member at the time of his/her death, a funeral may be allowed at Bethel congregation.

Christian witness in the cemetery

     Careful choice of a grave marker and inscription can be an excellent way to "bear witness" to the Christian faith we share with the deceased (please refer to Appendix B regarding the policy of the Bethel congregation). As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).

     The custom of having a grave marker is rooted in the book of Genesis, where Jacob remembered and honored the grave of his wife, Rachel, by setting up a "pillar" over the place where her body lay (Genesis 35:20).

     Three guidelines to consider for markers and epitaphs:

1.  It should reflect our Christian faith and hope.

2.  It should be a God-pleasing tribute to the loved one who is now at home with the Lord.

3.  If should reinforce the faith and hope of those who mourn.

     Designs to consider:

+  CROSS - the symbol of our completed redemption by Christ

+  ROSE - the symbol of Jesus, love, and hope

+  IVY - the symbol of memory..."I will not forget you"

+  VIOLET - the symbol of faithfulness..."God is faithful"

+  LILY - the symbol of heaven..."In Your presence in full joy"

+ NARCISSUS - the symbol of grace

+  MORNING GLORY - the symbol of the eternal morning of heaven

Other Christian symbols include angels, a lamb, a vine with a grape cluster, an open Bible, etc.

Phrases that bear witness to our faith:

     Redeemed by Christ                         Asleep in Jesus                          Rest in peace

     Heaven is my home                          In His love I rest                       Forever with the Lord

     For me Christ died - in Him, I abide           Saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ

     My Savior ever lives - eternal hope He gives       Death cannot part from Christ the trusting heart