What Is a Christian Funeral?
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
…Thanks be to God!
He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:55,57
For many people, death is the end of life. Nothing follows. And so funerals are simply an opportunity to remember an individual that we will never see again. For the Christian, nothing could be further from the truth. The bible teaches that, on the one hand, death is a consequence of sin, and so it has the potential to be the beginning of eternal separation from God. Yet, on the other hand, the bible teaches God sent Jesus into this world to die for our sins and reunite us with God. And so now for those reunited with God, death has lost its sting. It no longer leads to eternal separation, but instead to eternal union with God.
Christians still mourn when loved ones pass away. But Christians do not mourn like those with no hope in ever seeing their loved ones again. Instead, their mourning is overshadowed by joy in knowing Jesus has forgiven that loved one’s sins, and so their time of suffering in this sin-filled world is over. They’re in heaven with Jesus waiting for us to join them one day.
And so funerals are really victory celebrations for Christians. We gather to thank God for sending Jesus, and we gather to celebrate the eternal life God has given for Jesus’ sake to our fellow believers.
Your Christian Funeral Service
The purpose of a Christian funeral is to bring comfort to the survivors by confessing the hope which we have concerning the dead. Since the pastor has been called to speak for the church, he will be in charge of the funeral service. For confessional fellowship reasons, your pastors will carry out all aspects of the worship service. It is their joy and privilege to do this.
WHICH PASTORS WILL OFFICIATE AND PREACH?
St. Paul has two pastors who have both been called by St. Paul to carry out funeral services. Your pastors will decide the division of duties (who will lead the funeral service, who will preach the funeral sermon, and who will perform the grave-side service). Please do not request which pastor ought to perform which role, as both have been called by God to be your pastor at this time of need.
It is not our practice to allow eulogies by friends, family members, or members of the armed forces. Opportunities for words of remembrance can certainly take place after the service at the funeral reception. During the actual worship service, we like to keep all eyes completely focused on Jesus, Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and the deceased’s faith these truths.
Since Scripture teaches worship is an expression of common faith (Hebrews 10:24,25), if the family of the deceased desires a soloist, the choice shall be one who is in confessional fellowship with our church body. This means the soloist must be a member of a WELS congregation or member within a sister synod. And since our goal is to keep all eyes on the cross of Christ, the pastor may at times have to tactfully direct the family to music selections which emphasize the saving grace of Jesus and our hope in him for a future life.
THE FUNERAL SERMON
In a Christian funeral service, the sermon is of prime importance, because it gives the pastor an opportunity to directly apply God’s law (how we all fall short of God’s requirements to be with him in heaven) and God’s gospel (that Jesus died on the cross to satisfy the requirements for us to be with God in heaven) to the life of the deceased. Although the “fruits of faith” (the good things the person did during their life that flowed from their trust in Jesus) may be acknowledged, this is certainly not of primary importance. So don’t be surprised if this portion of the deceased’s life is only mentioned. What we care most about right now is that the deceased became a child of God because of Jesus’ death on the cross, and because the Holy Spirit through God’s word created faith in the heart of the deceased. The pastor may stress several aspects of this great gospel comfort:
- The Lord’s purpose in permitting this death to occur when it did, and as it did, was a purpose of his love. (Romans 8:28)
- Those who die believing in their Saviour go to be with their Lord in heaven immediately upon death, and this is the best thing that can possibly happen to the person. (Philippians 1:23).
- We bury our dead in the hope of a resurrection to everlasting life (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17).
- According to his promise, the Lord will be with the bereaved to comfort them, guide them, provide for them, and receive them into glory at last.
Sermons about these things will strengthen the faith of all Christians present and will be a testimony of their hope in Jesus to all non-believers also in attendance. This is a wonderful opportunity to share our faith and demonstrate how the Christian responds in faith in the face of death.
In past times, cremation has been associated with unbelief, especially when the ashes are scattered, challenging the Lord to restore the remains and bring them back to life. Today, this thought is often not associated with cremation. Rather, the motivation often comes from a variety of reasons: economy, ease of transportation of the remains, a notion that burial involves health hazards or unwarranted land use. As long as the motivation for cremation remains Christian, your pastors will respect wishes to perform funerals involving cremated remains.
What About Those Who Are Not Members of the St. Paul Family?
Christian funerals are about one thing: Jesus, and our faith that he has conquered death. A dearly loved one has died only to begin life anew in heaven with his Saviour Jesus. A dearly loved one has died with a faith that clinged to Jesus and Jesus alone as his only Saviour from his sins and imperfections, and as his only hope for eternal life.
Our pastors may only officiate at a funeral in which he can in good conscience share the message that the deceased is in heaven with Jesus. This means our pastors may only officiate at the funerals of our own church members, since the pastor has been called to minister to them, has developed a spiritual relationship with them, and has practiced a unified faith in Jesus with them. Only in special circumstances (outlined below) will our pastors officiate a non-member’s funeral.
Consider also the following: Your pastors may officiate funerals only in cases where there was evidence of Christian faith in the deceased’s life. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the deceased believing and telling others:
- There is a perfect, holy God, who has revealed himself as three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. (Leviticus 19:2; Matthew 28:19)
- I am a sinner. That means I’m far from perfect, and so I have no right to be with a perfect God. In fact, God in his perfection should want nothing to do with me and cast me from his presence forever. (Psalm 51)
- But instead, out of love for me, God sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross for my sins, giving me his perfect life. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- The perfect life of Jesus became mine when the Holy Spirit created faith in my heart that trusts God will now take me to be with him in heaven, because of Jesus’ death for me. (John 3:16)
A Christian burial is entirely about celebrating these truths and celebrating the deceased’s belief in them. And so if the deceased does not believe these things, the funeral becomes disingenuous and impossible for a pastor to carry out with a good conscience. Thank you for respecting the beliefs of this congregation by not requesting funerals for those not clearly professing to be Christians.
FUNERALS FOR THOSE THE PASTOR HAS MINISTERED TO
If your non-Christian friend or family member is facing death or serious illness, and you ask your pastor to minister to this person, and if in the course of his time with his the pastor has heard a confession of faith in Jesus as her Saviour, the pastor will be very willing and ready to officiate at the funeral if he is asked to do so, and to use the opportunity to celebrate God’s grace. The same principle will apply in the case of anyone the pastor is ministering to that expresses clear faith in Jesus.
In such cases, however, the pastor will be careful to insist that all religious features connected with the funeral be under his guidance. The worship service will follow all principles outlined in Scripture and in this booklet.
Service Details to Consider
As you look to your own death and new life with Jesus in heaven, please consider thinking through the following details regarding your own Christian funeral, and pass on your decisions formally to your pastors.
- Write down what your wishes are. Cremation or burial? Funeral home or at St. Paul.
- Funeral service hymns. The order of service for Christian Funeral allows for 3 hymns. Refer to the “Death & Burial” section, hymns, 605-608 and the Easter section, hymns 141-168. Selecting Easter resurrection hymns is a positive expression of your Christian hope.
- Lessons and sermon text. Refer to pages 148-149 of Christian Worship. Any favourite sections of Scripture that you have that focus on Jesus as our Saviour from sin and the object of our faith may be chosen. Your confirmation memory verse will also be used if this known.
- Soloists. Consider selecting soloists you would like to aid in the funeral worship service. Please refer to the earlier section on soloists for full details.
- Talk to your children. Let them know what your wishes are.