February has been celebrated as Black History Month for almost 50 years now, though its roots go back to the 1920s and beyond. The idea behind it is to highlight the contributions of African Americans to this country and present a fuller story of our past than had traditionally been offered by the traditional historians of the majority culture. I’m not going to write about that this month (maybe next year on the 50th anniversary!), but I do want to encourage you to make an effort this month to learn something about Black History. Read a book. Watch a movie or television documentary. As I’ve been saying in my sermons recently – prompted especially by Jesus’ baptism – the history and concerns of all people, especially the marginalized and oppressed, are ours too because they are Christ’s. If you’re a reader, I recommend “The New Jim Crowe” by Michelle Alexander as one of the more memorable (and upsetting) books I’ve read recently.
What I want to talk about this month, though, is another topic you might not necessarily want to think about: funerals. Dealing with death is not something any of us looks forward to, but is one of the most important roles the church has in people’s lives. It’s become fashionable in recent years to move away from traditional funerals with their focus on grief and religious content to a memorial “celebration of life” that takes the focus off of death. As a result they don’t actually do a very good job of dealing with death.
The Christian funeral, in contrast, faces death head on with the promise that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, death does not have the final word. When we’re at our best, that promise will permeate the service from beginning to end, in the hymns, the reading, the sermon, the prayers and in specific rituals like remembrance of baptism, commendation of the deceased, and the celebration of Holy Communion. Where our culture tells us that a funeral should be all about the person who has died, one last chance at individual self-expression, the gospel compels us to focus a Christian funeral on God’s promise for the one who has died, so that we might find comfort in our grief, and meaning and hope for the one we have lost.
A quick word about funerals vs. memorials. A funeral is a service at which the body (or remains) of the deceased are present. A memorial is a service at which no body or remains are present. As the name implies, it is about remembering the person we knew and loved.
In my opinion, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, which we have been using for the past 12 years, gives us a particularly good funeral service when judged by the criterion I mentioned above (communicating the God’s promise.) The service begins with a remembrance of baptism, with the body (or remains) of the deceased present at the font. A specific connection is made in the prayers said at this point between the deceased’s baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and his or her own death which we now face. Christ died, but Christ was also risen from the dead. And since we are connected to Christ in baptism, we are assured that we are also connected to his resurrection, as Paul says in Romans 6.
Thanksgiving for baptism is followed by readings chosen to lift up that promise, and then the sermon, which is meant to connect those readings in specific, relatable ways to the one who has died, as well as to those who have gathered to mourn.
Holy Communion is particularly appropriate at a funeral service, especially if the deceased has been an active participant in the life of the church. In this sacrament, Christ is truly present for us. But because God transcends time and space, Christ is also truly present to all people of every time and place who have received ever it, or who will receive it. That means that the one we mourn is actually partaking of the sacrament with us, that we gather with them in this moment, and each time we come to the Lord’s table. You can think of it this way: they are still with us at this meal, they’ve just moved down to the other end of the table.
Holy Communion, when celebrated, is followed by the commendation, a prayer that entrusts the deceased into God’s eternal care and the service concludes. Ideally, it is then followed by the committal – a brief service at the place where the body or remains are buried or interred. We accompany our beloved dead all the way to the place where they will rest until they are raised again on the last day, and we remind ourselves once again that because of Christ, death does not have the final word.
In encourage each of you, of any age, to think about your own funeral, and to choose now some readings and hymns that convey the heart of the gospel in the face of death. I have a suggested list of both that I can provide you with. And then communicate those in some way to your family and friends. Write them down. Put them your files with your will. And send a copy to the church office. Look too at the service in the ELW. It is rich and meaningful. Take a moment to think about your own death – as scary as that might be – and then take heart that not even that can separated you from God’s love for you in Jesus Christ!
+ Pastor Chris Repp