By Bryan Owen
Afew years ago I attended a memorial service in a funeral home. The pastor who presided over the service cited a few brief Scripture texts. They were interpreted to mean that it’s better to die and go to heaven than to remain in this life. Oddly, the name of Jesus was barely mentioned during most of the service. But the pastor did go on for 20 to 30 minutes about the life and character of the deceased. It would not have been a stretch in the logic of the pastor’s eulogy if toward the end he claimed that the deceased had died to atone for the sins of the world.
We encounter a very different focus in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer when we read this about funeral liturgies: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised” (p. 507).
This statement shifts the focus away from the deceased to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And that accounts for a number of details in the Burial Office rubrics and liturgy.
For example, the prayer book directs that the “coffin is to be closed before the service, and it remains closed thereafter.” The prayer book also affirms the appropriateness of covering the coffin “with a pall or other suitable covering” (p. 490) The pall symbolizes the deceased being clothed with immortality in Christ: “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53). The pall also reinforces that all persons — regardless of social status, wealth, or education — are rendered equal in death. And more importantly, we are equal by virtue of our baptisms into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A closed casket, the use of the pall, and matching hangings and vestments in the color of Easter visually shift the focus away from death and dead bodies to the resurrection.
Even the Scripture passages the prayer book allows for funerals underscore the shift away from focusing on the deceased to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not uncommon for family members to ask for the inclusion of readings in funerals that were the deceased’s favorite passages. However, the rubric introducing the Liturgy of the Word says this: “One or more of the following passages from Holy Scripture is read” (pp. 470, 494). This is a directive rubric that does not allow for the possibility of other readings. And that’s because the readings permitted by the prayer book are among the biblical passages that bear the clearest witness to the Christian hope. It’s not about someone’s favorite Scripture passages. It’s about Jesus.
A similar rationale lies behind discouraging eulogies in favor of homilies in the Burial Office. Of course, the character and life events of the deceased can be included in a homily, and particularly insofar as they illustrate truths of the Gospel. And if the deceased had favorite passages of Scripture that aren’t part of the official Liturgy of the Word, the homily is an appropriate place to cite them. But again, the true focus of the liturgy is not the deceased, but the risen Jesus.
In my experience of parish ministry, adhering to this focus on Jesus and the Christian hope can sometimes be challenging. Many people are used to custom designing “life events” such as birthday parties and weddings. They sometimes expect to do the same when planning the funeral for a loved one. And, of course, in the wake of loss, they are grieving and vulnerable. So funeral planning always requires pastoral sensitivity. But that pastoral sensitivity needs to adhere to the prayer book’s understanding of what Christian funerals are all about.
The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection.
Your funeral service is not really about you. It’s about Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. It’s about the love of God that’s stronger than death. It’s about Jesus’ victory over the grave and God’s power to make all things new. It’s about reaffirming the Christian hope that allows us “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life” as we “await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world” (BCP, p. 861) And it’s about the reassurance that because Jesus rose from the dead, all who belong to him shall also be raised.
As an introduction to my homily, I normally ask for a family member or friend — typically one of each — to reflect on the life of the deceased in prepared remarks. What stories emulate the virtues you want to remember? What demonstrates their faith in Christ? After these prepared remarks, I then conclude with a sermon that interweaves these stories with the theology of death expressed in the BCP, and the Hope expressed in the scriptures. This has worked well during 34 years of ministry, and attendees say that their faith has been strengthened.