While I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s, I worked part-time in a mortuary — or what is known in some parts of the country as a funeral home. I pretty much did everything one can do without a license from the state — from vacuuming out the limousines used to ferry family members to the cemetery to stepping in when there weren’t enough pallbearers.
The institution where I worked catered to all comers. Yet, it had a reputation in town as the “Catholic mortuary,” and, indeed, at least a plurality, if not a slight majority, of those whom we served were Roman Catholic. I noticed a fairly consistent pattern: The evening before the funeral itself there was a public recitation of the rosary, usually in the mortuary chapel, with the body of the deceased present in an open casket. The next day, Mass was celebrated in the parish church, this time with the casket closed, and covered with a pall. Following the Mass, there was a procession to the cemetery, and the remains were interred. (Often I was the one who drove the vehicle transporting the clergy from the church to the cemetery, and I picked up various bits of priestcraft that were later to serve me well in my own ordained ministry.) And all of this took place, invariably, within three to five days following the person’s demise.
Things have changed. I still regularly see hearses parked in front of Roman Catholic Churches, indicating that a funeral liturgy is in progress. But my suspicion is that this is happening far less frequently than it used to. The culture has reassessed what to do with death. Whatever public ceremonies there are might be styled something like “Celebration of Life” and usually take place on a Saturday, and often some weeks after the death so as to accommodate out-of-town family and friends. More than likely, neither a casket nor a cremation urn are present, those merely practical details having already been seen to quietly. The event will probably include some sort of video retrospective on the person’s life, a montage of photos with a popular song or two as a soundtrack, and an opportunity for multiple eulogists to come to the microphone and share their reminiscences.
As is the case in so many other areas, contemporary North American Christians are more children of the larger secular culture than they are of any distinctive Christian subculture. They are apt to gravitate toward these “celebration of life” practices. Yet, those who are part of Christian communities that stand in the larger catholic tradition have to confront that tradition in the form of their church’s official funeral liturgies. For Episcopalians, this is the form for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer.
The prayer book rite (and those of its various predecessors) is rooted in the practical purpose out of which it grew: the semi-urgent need to dispose of human remains in a prompt and dignified manner that bears witness to the transcendent truths of the gospel. When somebody died, job one was to bury the body. (In the Jewish and Muslim traditions, there is a very strict and rapid time frame for this; Christians have apparently been slightly more lenient.) What probably began as “a few words” at the graveside evolved into the fully developed funeral rites and related appurtenances of the western Catholic tradition that we find today. The prayer book liturgy drinks from this well.
Over time, however, various technological advances (refrigeration) and social change (increased acceptance of cremation) have combined to loosen the bond between the practical act of disposing of a person’s mortal remains and the ritual acknowledgement (public or private) of that same person’s passing. This has created a dissonance between evolving social expectations and the weight of Christian tradition — at the least, to say nothing of Christian belief itself. This presents a catechetical and pastoral challenge to church leaders. How does a bishop or parish priest walk the line between upholding orthodoxy/ orthopraxis – correct belief and conduct – and taking winsome note of the cultural sea in which his or her parishioners swim?
Within the framework of 1979 BCP, then, what are some “best practices” for the ritual observance of a Christian’s death that we should strive not to surrender to the secular culture? I would suggest the following, not as inflexible laws but as healthy norms that we should hold up unapologetically: (These recommendations presume, of course, an environment that is free of the sorts of restrictions we have endured during the pandemic–restrictions that remain fully in effect in some places and have been significantly loosened in others. Some of them may not yet be fully practical everywhere, but at least we can see the day on the horizon when they will be.)
We welcome the body (or cremated remains) to the funeral liturgy.
Historic Christianity is a sacramental faith. Our bodies are not our selves, but neither are they simply “meat,” to be disregarded as bearing no meaning. What was a temple of the Holy Spirit in life is, in death, a proclamation of the creedal Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, not merely the immortality of the soul. As Job testifies, “yet in my flesh shall I see God.” The presence of the body at a funeral makes this very statement. For this reason, I have found it pastorally helpful to begin the service with the form for the Reception of the Body at the door of the church (p. 466) in an audible way. Similarly, the presiding cleric should closely accompany the body out of the church to the hearse, and then from the hearse to the gravesite. In those moments, the celebrant’s “client” is not the grieving family but the deceased, represented by his or her body. (For whatever this may be worth, my experience over the decades, going back to my time at the mortuary, is that the opportunity to view the body is an important early element in the process of grieving for those who are bereaved.)
We celebrate the Eucharist.
This was the norm for centuries. In the churches shaped by the Reformation, it became the exception. Since the catholic revival of Anglicanism, it is once again at least an aspirational norm, and increasingly so, an actual one. The prayer book presumes it. The reason is readily apparent: the Eucharist is the portal to the paschal mystery – the mystery of salvation – and that alone interprets the universal human experience of death in a soul-satisfying way. At a funeral liturgy, when we reach our hands across the communion rail, we are being fed at the same heavenly banquet table as the one whose passage from this world to the next we are ritually marking. There is nothing quite so comforting.
We preach the gospel.
Even before the more recent shifts in secular society toward funeral practices, the church was out of sync. Our culture expects a eulogy — literally “good words” — about the deceased. Just as those who attend a wedding typically presume the ceremony is about the bride and groom, so those who attend a funeral presume that the rite is about the decedent. But both weddings and funerals are, generically and primarily, occasions of public and corporate worship, with a particular inflection that points to a special time of transition in someone’s life.
A burial liturgy is first “going to church” in general before it’s a funeral in particular. For this reason, a eulogy is jarringly out of place. It is, however, a robustly appropriate occasion for preaching. The appointed scripture readings provide a rich palette from which a preacher can articulate the good news of God in Christ as it pertains to the occasion at hand. Of course, a skilled homilist can virtually always find a way to weave material about the person and life of the dearly departed into the sermon. But this must be a secondary objective.
We aim for promptness.
The prayer book styles the burial rite the liturgy for the burial of the dead for a reason. It is pastorally salutary to preserve at least the fiction of urgency about getting a body into the ground (or ashes into a columbarium). Of course, this doesn’t mean there can’t be some measure of accommodation for things like out-of-town family members wishing to attend. But, for those who are bereaved, the public ritual acknowledgment of their loved-one’s passing is an important milestone. It provides a certain sort of closure that facilitates the healing process. To have an indefinitely long period between the death and the burial can interfere with this. Something beyond a few days turns the funeral into a different kind of thing – a good and helpful kind of thing, perhaps, but something that doesn’t accomplish the elemental “work” of assembling to bury the dead.
We gather outside the liturgy for remembrance and celebration.
The principal funeral service ought not to be weighed down with all the baggage that needs to be borne during the time following a death. Many ethnic cultures have traditions of people getting together informally either before or after the funeral, or both. In such a setting, it is manifestly appropriate to have multiple eulogies, “open mic” time, video retrospectives, and the like. Having such an event bleeds off much of the social pressure to have these extraneous items in the burial liturgy itself.
I have probably presided over more than two hundred funerals using the texts of the Book of Common Prayer, following most or all of these guidelines most or all of the time. Never once have I not been complemented, spontaneously and sincerely, by a stranger on the effectiveness of the service. If done per the rubrics, it simply “works” like nothing else. It breathes the spirit of gospel hope in a winsome and compelling way. It is one of our greatest treasures.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.