Funerals from Hell

Craig A. Parton
Friday, January 1st 2010
Jan/Feb 2010

I’ve concluded that the typical evangelical funeral can go quite a ways to making a person an atheist. I’ve also concluded that the church needs to reclaim the fundamental truth that Christianity is primarily for dying. Not primarily for living, but for dying; and because it is primarily about preparing to die, it has something profound to offer about living. Funerals need to rediscover death and thus once again have something to say to the living.

Before looking at the causes of the death of the funeral, a true confession about a funeral–oops, sorry, a celebration of life–I recently attended. (I am just getting out of theological therapy from the experience.)

My rescue came from the Christian funeral and burial of my mother, who died on Epiphany. All I can say is thanks be to God for a Christ-centered burial liturgy, for a graveside service providing the godly focus on the death of death, and for a faithful pastor bringing Jesus in his forgiving and saving office to all present.

A Fun-eral from Hell

“Bob” was a prominent evangelical businessman. He surfed. He married. He procreated. He made barn loads of money. And so the assembly was treated to body-length photos of Bob the Action Figure. Of course, this celebration lacked a few things that definitely would be a downer at any celebration–distractions like a dead body or that troubling casket. Come to think of it, the words “dying,” “dead,” or “death” were real no-nos during the whole celebration, which was led by a man whom my wife refers to now as simply “Mr. Happy Pastor.”

Happy Pastor is one of those cool, laid-back, California surfer-dude, Hawaiian-shirted, Plexiglas pulpit, megachurch guys who is well prepared to be a personal assistant to a Hollywood celebrity or to work in a hip music studio as the sound board operator. He has the spiritual gifts of being funny, relevant, and cool. He just was not into bringing the pure gospel of grace and forgiveness of sins in Jesus. He worked relentlessly hard that morning to eliminate any confrontation with the deadly duo of sin and death. Into that vacuum, he put Bob’s really cool life and a really cool celebration.

This may come as a shock, but Jesus of Calvary was not part of Happy Pastor’s fun-eral. And you do show what is indispensable to you theologically (and in every other way) when you gather that last time over someone who has departed this earth for the next world. What was clearly nonnegotiable was anything upbeat–upbeat stories, upbeat music, upbeat pictures, and an upbeat Pelagian theology. Oh, and a pastor who himself was upbeat the whole time because after all this was not a negative, pessimistic, gaudy, legalistic, liturgical “funeral” but a “celebration of life.”

The phrase “celebration of life” is like the words “healing” and “closure,” all terms that have the scintilla of truth in them necessary to often mask the primal smell of sulphur.

The obligatory testimonials (the raising up of Bob’s good deeds for all to see) were the center of Happy Pastor’s fun-time celebration–and they went on ad nauseam. I was starkly reminded of their numbing repetitiveness by the comment of the Uncle Fester-like (of Adams Family fame) mortician I dealt with for my mother’s burial. When I explained to Fester that we were doing a graveside funeral for my mother with only her solidly orthodox pastor speaking and zero “testimonials,” his paste-white body sighed with groans too deep for words. “Those testimonials are a total waste of time at a funeral,” he said as we flipped through the casket catalogues. “I have heard thousands of them. Everybody says the same thing: ‘Mary Margaret was a nice person and here is why.’ I just hate those things.” And Uncle Fester the Mortician shall be their guide.

The testimonials at Bob’s fun-eral reminded me of the toasts I recently endured at another “cool” celebration for an evangelical I will simply call “Ed.” Ed, tragically, took his own life–committed suicide in his garage and was found by his son. Yet not one of the toasters at Ed’s funeral mentioned the sin of suicide at the celebration of the life of Ed. That would have been a true bummer to the party atmosphere. What we got treated to was, “He was a great, great, funny, great, cool, great guy.” I wondered what his son thought who had found Ed hanging from the rafters in the garage. The boy deserved hearing it straight from the MC of the celebration (I mean, another Happy Pastor) that his dad sadly had fallen into the grievous sin of despair and that Christ in his mercy can cover all sins including that one. The death of Jesus reaches even to that level of despair as we remain simul justus et peccator till death kills one half of that equation. But we heard not one word about Ed’s sin being terribly grievous.

Instead, the message could have at least tried to call for all of us to repent of our sins and to believe on Christ, to get under that shed blood flowing from the riven side, and to find there the salvation of our souls; and to be careful, for our adversary the devil wishes to lead us into temptation, chief among them, as Luther says in the Small Catechism, are false belief and despair. All I could think of during the celebration was William Blackstone’s line about suicide as “appearing before God uninvited.”

Bob’s fun-eral had Happy Pastor doing what I guess he does when, as he himself puts it, he “does church.” He made it fun. The fun time hosted by Happy Pastor was complete with a whopper of a theological closing that would have made Shirley MacLaine blush with pride: Happy Pastor told us to pray and tell Bob goodbye because Bob was watching his own celebration “right now.”

Boy, do I see through a glass darkly I guess because I never got from Scripture what was now revealed: Christians who die are watching their services here on earth and they are, frankly, real tired of traditional negative funerals. They want us to have a good time, and they want us to reach out and talk to them before they go permanently over the river.

Celebrations and the Loss of Sadness

If we are anything, we are a culture of entertainment and denial that has sanitized dying and death and put it in a world hopefully far, far away. Sadness, if prolonged or of a disturbing depth, is to be diagnosed and medicated. Even sadness that might, God forbid, lead to repentance.

And entertainment is the mother’s milk from which today’s evangelical celebrations gladly feed. We want our funerals to mirror our church services and our church services to mirror our virtual lives–fun, interesting, enlightening, moving, and upbeat. Whether it is faithful to Christ and his Word is, well, nice if you can actually pull that off and stay cool, but it is not obligatory. If your religious life is fun, interesting, enlightening, moving, and upbeat, then it is clearly faithful to Christ and his Word.

The church used to pay less heed to the impacts of secular culture on its people–in fact, the church was culture. The church’s fights were more with the sinful flesh and with the devil. The world, or culture, and Christianity were nearly synonymous, and in many ways secular Greek culture provided support and a springboard for the advancement of Christian intellectual and artistic life. The church also had good reason for absolute confidence in its liturgical forms grounded in the highly regulated Old Testament worship centering in the Temple. The church had particular confidence in the forms that surrounded the death of the Christian. The church knew what dying sinners must hear from her, and one was on the cusp of entering the Church Triumphant. The dying sinner needed to confess his sins and hear the words of absolution spoken by the called minister of Word and Sacrament, and the dying needed to receive the body and blood of Jesus unto the forgiveness of sins from that called servant. This was serious business not given over to talk-show hosts who might well deliver themselves rather than Jesus and him crucified to those in the throes of death.

The church also recognized the important humanity connected to the grieving and sadness that surrounds dying and death. The Scriptures are replete with examples of courageous men weeping over death (the grief of Job over his personal Armageddon, the grief of David over the death of his child, the grief of Jesus over Lazarus). Indeed, Psalm 6 tells us David wept all night over his sins. This affirmation of the masculinity of grieving and the proper place for sadness (both in the death of a loved one or in repentant sorrow for sin) has now been replaced by the “celebration of life” that eliminates the dead body, the casket, the burial, and the sadness and grieving that once accompanied death. The church’s romanticizing of death is a consequence of its substitution of the Man of Sorrows with a Teenager of Fun. This is another reason why men don’t waste their time coming to our churches. When you sentimentalize death and make it “fun,” skeptics will find something else to do on Sunday. If this Jesus can’t deliver at death’s portal, he surely is not worth consulting on the issues of this life.

For centuries, the church had forms for grieving over death too. The Irish Catholics and the Jewish people still do. The Irish have their wake: a time for the body of the dead to be reckoned with, for family and friends to reckon with (and be reconciled to) one another, to hoist a brew together one last time in the presence of ole’ Charlie, and to reminisce about the time Charlie astounded everyone by winning the Dublin Dart Faire while consuming eight ales. When the moment came for the committal of Charlie’s body back to the dirt, it was clearly time for God to speak and for man to be silent. Without the wake, or the Jewish observance of “sitting Shiva” together for a week of grieving and solitude after death, we see everything happening at the “celebration of life.” Now the wake and the funeral get put into the blender together. Except what comes out is neither. We don’t get the validation of grief and sorrow anymore. We don’t deal with the body. We don’t get the grittiness of a wake. And we don’t get the comfort of a funeral. We get a tacky party.

The gospel is harmed when we fail to deal seriously with death. The goal of celebrations (and their stepchild, the “memorial service”) is not to proclaim Christ and him crucified and risen again for our justification. Instead, the celebration of life is designed to magnify all the good qualities of the one memorialized and to maybe tack on Jesus at the end as a nice helper in one’s corner in tough times who saw this really good man over the river.

Where are the funerals with a good, solid, gospel-driven liturgy that centers on Christ and on all his strong words about his victory over sin, death, and the devil? Where are the funerals that are testimonials to him? Where are the funerals that talk about grief and sadness? Where are the funerals that are not embarrassed to have a body present?

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Getting the Body Back into Funerals

Having gone through the process of death and burial recently, I have some strong suggestions that might help combat what a friend of mine calls the “Gnostic Vaudeville Show,” known as the “Celebration of Life.”

1. Write out your own funeral service now–or, more simply, make it clear you want the solid liturgical burial service found in hymnal “X.” At a minimum, tell your pastor what you want at your funeral and what you don’t want (e.g., “If Aunt Brittany demands to sing ‘Majesty’ at my funeral, I direct that there will be no funeral–take my body immediately to be buried”). This takes the onus off family members who want a biblical, gospel-driven burial liturgy but must fight against the purveyors of the fun-eral. You could well avoid a number of potentially very weird things from happening around your (or any) funeral because others (or you) can always say, “But this is what Dad told his pastor he wanted.”

2. If you can, choose the venue for the funeral carefully. If your choice is between the basketball court/worship center versus the graveside, go with the graveside. It keeps the service short and focused and emphasizes all the biblical themes (dust to dust and that a real body is present instead of the disembodied “spirit of Bob”). Long funerals are inevitably fecund sources for “speeches” and other results of the Fall, including Ms. Amy Grant Wannabe who suddenly appears to sing, at no cost to the family, “You Are My Hero” complete with her own Christian lyrics.

3. Go with a tried-and-true funeral liturgy that has Christ and his words at the center. The Lutheran burial liturgy our pastor used gave wonderful comfort knowing that these same words have been spoken to Christian believers at countless gravesides for centuries.

4. Most importantly, let a faithful pastor of the Word do all the talking. Testimonials are for before and after the service when there are no time or “appropriateness” restrictions. Build in a time for storytelling, but let it be with the bar open and smoke in the air.

5. Last but not least, get a faithful pastor to visit the dying: one who will take confession, give absolution, and administer the Sacrament–someone who will speak Jesus and the forgiveness of sins into their ears. If no pastor is available, be prepared to deliver those goods yourself to the dying. To better equip yourself to do so, bring to the bedside a rock-solid liturgical hymnal that has reformational prayers, liturgies, and hymns. You will very likely not know what to say, so do what anyone can do: read the prayers and passages from the hymnal!

Luther on Preparing to Meet Your Maker

Luther puts it well as to what the center and circumference should be of the Christian in dying (and so in living):

When the hour comes when our life and work must cease, when we have no longer to stay here, and the question arises, where do I now find a plank or bridge by which I can pass with certainty to the other life–when you reach that point, I say, do not look around for any human way, such as your own good, and holy life or works, but let all such things be covered by the Prayer of our Lord and say of them: “Forgive us our trespasses” etc., and hold fast to Him who says: “I am the Way.”

See that in that hour you have this Word firmly and deeply engraved in your heart, as though you heard Christ really present and saying to you:

“Why should you seek another way? Keep your eyes fixed on Me, and do not trouble with other thoughts about how you may get to heaven. Thrust all such thoughts entirely away from your heart and only think of what I say: ‘I am the Way.’

“Only see that you come to Me, that is, hold on to Me with firm faith and the complete confidence of your heart. I will be the bridge and carry you across, so that in a moment you will pass out of death and the fear of hell into everlasting life. For I am the One who Myself built the way or path, and I Myself have trodden it and passed across, so that I might bring you and all who cling to Me across.

“But you must put your trust in Me, nothing doubting, must venture all on Me, and with a joyous heart go and die confidently in My Name.” (Luther’s Works, Weimarer Ausgabe, vol. 45, 498 ff.)

Applying the Blood to the Sting

I could have guarded my mom’s room much better during her last hours of deep suffering (Old Adam rarely goes without a fight). I could sense that her being continually told what a wonderful person she had been was driving her to deeper agony–words designed to comfort had become words of torture.

Finally, mercifully, we were alone in that room. Death was moving in for its kill. Her breathing became more and more labored, and she had not spoken for some time. This was the final episode where the body has given up and refuses all nourishment but the system continues to function on autopilot. I knew the end was here. I spoke only of Jesus and the shed blood and forgiveness of sins. She died as I held her hand and sang over and over one of the many strong verses from The Lutheran Hymnal:

Jesus sinners doth receive
Also I have been forgiven.
And when I this earth must leave
I shall find an open Heaven.
Dying, still to Him I cleave–
Jesus sinners doth receive.

The regaining of Christ-centered funerals will be true evangelical medicine to a culture that can’t help but be entertainment oriented even when supposedly committing the dead to dust. I for one am ready to bury the modern fun-eral and instead to die confidently in Christ, absolved of all my manifold daily sins, and saved solely by the fully imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. That truth comforts me in dying–and so in living.

Friday, January 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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