by Jonathan C. Watt
I’m trying to make plans for my funeral, but whenever I talk to my children about it, they won’t listen. Can you help me understand what a funeral is all about, so I can talk to them?
This question may cause your pastor’s heart to beat faster. He’ll quickly answer, “Yes!”
No, it’s not that your pastor has a morbid fascination with death; rather, he knows funerals are a time to speak clearly about what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutheran Christians—that is, a time to proclaim what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Planning your funeral service before your death is actually a gift to your family. It is your last confession of faith in our Savior, and, focused on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, it brings comfort to them in their grief.
To help people understand the role of a funeral service, I began offering “Funeral Service Planning Seminars” in my first parish. The idea came to me while I was sitting in a funeral director’s office, trying to explain the details of the upcoming service. The director had already picked the hymns for the family—well, at least he had suggested some. Yes, they were fine hymns, but I thought, “We can do better than that!”
It wasn’t the first time I’d had that thought. In fact, the director suggested the same hymns for every funeral. I concluded my best defense was to have something written down from my congregation members themselves.
A fellow pastor gave me a booklet he’d put together, “Planning a Christian Funeral at Our Church.” I began by sitting down with shut-ins and walking through the material. They were delighted to have something set down on paper. An LWML member suggested I conduct a seminar for their whole group. So I did. That’s how I got started.
A Christian funeral is different
A colleague once observed that many people believe weddings are a pastor’s prime opportunity to proclaim the faith we cherish. That’s not so, he said. “Nobody listens to the pastor at weddings,” he observed. “Everybody listens to him at funerals.”
What is a funeral? A time to say goodbye? To have a family reunion? To grieve?
Yes, we say goodbye to a loved one; families gather more faithfully at funerals than any other time; and we grieve because of the separation that death brings.
A Christian funeral encompasses all of this, but it is also different. For we know that though we are separated temporarily through death, we are spiritually united as one in the body of Christ and shall be physically reunited at our Lord’s return.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess. 4:13–14 ESV)
So what does this mean? What is it your pastor wants you to know about planning your funeral service?
It is important to understand that a funeral is a worship service. We do not worship the person lying in the casket; rather, we worship the One who died and rose again. Jesus Christ is the center of all Lutheran worship—especially a funeral—because Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil is clearly proclaimed. The whole funeral service echoes this truth over and over, reminding us of what Jesus did for us at our Baptism.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. (Rom. 6:3–5 ESV)
There are three parts of a funeral service that provide an opportunity to clearly proclaim Christ to the grieving heart. The first is the speaking and hearing of God’s Word. Through the four readings—a Psalm, the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel—the faith and hope we have in Christ Jesus are confessed. Understanding the purpose of each reading will help in selecting a Scripture passage.
As part of the church’s prayer book, a favorite Psalm can express the depth of our feelings, as well as confess our faith in a loving and merciful Savior. Consider how Psalms 23, 31, 42, 121, and 130 communicate this.
The Old Testament reading reveals God’s plan of salvation for His creation. Like us, God’s people in the Old Testament trusted in the Messiah who would come to save them from their sins and raise them to eternal life. See Job 19:25–26, Is. 25:6 and 49:13–16.
The Epistle reading has several purposes. It can give a clear confession of our Christian hope in the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:51–52). It can show that not even death can separate us from God (Rom. 8:38–39). It brings out the peace we have with God because of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins (Rom. 5:1–6). And it can state how in death, through Christ, we gain everything (Phil. 1:21–23).
In the Gospel reading, Jesus comforts us with His own words, deeds, and prayers. “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
The singing of hymns at a funeral service is the second part where the comfort of Christ is heard by those attending. Like the Psalms, hymns can express the depth of our faith. St. Paul says that through them God’s Word “dwells in us richly” (Col. 3:16). Your pastor may suggest that you select Easter hymns. Your favorite hymn may be beautiful, reflecting God’s work for us in Jesus, but Easter hymns speak so clearly to grieving hearts.
Jesus lives! The vict’ry’s won! Death no longer can appall me; Jesus lives! Death’s reign is done! From the grave will Christ recall me. Brighter scenes will then commence; This shall be my confidence. (LSB 490)
A focus on the cross
Your pastor’s primary task in the funeral sermon is to preach Christ crucified. His message may be made personal by showing how faith in Christ was revealed in your life. But remember, while your pastor may relate stories of your life during the sermon, that is not the reason for his preaching. The proclamation of God’s Word at your funeral service is to point those who grieve to Jesus and the hope that is found in Him alone.
One final thought: You won’t care what is done, said, or sung at your funeral. You will be rejoicing in the presence of the Savior. Your funeral is not for you; it is for your family and friends. Your funeral is not about you; it is about Jesus. Those who have gathered will be comforted when they hear all that He has done to give you, and them, eternal life.