Funerals Have Changed

In the September issue of The Lutheran Witness, I provided concrete information and basic decisions that will confront Lutherans at the time of a death. Over the next few online articles, I will assist you in understanding why a funeral service remains relevant in today’s society.

What has changed?

More than 25 years ago, a funeral was simply a funeral; they were all the same. The visitation happened at the funeral home; then mourners either went to church or the funeral home for the service. The funeral home complemented the church. Today, that is not necessarily the case.

In 25 years of professional experience, I have seen the effect of secularization on the funeral industry. A 2019 Pew Research study found that those who identify religious as “none,” which includes atheists, agnostics and those who believe in a higher being, now account for 26% of the American population. By contrast, Roman Catholicism, the largest Christian denomination, accounts for 20% of the American population.

The “nones” seek services that reflect their individual preferences and lifestyle. They are less inclined to use clergy and more inclined to use a funeral celebrant for their services. They will also consider nontraditional locations and venues. I know colleagues who have conducted memorial services overlooking lakes, at golf courses, state parks, community parks and local venues outside the church and funeral home. Why? Because the consumer believed that it provided a better atmosphere than other available options. Cost, while a consideration, is typically not the overriding issue.

Some believe the rise in social media has accelerated this trend. Social media encourages users to focus on self rather than the community or social norms. As the professor interviewed in this article said, “Individualism can be an uncomfortable fit with religion.” When the individual focuses more on self than community, personal preferences gain priority over religious practices. The funeral becomes less a matter of faithful confession of Christian teaching and more an expression of personal interests.

How can we adapt?

Several years ago, I asked a group of pastors: Who teaches the members of your church about funerals? Is it the pastor during Bible class or from the pulpit? I followed up with this observation: If 15–20% of the congregation attends Bible class, who teaches the other 80–85%? They get their information from their business colleagues, Hollywood, YouTube and other sources outside the church. These sources are not inherently wrong, but they will contain ideas that run counter to what Scripture teaches.

The general lack of awareness about funerals compounds this issue. In 1900, the average age of a person involved in the planning and decision-making process in a funeral was 14. In the early 2000s, it increased to over 50. This has led to a lack of awareness for many people regarding the purpose of a funeral and what the important parts of the service are. As young children, they neither attended services or participated in the planning. They do not know that the funeral provides a time to recall God’s work for a loved one, remember and honor that person, and allow the family to move forward by sharing their grief with the community. In general, people are not aware that the funeral service acts as:

  • A church service allowing us to receive God’s gifts as a congregation and support the survivors
  • A reminder of our hope in the resurrection via hymns, sermon and liturgy, along with a graveside service to provide closure and the earthly finality of death
  • An opportunity for support from the community as the service would typically be followed by a meal that was used to care for survivors

Inviting younger Christians to be involved in planning a funeral allows them to observe the support given to a grieving family.

Furthermore, at the risk of being seen as self-serving, I believe the funeral service has a value in the same way that attending weekly church services has a value. If you are 50 and just now beginning to deal with death as your parents age, isn’t that a disconnect? When you were younger, were you told to stay away from the funeral because it wasn’t important, that it would harm you financially, or that you shouldn’t lose the time at work? Or, perhaps, you were told that it’s not good for children to attend a funeral.

Is it possible that declines in funeral attendance correlate with declines in church attendance? If so, is it any wonder that people begin to question the relevance of the church funeral or even a funeral at all?

Valuing life

Lutherans value life at every stage, whether the death of a 104-year-old or the death of an unborn child. We encourage our members to participate in funerals that point them to their hope in Christ. One woman who worked many years at our funeral home had stillborn twins in 1953. At the time, the husband took care of such matters before the mother got home to allow her “to get on with her life.” She told me that she struggled even more because she wasn’t present for the burial of her twins. For many mothers, “getting on with life” is not easy and denying them the opportunity to grieve compounds the loss.

As Lutherans, we value all life. We offer the parents of a stillborn child or infant the same options as someone 104 years of age. We take every opportunity to give thanks for God’s gift of life, won for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. His life means that we will never die. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26).

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