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).

19 thoughts on “Funerals Have Changed”

  1. Yesterday’s sermon (Easter) began and ended with the familiar call and response, “Jesus Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

    Of course, those are common Easter greetings but I also heard the same call and responses four months earlier to the day during Advent. Advent? Yes, Advent. The occasion was my father’s funeral and our pastor begins and ends each funeral sermon with that call and response. How fitting! Encapsulated in the call and response is our faith in the saving work of Jesus and that he lives, our loved one lives with Him, and we will as well. In between is the funeral sermon of the Gospel of Christ’s saving work.

    Nothing else can be said that brings so much comfort.

    “Jesus Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

  2. I hope for Lutheran funerals becoming more Lutheran rather than so Protestant.

    “We know that the ancients spoke of prayer for the dead. We do not forbid this, but rather we reject the transfer of the Lord’s Supper to the dead ex opere operato.” Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXIV The Mass (Tappert edition of the Book of Concord, p. 267).

  3. Funerals have often become celebrations of life. Nothing wrong with that, but they are
    Also a solemn occasion. Although some may be going to heaven, we still grieve for the
    Family,as they lost a loved one. I still get tears at funerals, even if I don’t know the family
    That well. Just watching them grieve for losing a family member is difficult. Christian
    Funerals do remind us of our own mortality and should make us pause and ponder
    In life after death. Time to take a soul inventory.

    1. The danger, Randy, is the focus on the departed and not on Christ’s redeeming work for the departed (and the bereaved). We do not celebrate the sinner, but we give thanks that Christ has redeemed the sinner and made him a saint. And we point those who gather for the service to this Savior who also makes them saints. Thus, it’s not a celebration of life, but a celebration of Christ.

    2. Biggest obstacles to overcome in planning a fyneral/memorial are reestablishing the role of the pastor as the ‘officiant’ of the service, AND guiding families to understand that Christ [Crucified, buried, and Resurrected] is the focus and not the deceased loved one.
      Overcoming the first obstacle helps alleviates the heartache of not allowing inappropriate worldly intrusions into the service [e.g. unbiblical statements, music/songs, and cultural symbols]. This also lays the groundwork for entrusting the pastor to set forth the service order that will glorify God, and spiritually edify those present.

      1. Well said Chaplain Marc; it’s like a certain song (my favorite) we sang in Ar Ramadi, ‘Back to the heart of Worship’. Once we get back to the focus of our life and death, God, then we can truly address our role for His kingdom.

  4. I have literally been around the family funeral business my entire life, am a licensed funeral director for over 33 years, a co-owner of our family’s funeral home, and member of LCMS. I have seen attitudes on funeral customs and traditions in general change considerably.

    Over the past decade, during my own unscientific study, I have witnessed a growing number of the deceased’s closest family and friends — those who attend the committal service — unable to recite the church’s most common prayer, the Lord’s Prayer.

    I agree with the author’s assessment that funerals have changed, and that social media has a considerable influence on society. This influence is on many elements in society. Not just the church or funerals.

    The church provides excellent instruction on how to live a God fearing life, which includes service to others before yourself. In addition to not learning about Christ and salvation, my concern with younger people moving away from church is the attitude of putting oneself before all others, including God. Self-serving is a threat to, well, themselves.

    The church and funeral directors alike understand the benefits that come from healthy grieving, which includes having young and old members of the family participate in the service. Viewing the body, sharing the experience with other family and the community, and committing the body offers the bereaved a definitive line to begin their time from a life with their loved one to a life without their loved one.

    It all comes down to teaching. Many of today’s parents do not have to skills to teach their own children about the church, death, grief, and funerals if all they can recite is if they saw it on tv or the internet.

    Death and grief must be experienced. Just ask the countless number of families who were unable to properly say goodbye during the COVID lockdown.

    1. Glad you recognize the same challenges we both are facing. It is important that the church and its members “leads by example” in these challenging times. It may feel like we’re on an island in some circumstances…

      Thanks for the comments!

  5. In my opinion you are wrong, and making an assumed judgment. As a Christian I know that when myself and my loved ones die we we instantly be in God’s loving arms. This is my Faith of Salvation through Jesus Christ.
    For a Christian there is no “right way” of man made funeral practices.
    God will be with His people comforting and strengthening us in our grief, and at the same time filling us with His joy.
    He is the only one who knows what’s in our heart.

  6. Thank you, you confirm what we have always believed and done with our children and now grandchildren. When there is a death among family or friends the children are always brought along to the funeral home and/ or church if possible. They are told that the deceased hàs gone to heaven and is with Jesus and the angels.

  7. Just talked about this trend. Such a sad trend because it emphasizes self rather than honoring God who made us and sustained us through this earthly life and gives us eternal life for all believers. I have always felt that a funeral is also an opportunity to tell people the gospel. There may be people there who have never heard the truth.

  8. In addition to all the good points made in the article, a (Lutheran) Christian funeral service is also a time to speak to the attendees as to the state of their eternal destination – whether that be a reinforcement to those already in the faith but most importantly to those outside to ponder what is beyond this earthly life and give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to win another soul to Christ.

    1. I have seen this trend as a hospice nurse over the past 30 years. While we have a chaplain as part of our hospice team, many of those who are dying and their families have no connection with Christianity and do not desire one. They simply believe in nothing. They have the highest risk of complicated bereavement, depression and even self harm. When there is no meaning in death, there’s also no real meaning in life. They have no anchors.

      Until about 10 years ago, I saw many people put their aversion to Christianity aside and still participate in their family’s religious rites around end of life. Now they aren’t even doing that. That’s a shame because I saw many families reconnect with each other and with their faith at those funerals. Sometimes, the younger generation can’t even put their antipathy towards the rituals at end of life aside long enough to even honor their parents expressed wishes.

      The past 18 months has also shown many families that they can just dispense with all of the funeral rituals. That’s a valuable time and I hate to see that. This is more than a Lutheran heartbreak, it’s happening in most Christian communities.

  9. Loved this piece, brother. It hit home—hard. As someone born in 1976, raised in wintery, agnostic New England, I can attest to these trends just in my life time, by my early thirties. So ten or more years ago… For whatever reason, I have lost many school friends early in life. Many of them former members of our religious community who left the church in late high school or college. I’d say 97% of them have had no religious affiliation or service for their “funerals.” One had a celebration of life at our old Christian & Mission Alliance Congregation, but he was no longer a church goer in his own life. On July 4, 2021, I lost my early childhood to early high school best friend. He grew up a believer but over the last 15 years claimed to have lost his faith. Just a few short years ago, he lost his mother to Lou Gehrig’s disease. His celebration of life service is being held in a state park (as you mentioned above). While it does not effect my views on funerals, or what I desire to have—a Lutheran funeral mass—it is depressing to see it over and over and over again….

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