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Your last good work

Christian funerals should be treated as a worship service

Issue: "Flawed to the Ameri-Corps," Oct. 19, 1996

"Dying well is one of the good works to which Christians are called," writes J.I. Packer. Part of dying well is planning how your departure will be marked. The plans you make for those observances provide you with an opportunity to glorify God in your death, to testify to your faith in Christ, and to comfort the grieving.

Here are five decisions you should make:

(1) Decide whether to have a funeral or memorial service. A funeral service is held with the body present and burial following. The memorial service follows the burial which is usually private. Make mine a memorial.

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(2) Decide how people will "pay their respects" after your death and before burial. It's common for families to receive visitors at the funeral home with the casket open. (Many Pittsburghers call this a "viewing" rather than "family visitation.") I will leave it to my family to decide whether their viewing my body one last time will aid "closure" and whether they will receive visitors at the funeral home, but my body will not be on display. I look bad enough now without having to endure people commenting on how "life-like" I look in death.

(3) Decide how much money will be spent. Expensive caskets and lavish flower displays are hard to justify by Christian values. Give me a simple casket and the flowers for a common worship service, and let the rest provide for my family or support the Lord's work.

(4) Decide between traditional burial and cremation. Some have reservations, but cremation seems only to hasten the inevitable process of decay. Is that any worse than the useless effort to preserve the body? I take simple burial for traditional and emotional, not theological, reasons.

(5) Decide whether the service will be held in a funeral home chapel or church. I don't care for the funeral home atmosphere, so I choose church, which I associate with worship, faith, and fellowship.

Now let me offer five words of counsel:

(1) Plan a worship service that focuses on God, gives thanks for your life, and comforts the living. The reality of death and depth of grief should not be diminished but fully acknowledged. Don't let the service degenerate into syrupy sentimentality, but maintain a spirit of Christian dignity. There should be a strong note of confident faith and triumphant hope that affirms the biblical promise in the face of death.

(2) By all means have music. Choose from the great psalms and hymns that confess biblical truth and plumb the depths of godly experience. For All the Saints; Our God, Our Help in Ages Past; I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; Jesus Lives and So Shall I; and Peace, Perfect Peace are examples of appropriate songs. Soloists and groups are fine if quality can be assured. (My funeral fantasy is to have a Sandi Patty voice sing We Shall Behold Him, a big bass sing The Trumpet Shall Sound, and a gigantic choir sing Worthy Is the Lamb.)

(3) If something is said about you, make sure it is honest and focused on God. The best way to review your life is for the minister to work this naturally into his message and prayers. However, if you are eulogized, let the speaker(s) prepare well and offer their observations for the purpose of thanking God for your life and encouraging others by your example. A few well-said words are better than many rambling ones. If people want to "reminisce," it should be done at another time and place, perhaps at a meal or reception following the service.

(4) Ministers are willing to help. Most will accommodate your preferences to the fullest extent consistent with their convictions as worship leaders. If you have specific wishes about Scripture readings and music, put them in writing and inform your family.

(5) Most important, so believe and live that when you die, those left behind will know that you are with the Lord awaiting the "yet more glorious day" of resurrection when all the Lord's people will be together forever with the Lord.

Theologian Robert Rayburn wrote, "That there should be an easily distinguishable difference between the funeral of a true Christian and that of an unbeliever is evident to anyone who has an understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Unfortunately, however, in no other service of the evangelical churches of our Lord are there so many evidences of pagan influences as there are in funeral services." Let us reclaim our departure arrangements for Christ. Paul wanted Christ to "be exalted in my body whether by life or death" (Philippians 1:20). That's an excellent goal as you plan for the way your dying will be observed by family and friends.

William H. Smith
William H. Smith


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