“Well, you haven’t really been here long enough to know him that well …” She breaks eye contact. The sentence dangles, but the meaning is clear: “You don’t know my dad well enough to do his funeral. Plus, you look really young.”
“You’re right. I’ve known your father only a few years. Is there someone who could tell a story or two about him? It could be family or someone else who has known your dad for a long time. I’ll speak of your father during the sermon, of course. But there I’ll focus on his life in light of the Resurrection. That’s why we’re gathering.”
This person’s well-intentioned impulse ranks just behind the instinct to ditch the whole “funeral” vibe and go for a “celebration of life; he wouldn’t want us to be sad, anyway.” But it all hints at a deeper problem—a confusion about the purpose of funerals.
Here’s the problem: We no longer see funerals as worship. We see them as private, sad gatherings for the family. We see them as important if you were close to the deceased, but otherwise, let’s be honest—you’re not missing anything by not going to Merle’s funeral. Funerals are sort of like gloomy birthday parties, deeply personal get-togethers for close friends and family.But we are here to recall a wider, deeper reality, nothing less than the crux of the cosmos: Christ’s resurrection.
It is the memory and hope of the Resurrection that makes the Christian funeral one of the most potent services of Christian worship. The Christian funeral is uniquely positioned to help those far from death attend to it, so they need not obsess over it when it is near. It is unmatched in its focus: we are here because one of us isn’t. We gather to realize this reality and to remember God’s reality, which trumps all others.
When the funeral becomes a cordoned family affair, it degenerates into a matter of personal preference. It becomes a vehicle for self-expression, one last gasp at leaving one’s mark on the world. When it ceases to be congregational worship, it ceases to be an event where God’s people are formed. Too often, pastors lead the way.
It becomes a vicious cycle. When the funeral isn’t worship, there’s no compelling reason to go. When the funeral isn’t worship, your time is better spent paying your respects at the funeral home, where you can interact with the family, share a memory or two, and be on your way. This is why the viewing at the funeral home usually beats the funeral in the popular vote. The funeral is for those who really “need” it—friends and close family. And so the funeral becomes, as it has been in my experience, the least congregational service that I lead.