I've been asked to speak on why
funerals should be in churches?
Why is this even an
issue? We live in a culture that has an increasingly secular
worldview; it is a society more estranged from the Church than it
has been for many generations; a society that has increasing
antagonism with all institutional life; a generation living in a
time of greater peace and prosperity than ever before yet highly
distracted by the world, the flesh, and the snares of the devil.
The business of funerals,
seeking to respond to the desires of this estranged society in which
we live, is putting pressure on the issue by constructing parallel
[parody] “chapels” in an attempt to meet their clients needs in
But churches are
receiving pressure on this question not only around funerals, but
also on the issue of weddings, and a few years ago it was on the
question of baptisms. But the pressure is not really coming from
those who have been faithful churchgoers, for whom it is never
really a question, but primarily from those who are estranged for
So the teaching on this
question is really, I think, how to respond to those who see
themselves as Christian but are not churchgoers.
So why should funerals be
in churches in these cases?
Two points I would like
to make: 1. Christian funerals are services of worship,
2. Worship is best offered from a church.
1. What is a funeral service?
The memorial or funeral
service is not just a service where the community comes together to
remember and to celebrate the life of a loved one who is “no longer
with us.” The Prayer Book service states it starkly – it is the
service for The Burial of the Dead.
The purpose of a
Christian burial service is to remember the person who has died, but
in the context of the knowledge that the person who died was made by
God, has been redeemed by Christ through the waters of baptism and
through faith, and is destined for glory. It is to give thanks to
God for the life of the person, to commend to God in prayer the soul
of the departed and to be encouraged by God in the sure and certain
hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
In other words – a
funeral service is worship.
As Christians, we do not
try to hide ourselves from the harsh reality of death, but we face
its tragedy with a holy hope.
When I’m asked to lead a
funeral in a funeral home instead of a church, and ask “why?”, I am
given various reasons by people, such as, it is more convenient, or
my mother was buried from there, or they don’t want to be reminded
of the death when they go to church in future. I suspect though
that the issue though is one of estrangement that people are having
to face, and they don’t want to face it but are being forced by the
circumstances. There may be feelings of being a hypocrite, using
the church when they haven’t been there for years, or knowing their
departed had some issues with the church.
When people, who are
estranged from the church, call me wanting a service at a funeral
home, I ask them gently, but knowing that I am being provocative,
Do you want a Christian burial? And there is always some shock
that they are faced with the question – of course they do! Yet it
is a provocative question because for them now is a time when they
are being reawakened to the reality of our mortality, and it is a
moment of crisis of faith. And I don’t want to hide them from this
crisis, not because I’m cruel or want to use the situation of their
grief to manipulate them, but because in love, I want to help them
through it, in the only way that I know as a Christian that will
bring them true relief, that is, to strengthen them to have a more
So I ask them,
provocatively, but lovingly, Do you want a Christian burial?
– of course they do.
Then Christian burial is
worship and such worship is most appropriately held in a Christian
2. Why do we worship in a church?
Why has God called on us
to set apart holy places? Surely the whole universe is God’s – God
is present, fully present, in every place – enfolding, upholding,
penetrating through and through every creature of His hand –
every part of creation is “in the mind of God” – we cannot leave His
presence even if we try. As the psalmist says,
Wither shall I go from
thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art
there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and
dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy
right hand shall hold me.
God is everywhere - yes.
The whole of Creation is, in a sense, holy ground - yes.
And yet, we must confess
that through our blindness, through our sin, we just cannot see it
or acknowledge it or act as though this were truly the case.
We are like the patriarch
Jacob, going about our business, and only in moments of God’s
gracious revealing, do we suddenly see otherwise. Remember how God
gave to Jacob a dream of angels ascending and descending to heaven
– and when he awoke, Jacob cried out,
Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not –
and his response was to build an altar there and to offer
God knows our blindness
to Him and the holiness of His creation – and part of His provision
for our salvation is to call on us to set apart special places, as
he sets apart for us the holy Sabbath day, that we might begin to
see from these special places and from reserving a special day, that
the rest of the places on earth and the rest of the days of our
lives are all truly holy. But we start with special places first.
God has taught us from the beginning that we are to set apart holy
places for worship.
Remember how Moses was
called upon by God to build the tabernacle or “tent of meeting” in
the wilderness – a sign that God was dwelling in the midst of the
people of Israel. Remember how Solomon was called upon by God to
build the Temple in Jerusalem – again, a sign of God’s presence in
the midst of Israel. This is not for His sake, but for our sakes.
In the New Testament we
see the young Church beginning to gather, first in homes set apart
for this purpose, often hidden in the days of persecution. Then,
when it was less dangerous, or when it became acceptable to be
Christian, beautiful places were built, partly on practical grounds
– to hold many people in one place, and partly to help Christian
souls to be more able to worship – high ceilings, beautiful art,
give glory to God, evoke something of God’s majesty, and lift our
hearts up to spiritual realities.
The ministrations of
Christ are so profound, so holy, that it is right that a special
place be set apart for them. Think of what happens in a church:
children and adults are baptized into Christ, made regenerate,
born anew with the promise of eternal life;
Christians of all ages make their first public profession of
faith and are strengthened by the Holy Spirit in Confirmation to
fulfil their promises;
benefits of Christ’s passion and death are brought to God’s
people in the Sacrament of Holy Communion;
- in churches
God’s Word is read and preached and hearts are converted again
and again, in deeper and deeper ways of love;
churches Holy vows of marriage are exchanged before God’s holy
- in churches
we publicly offer thanks, confess our sins, receive assurance of
forgiveness, ask God for our needs, praise and adore Him with
psalms and spiritual songs.
communication by all these means – angels ascending and descending
between heaven and earth in the churches; and, yes, for generations
and generations, we have publicly honoured, given thanks to God for,
and commended the souls of our dearly departed, comforted in the
promise of the resurrection to eternal life. We have done
this, because it is worship, in our churches.
Our minds can scarcely
comprehend the glory and grace of the ministrations of Christ that
take place in our very midst in churches set apart for these things.
They are special places –
we know it intuitively – our attitude changes as we enter, we speak
with muted voice, some acknowledge with a bow the holy altar or the
Cross before sitting, we are especially upset if something terrible
happens there – it is consecrated ground, it is holy.
Where better to bring the tender and grieving hearts of beloved
family and friends but there? It comes back to the question –
Do you want a Christian burial?
(To me it is very
distressing to enter a funeral home chapel and to walk to the podium
– no altar to acknowledge. I also find it very disturbing when they
have a side room for the family, apart from everyone else.)
The church is a place
surrounded by images of comfort – of the cross and of the
resurrection. Even if in our deep grief we hear nothing of the
words spoken or the prayers said, just to be in that place is to
enter into worship. And we know that even if in our deep grief we
cannot speak words, St. Paul reminds us,
the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities…
the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which
cannot be uttered.
As a Christian minister,
I do not know a better place for people to carry their grief to and
to begin to be led out of it and to know the healing grace of God –
to truly know in their hearts what is meant by our Lord when he
says, blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Attempts to shield people
from the reality of the death of a loved one, of the reality of
their own mortality, because it is painful, is not doing them a
service but rather hindering them from healing and growing. Of
course people don’t want to face death, but we do them a disservice
if we cover it over.
We hold them further from
the truth, keep them from bringing their real wounds of grief to be
healed. It is hindering them from facing the truth that it is God
who gives the only help that is truly comforting.
So I ask, “Do you want a
And I answer, “Christian
burials are worship, and worship is best offered from the Church.”