The wedding policy framed by the pastor who preceded me at one church I served included a wonderful statement that I honored and kept in my own policy and wedding brochure. It went something like this: Please remember as you plan your wedding in the church that the service is primarily designed for the worship of God, and only secondarily your wedding.

It was a frank reminder that what we do in church sanctuaries is first of all worship. Within the context of the service, we may baptize a baby, ordain an elder, celebrate Communion, or witness marriage vows– but the main thing, always the central purpose of the gathering, is our worship of God. And that goes for funerals too.

I have just come back from helping lead a worship service in which my family joined to thank God for my brother’s life. Various circumstances led to the service being “private,” that is, just for the family. The pastor of the church led the opening and closing portions of the liturgy, and I read scripture, preached the sermon, and led a prayer of thanksgiving. Because the gathering was small, and included many folk who were not regular “church-goers,” we omitted hymns and organ music and honored my brother’s desire for a bagpiper, who piped us into the sanctuary and out again.

It was a simple service. But comforting, and helpful to us, and celebratory, and, one hopes, worship that expressed to God gratitude for life and its abundant blessings. One thing that helped accomplish all that was that the host pastor and I were on the same page when it came to our theology of funerals. (I suppose that should have been the case, since we both went to the same seminary.)

I should mention that we kept in mind the variety of beliefs of the folk who gathered that afternoon. Some were members of the host church. And some do not have any reason to be in church. Atheists, agnostics, and believers sat side by side with one thing in common: grief over a painful loss. So, we balanced our faith tradition (we were in a church, after all) and our desire to communicate without so much theological jargon that would be a puzzle to non-church ears.

As I think about the many funerals at which I’ve “officiated,” I have formed some strong opinions about how those services best honor the God who offers hope, comfort, and blessing. For one thing, I discourage “eulogies.” These tributes to the departed are unnecessary (we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t already know the person, right?) and often sidetrack or hijack the worship service. If folks want to tell their stories, re-live precious memories, or work out their personal grief, aren’t there other venues for those comments? What about a gathering before the service, even in the sanctuary if that’s practical. Then, let the stories and tributes segue into a call to worship, some music, and the honest proclamation of the Good News. Or, gather for worship first, and then after the benediction and closing music, move toward a reception area and enrich the fellowship there with warm memories shared personally or publically.

This is not to say that the service must be stripped of every personal reference to the loved one so sadly missed. There are many places for the pastor or worship leader to mention the loved one’s gifts, family names, traits, and even a story or two within the context of a memorial meditation or prayer of thanksgiving. Besides, I’ve heard so many eulogies that were embarrassing, hurtful, and downright false. I don’t mean to sound harsh (though I will sound harsh, I know), but it just isn’t true that “Grandma is our guardian angel now in heaven, looking down on us and protecting us all.” 

And another thing I tend to rant about: If I were to ask for some help in planning next Sunday’s worship service, many (most?) folks would say, “Me? Pastor, I don’t know the first thing about worship! That’s why we pay you to do that!” But when a loved one dies, everybody wants to tell the pastor how the service should go! Daddy always liked that hymn (it hasn’t been in the hymnal for 50 years); we don’t want it to be too religious, ’cause my brother is an agnostic; we found this syrupy poem in Mama’s Bible, so you’ll want to include it; do you mind if we move the font out of the way for the pictures and flowers?

My wife is a church musician and has lots of her own stories to tell about the music people ask for at funerals. They’d be the first to complain if she played “Home on the Range” as the prelude on Sunday morning. But for a memorial service? Oh, anything goes, if it was Aunt Bertha’s favorite. Joan was once asked to play “The Yellow Rose of Texas” at the funeral of a woman who had been lovingly called that by her husband. Joan was able to weave a few notes of that tune into her closing organ music. That was a pastoral and sensitive thing to do, without making a big deal of it and turning the service into the Lawrence Welk show.

I read a few weeks ago (in “USA Today”) that many people are turning to “secular” memorial services, eschewing religious liturgies that don’t speak to their beliefs or “unbeliefs.” I like that idea. Go for it! Have the service or celebration at home, a funeral home, a hotel ballroom. And when we gather in a church sanctuary to worship God and thank God for those whose lives have touched ours, we will say our most honest prayers, sing our resurrection hymns lustily, and read the timeless Scriptures, listening for words that lead to life.

Finally, lest I sound like an inflexible, dour stick-in-the-mud, I must add that I’m wide open to creative liturgies, contemporary music (there’ll be jazz at my funeral, I hope), and even projected visuals– as long as nothing detracts from making God the One we worship, and not the dearly departed.

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