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  • Last Updated: March 4, 2014
  • Originally Published: November 20, 2012
  • Christian Funerals

Introduction

Christians believe that death is the Christians believe that death is the separation of one’s soul or spirit, which is eternal, from his or her physical body, often referred to symbolically as "dust".1The symbolism of one’s physical body and “dust” comes from the book of Genesis, Chapter 2, when God creates man. The biblical account says that God created man out of dust and breathed his own breath into man’s nostrils to give him life. The scripture says, “Then the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”   According to Christian doctrine, there is a judgment after death in which those who were faithful and obedient to God's commandments in life are permitted to enter heaven, the paradise-like abode of God. Those who disobeyed God go to hell, a realm of postmortem punishment..2Bible: Matthew 25:31-46 While the majority of Christians do believe in hell, several Christian denominations do not explicitly teach that anyone has ever been sent there.

In modern times, a funeral service is customary after Christians die. This provides an opportunity for family and friends to grieve for the departed person and give thanks for his or her life. Most funerals are held in chapels, churches, or funeral homes. Private homes, public assembly halls, and other places are also appropriate. Customarily, services take place within one week of death.

Christian funeral services focus mainly on the entry of the deceased into heaven and God's ability to comfort the grieving and give them strength to cope with their recent loss. This strong belief in the afterlife allows for some optimism, as it is believed that the departed is not "gone" but merely "elsewhere."

Christian Funerals

Historical Funeral Practices

Biblical and Early Christian Funerals

The first funeral or burial details in the Bible are in the story of Abraham, a major biblical patriarch. When his wife Sarah died, he purchased a cave called Machpelah to use as a tomb or sepulcher.3Bible: Genesis 23 During this period, the Jewish people did not bury but "entombed" the dead, and Machpelah became the family tomb until Jacob moved the clan to Egypt. When Joseph, the son of Jacob, died, his body was embalmed in an Egyptian fashion so that he could be buried in the ancestral tomb. The practice of entombing instead of burying continued, at least for some persons, throughout the New Testament.4Bible: Matthew 27:57-60 Little else is known about early Christian funeral practices. Presumably, they customs largely followed the Jewish customsor or conformed to the local legal requirements.

Funerals in the Middle Ages

Although the origins of some Christian funerary practices are still obscure, the Christian Church—both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions—had established a basic funeral service by the Middle Ages. In the case of Catholicism, some of the associated practices, such as praying for the deceased, may have been influenced by particular doctrines, including its stance on purgatory, a postmortem realm of punishment and purification for those souls not yet prepared to enter heaven. Some practices, however, such as the use of incense and holy water may have been adopted or adapted from pre-Christian cultures. Others, such as the singing or chanting of hymns, may have been derived from Judaism, which many Christians see as a precursor to Christianity. A typical Christian funeral service during the Middle Ages consisted of the following:

  1. The corpse was carried to the church by a group of clergy and mourners.
  2. The coffin was placed in the church and covered with a black pall and the "Office of the Dead" liturgy was recited or sung.
  3. The funerary mass, called the requiem mass, was said or sung.
  4. After the mass, the "absolution" was performed, with the coffin being incensed and sprinkled with holy water.
  5. The corpse or coffin was carried to the cemetery, and the priest recited additional prayers there.

Because Christian funeral services involved official rites, they were reserved for those church members in good standing. A Christian burial was generally refused to Christians who committed suicide, especially if the person was believed to have been of sound mind and if there was no hint of repentance before death.

Modern Funerals

A modern-day traditional Christian funeral generally includes:

  • An invocation or welcome statement by the priest, minister, or officiator.
  • Prayers and hymns—often sung at various times during the service.
  • Readings from biblical scripture.
  • A eulogy, a biography, or stories recalled by friends or relatives to honor the deceased. Some denominations or congregations prefer single, formal eulogies while others may open the service to anyone who wishes to speak on behalf of the character of the deceased.
  • A benediction or concluding statement by the priest, minister, officiator or family member.

Following the funeral, many hold a brief graveside service. Customs differ by sect, but words of committal and prayers are generally included. The traditional funeral prayer, which contains the phrase, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is based on Genesis 3:19. It was first recorded in the Anglican denomination's Book of Common Prayer.5Published in 1662.

Practical and legal conditions have also changed funerary customs. Protestants, long forbidden, may now be buried in consecrated Catholic cemeteries, a departure from historical precedent. Shortages of burial space in some areas as well as legal requirements have led to more frequent Christian cremations, even though some sects officially oppose this practice.

Distinctive Funerary Customs

  • The Episcopal Church includes distribution of the Eucharist with funerals, and all Christians are invited to partake.
  • Mennonite services emphasize hope for the living; no eulogies are given. Mourners express respect for the deceased and sometimes offer praise. Hymns are spoken, not sung. After the service, relatives and friends commonly share a meal.
  • In the Orthodox tradition, three separate services are customary: The vigil service, or Trisagion, is named for the three repetitions of the opening phrase, "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us." The service is performed at the place where the body lies the night preceding the funeral and includes a short litany and prayers for the deceased. The funeral service is conducted at the church. Divine liturgy may be celebrated, as relatives and friends bid farewell to the deceased. The Trisagion service is repeated graveside, followed by a meal to celebrate the life of the deceased. The memorial service is repeated—at the church or graveside—usually on the fortieth day (ending the official mourning) and on the anniversary.