Turning the funeral around

Just because "we've always done it that way" doesn't mean that the usual funeral procedure is the most beneficial in all cases. The author gives some convincing arguments for reversing the normal order of service.

Neal A. Kuyper is an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church and director of the Presbyterian Counseling Service in Seattle, Washington.

When hen a 40-year-old wife, the mother of three children, died in an early-morning accident, the shock, the pain, and the sudden disruption overwhelmed the family. In making preparations for the service, the funeral director and I sensed this family needed to be in touch with the realities of the tragic death. How could we help them move from the suddenness of it to some acceptance of the reality of their loss? A viewing at the funeral home was agreed upon, but it seemed that we needed time at the gravesite. Why not have the committal at the cemetery prior to the memorial service in the church? We decided the unusual order was just what this family needed.

If your reaction is like that of most pastors, you're saying, "What! Reverse the traditional funeral procedure and conduct the graveside committal service before the memorial service in the funeral chapel or the church?" That is exactly what we decided to do in this case, and I am convinced by the funerals I have con ducted since that this procedure is often the most helpful. When planning the service, families have been most receptive to the idea, and later these individuals have had positive and grateful things to say about having the committal service first.

The family whose wife and mother had been so suddenly killed met at the cemetery with the body already placed over the grave. After a short committal service, I asked for expressions from the family members. One daughter responded by singing "Memories"; the family joined with her. The 17-year-old daughter told of the love she had felt from her mother and of her own love for her. The husband talked of the loss he felt and of his gratefulness for the support family and friends were giving. The stepfather gave a spiritual testimony affirming life in Christ and expressing his hope for a reunion of the family in the life to come. The graveside service was a genuine proclamation of human warmth, caring, and affirmation of faith.

When we returned to the church from the cemetery, we were then ready for a service of remembrance and thanksgiving. Family, colleagues, neighbors, and friends joined together in this service of gratitude that became a celebration of the resurrection. Without the need to leave this service for the cemetery, the family were able to linger and meet all who attended following the worship service. They embraced, they talked. It was a time of love, of being together, and of genuine caring.

The reversal of the usual order seemed to work so well in this instance that I decided on a similar procedure when a young attorney's death came from cancer. I invited all those who planned to attend the memorial service to come first to the cemetery for the committal. In addition to members of his law firm, members of the Rotary Club and clients were present to grieve the loss of their friend and col league. His young widow was a schoolteacher, much loved by her class of children. They had been experiencing the loss of her presence in the classroom during recent weeks and knew of their teacher's grief. They were also present at the cemetery. At the close of the service, each member of the community, each schoolchild, and each family member placed rose petals on the coffin. Now they were ready to go back to the church for a service of witness to the resurrection. The warm, friendly fellowship time that followed enabled persons to greet one another and gave out-of-State relatives time to mingle with friends from the community. The widow later indicated that this fellowship time following the memorial service was one of the most comforting experiences of the entire funeral. She had time with people who cared and loved her. Rushing to the cemetery following the worship service would have deprived her of some of that needed comfort.

Finally, I had occasion to use this idea with a family that had never experienced death before. A young man was tragically killed in an early-morning auto accident. In their overwhelming grief, they wanted only a simple service, limited to immediate family—no friends, business partners, or schoolmates. They could not share their grief; it was too personal, too painful. Some pastoral counseling was necessary to help them understand that they needed to help others, as well, deal with the grief felt in this loss. What would the father say to his business colleagues when he returned to work? They needed to be able to grieve with him at the chapel. The dead boy's classmates could not undergo the suddenness of loss without some means of absorbing the reality of their friend's death. At last, the family consented to having the graveside service before the memorial.

When the family arrived at the cemetery, the grim reality of their son's death was present. It was a painful time for them. After the committal, they returned to the funeral-home chapel for the memorial service. There they discovered human warmth from friends. The class of school mates was present; their faces, too, were like the faces on Mount Rushmore not a movement until they cried as they shared experiences with one another in the narthex after the service. If we had left this service immediately to go to the cemetery, we would not have been able to have this time of affirmation.

What! Have the graveside committal before the memorial service! Yes. Once the body has been placed in its resting place, amid the cold of winter, the rain, the heat, or even perhaps on a beautiful day, the returning to the church or the chapel with expectations of quiet meditation, reading of Scripture, and worship helps the family move from physical realities to spiritual and emotional affirmations of faith and comfort. Following the service, they are with friends and family in an atmosphere conducive to comfort and caring. They need human warmth, love, and assurance of continuing support from each another. This happens best, I believe, when the committal precedes the memorial service.


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Neal A. Kuyper is an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church and director of the Presbyterian Counseling Service in Seattle, Washington.

November 1982

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