The erosion of funeral customs

The erosion of funeral customs and its impact on ministry

What must be done to restore and preserve ministry effectiveness when death strikes a family?


Death is dreadful. Death i s inevitable. Death affects all. Nevertheless, wherever or whenever it touches, death leaves behind a horror touching every area of life. Physically, death becomes a repulsive and frightening cutoff point: a dear one whom the family saw each day is no longer around. Emotionally, family and friends are impacted by the hard fact that someone they loved, talked with, and laughed with is no longer there. Their spiritual values are challenged, sometimes raising questions such as, Why did God allow this?

Ministers must relate to and care for the grieving family on all three levels—physical, emotional, and spiritual—taking into account all the levels and intensity of pain the family experiences during the grieving period. In addition, ministers must also be aware of prevailing customs and expectations involved in dealing with the grieving process, funeral planning, and other details the occasion requires. This is not a time to experiment with new approaches; it would be well to respect traditions and the wishes of the family. Saying this does not mean everything in the tradition is good and all that is new is bad. Whatever is done, ministers need to respect the feelings of the family and the community, as long as they are in harmony with Scripture.

Four traditional elements

Although this article is developed from the perspective of a Western culture, funeral customs anywhere have traditionally included four elements: attending to the deceased, some form of a wake (or visitation), a funeral proper, and the disposition of the remains (burial, cremation, entombment, etc.).1 These four elements form an obvious parallel to the three levels at which death touches the surviving family and friends.

First, attend to the dead body. Dead bodies are often thought of as repulsive, scary, and surreal, and the sooner this is attended to, the better. Where the death occurs at home, the family that had a loved one in their midst a few moments ago now has a cadaver in their house. “Who should I call? What will they do? I’ve never even touched a dead body before, and now I must deal with one in the midst of my grief and disbelief and shock.” The physical aspects cannot be ignored.

Second, arrange for an orderly wake (also referred to as “the visitation” or “the receiving of friends”) where friends and family gather around the body for the wake. At these services, memories are shared and condolences offered concerning the departed. This is a formal attempt by the community to offer emotional support to the grieving family. Format varies from region to region, but usually some opportunity exists to pass by the casket to pay respect to the one who has passed away, as well as an offering of support and concern for the immediate family.

Third, at the funeral proper, spiritual help has traditionally been offered to the grieving. It is chiefly through this service that ministers share Scripture and spiritual insight on the subject of death. Encourage families to accept in faith that which they cannot understand, and remind mourners of a Power higher than themselves. In an attempt to answer the spiritual questions spawned by the pain and grief of loss, present God’s Word along with an assurance of His infinite wisdom. This may well be an occasion to present the biblical portrayal of death as a short sleep, waiting for the voice of the Life-Giver to call for the deceased to arise from the grave. That hope of the resurrection confirms the biblical answer to the tragedy of death.

Fourth, ministers must plan for a sacred graveside service after the funeral service. The graveside service is a formal treatment of a very sordid reality. The subject is often seen as so delicate and unpleasant that terminology becomes treacherous ground. We prefer the term disposition of the remains indicating the final settlement of a matter, rather than the more accurate “disposing of the body.” The putting away of the body is the necessary goal, but no one wants to acknowledge or accept the technical truth of disposing of the remains. The graveside service includes some of the elements of the visitation and the funeral to draw attention away from the real task at hand—the burial of a dead body.

Erosion of funeral ministry

As somber as the subject may be, attitudes toward funerals and death in Western culture have lightened in recent years. What used to be unquestioned etiquette in funeral matters has become optional behavior.

Death rituals seem to be suffering from an erosion of quality that has already been addressed in other disciplines. While those involved in health care have noted a renewed attention to spirituality in that field,2 it seems that one of the sources of erosion in funeral ministry includes a diminishing of the spiritual aspect of the service.

The weakening or even absence of any offering of spiritual help indicates that the content of the funeral custom, as a whole, has weakened. Where a funeral sermon delivered by a member of the clergy was once the norm, even for unbelievers, now the sermon is being replaced by eulogies delivered by someone other than a pastor. Before 1980, the percentage of United States funerals including a eulogy by someone other than a member of the clergy was less than 10 percent, rising to about 25 percent by 1990, and now over 50 percent.3 The emotional ministry is slightly increased, but only at the sacrifice of spiritual help, as fond recollections replace scriptural support. While many details of a funeral service may be cultural, one issue should not be surrendered to varying dictates of culture, and that is the scriptural core teaching that death is a defeated foe, and that every funeral includes an occasion for Christians to affirm their faith in their risen Lord in whom they have the hope of the final resurrection.

A slight increase of emotional support, it seems, is bought at the price of a major decrease of spiritual help. Where today the wake, or visitation, seems almost exclusively social in scope and emotional in the ministry offered, it once was also rich in spiritual help for the grieving family. In the 1800s, the wake had more spiritual emphasis than does the funeral proper in many cases today. The wake then was usually held in the home and included somber reflection and Scripture reading.4 The visitation that replaced the now obsolete wake is also moving to the background, with times of visitation becoming shorter and the emphasis lessening.

Modern priorities

Time, or the lack thereof, and busy lives have contributed to the streamlining of funeral services. Once a rarity, now night funerals are becoming the norm because they do not interfere with jobs and daily life routines. Ministry to the grieving was once seen as such a pressing need that daytime routines were put on hold for the ministry’s sake. Communities are now less willing to interrupt their busy lives when an individual’s life has ended. The families must reschedule the time of the funeral to accommodate the routines of the rest of the community. The night funeral typically follows immediately after the visitation, causing the two formerly distinct and different gatherings to blur into one event. Visitors can choose to come early for visitation and leave before the funeral or come late just in time for the funeral service. The graveside service will likely be attended only by the immediate family and a few very close friends. Families are often choosing to just meet at the graveside for an all-purpose committal service, omitting the more formal funeral service and sometimes the visitation as well. Even the graveside service itself is disappearing, as cremation removes the need for burial. One report reveals that whereas cremations accounted for 21 percent of all body dispositions in 1997, that number likely doubled during 2010.5

The potential problem is that streamlining the last rites may come at the price of inadequate ministry at a very crucial time. If friends have no part in the burial, do not bring food to the family, and stop looking for physical ways to minister, a wound is left unattended. If visitation is diminished or deleted from the ministry, emotional support from the community is lessened. When the minister stands to proclaim the love of God at such times (if a minister is involved at all), the spiritual ministry is less effective because the love of God has not been fully exhibited through the offerings of His people in the other realms of need.

Turn back to traditional ministry

What must be done to restore and preserve ministry effectiveness when death strikes a family? Do not wait until death intrudes into the church. Prepare the church, in advance, to meet a grief as tragic as death. As in so many areas, the church must take the lead and pastors must guide the process. Pastors may begin by teaching their congregations, stressing the desire of God to work through His people to offer physical, emotional, and spiritual care. Ministry to the grieving must be held up as a sacred and vital duty. Congregations, led back to a high view of their role in ministry and armed with an awareness of the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain of grief, will more readily reverse the process of erosion of funeral importance. If the church will lead the way, hopefully the world will follow.


1 For the validity of this observation, see Donald Irish, Kathleen Lundquist, Vivian Nelson, and the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support, Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death, and Grief: Diversity in Universality (London: Taylor and Francis, 1993).

2 Joan Farrell, Scott Brooks, James Cooper, and Leigh Mathias, “Godly Play: An Intervention for Improving Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Responses of Chronically Ill Hospitalized Children,” Journal of Pastoral Care and
Counseling 62 (2008), 261–271.

3 Jeffrey Zaslow, “And John Was a Terrible Gambler: When Eulogists Get Carried Away,” Wall Street Journal, 2003, 242: D1.

4 Jacqueline Thursby, Funeral Festivals in America: Rituals for the Living (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2005), 90.

5 Peter Gilmour, “The Many Ways to Say Goodbye,” U.S. Catholic 13 (1998), 7.

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May 2011

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