Funerals are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.
It is a reason for gratitude that we still can speak of funerals and do not have to pay attention to cremation. The latter has its origin in ancient and modern heathenism. The Scriptures speak of the burning of the dead as a punishment. They speak of the burial of God's children, of a descending into the grave, and of the sowing of a seed. We also read of the opening of the graves at the appearing of our Lord and Saviour. However, we do not have to argue this point among us.
Of these funerals we state that they are family affairs and should be conducted accordingly. This means they are a private family gathering, even though the whole congregation were present. What should therefore be avoided is characterizing these family gatherings as a service. At times one can find this word in advertisements as well as on the programs that are handed out at the funeral ceremony.
Our families as well as our ministers are to see to it that the word “service” is not used, for it brings a wrong concept into the picture. With the Romish church funerals are services, complete with “holy water,” pealing of bells, and mass. Not so with the church of Christ. A funeral is a private gathering, although the ceremony is usually conducted by the minister. He, too, should avoid everything that could give the people the impression that a service is being conducted. For this reason he should purposely follow an order different from the order of worship, and should not make his address too long. Relatives and friends are not able to absorb a lengthy message, as their thoughts go repeatedly to the dear one who passed away. A brief address of not more than fifteen minutes will do more and will be better remembered than a drawn-out “sermon” of half an hour.
There is nothing against having the casket standing in front of the pulpit, on the contrary, is that not the place where the brother or sister was baptized, where they made profession of faith and where they sat together with the congregation at the table of the Lord? Early ecclesiastical assemblies may have expressed their disapproval of having the deceased in the church building, and with a view to the prevailing circumstances at that time we can understand this, we think that it is a beautiful thing. We can then see the purpose to which we have come together as relatives, friends, and brothers and sisters. The times this writer attended a funeral ceremony while the casket remained outside in the hearse he got an empty, unreal feeling.
Our funerals should be simple, sober ceremonies. Even though we may not reject flower arrangements outright, we are to remember that we are going to sow the seed and that this is the fulfilment of what the Lord spoke:
“Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” We should not do anything to cover up the terrible reality of death and of the cutting off of many bonds. On the other hand, by sowing the seed we at the same time express our hope of the resurrection. This is not the end.
Since we have gathered for an interment, which means a placing into the earth, we should see the casket descend into the grave. We always find it unsatisfactory when the casket is left standing above the grave and everyone leaves. Looking back, we see it still standing there when everyone is gone. It is a difficult moment when we see the casket slowly disappearing into the open grave, but this is the purpose to which we have come together, and it shows clearly the sowing of the seed. No farmer will leave the seed on top of the soil. Also at that difficult moment we lift our hearts on high where Christ is and all those who have fallen asleep in Him.
Death means that all the bonds on this earth are cut and that the name is also deleted from the register of membership here below. Although in our hearts and minds we still count them in who have died in the Lord, we should do so only in our hearts. At times one can see a family advertisement in which also the name of a child or a brother or sister who passed away is included as if they were still all present. We then see the strange thing that a child that died still is thankful that the parents have been spared for each other through the bond of marriage for so many years, or that a deceased child with sorrow gives notice of the passing away of a dear mother or father or other relative.
Here, too, we are to acknowledge the hand of the Lord and not in one way or another try to act as if He had not cut the bonds here on this earth. The bond as members of the church of Christ remains, for we are still one with that part of the church which, though incomplete, is in heaven. We do not know whether and, if so, how they are aware of what is going on on this earth and how we are doing, but one thing is a fact: they are no longer included in the number on earth, and we should act accordingly.
Also in our grief and mourning we are to show that we are different from those who have no hope. We show this also in the manner in which we announce the passing away of a dear one and in the way in which we entrust the seed to the soil, acknowledging that the Lord knows who are His both in life and death.