The Ministry of the Church at the Time of Death
A Ministry of Sympathy and Compassion and A Witness to the Resurrection
None of us enjoys thinking about death, whether it is our own death or the death of someone close to us. The finality of death and the pain of separation causes most of us to avoid the subject. Consequently, few of us have carefully discussed funeral or memorial service arrangements with our families or with our minister.
But we know that death is real, and that death is inevitable. It usually comes with such a shock-wave of grief and bewilderment that it is difficult to think clearly or to make decisions wisely. Sometimes the depth of our feelings prevents us from making choices that are consistent with our Christian convictions, and the result is that the funeral of a Christian is not distinguishable from that of anyone else. So, it is helpful to recall our beliefs concerning death, and to make funeral plans before death comes.
What We Believe About Death
Presbyterians, as all Christians, believe that death has been conquered by God through Jesus Christ. Death is a solemn and mysterious human experience, bringing painful separation from loved ones and friends. However, we remember the bold claim of the New Testament that in Christ, God is the Victor over death and the grave.
The central doctrine of the Christian faith is the resurrection. “Jesus Christ is risen today” is not only the Easter message, it is the message of every day in the year, and it is the foundation of the life of the church. We believe that, as followers of Christ, we will share in his victory. “And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by His power” (I Corinthians 6:14). Christians should seek to make the occasion of death a time in which they reaffirm with joy the hope of the gospel. Of course, it is natural to feel sorrow and anguish when faced with the reality of the loss of a loved one, whether that person is elderly, in the “prime of life” or a child or infant. There is a time for grieving. However, for us grief is tempered by our overriding hope and faith in Jesus Christ.
When Death Occurs
It is important that a Minister be notified immediately when there has been a death, so that you may be in touch with the spiritual and practical support the Church can offer. The Minister is available to be with family members as they go through the experience of death, and to assist in decisions as requested, including going with you to the funeral home to aid and support you in the decisions which need to be made. The Minister can counsel you regarding the funeral service and arrangements for it.
The Worship Service
The funeral should take place in the Sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church, where other significant experiences of worship have occurred in the life of the deceased, the family, and the church family. The minister, in consultation with the family, is in charge of this service.
The funeral service, which should be conducted with dignity and simplicity, is a witness to God’s love offered to all people, a love that strengthens and supports, even in times of grief and loss. It is a witness to God’s promises in Jesus Christ, affirmed in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and to the sure and certain hope of our own resurrection.
Because the proper purposes of the service are the worship of God and the consolation of the living, it follows that the body of the deceased is not necessary to the service. The service may be held before or after the disposition of the body. If the casket is to be present during the service, it should be closed at all times, so that worship of those present may be directed to God. If the family desires a time for the casket to be open, a time at the funeral home prior to the funeral would be appropriate. The Service of Witness to the Resurrection is complete in itself, and another time and place should be appointed for any fraternal or civic rites.
Emphasis should be placed upon readings from Scripture that declare the Christian hope, and any other readings or music should be consistent with the Biblical affirmation of God’s power over death. As an expression of our common faith, it is appropriate that the assembled congregation join in the singing of hymns which declare belief in the life everlasting. A sermon may be preached which bears testimony to the hope and promises set forth in Scripture. Thanks may be offered for the God-given life of the one who has died, and intercessions may be made for family members and other loved ones who grieve. At the close of a memorial service, when the casket is not present and the family and friends will not be going to the cemetery, it is appropriate for the family to greet friends at the church during a time of fellowship.
When There Are Children
When children are present in the family where a death occurs, two main concerns usually surface for adults: (1) What shall we tell the children? and (2) Should children be included in the family’s sense of crisis and loss, the funeral, and subsequent related events?
As for what to tell children, they should be told as simply and as clearly as possible what has happened, the Christian meaning of death as a part of life in God’s world, and something of what it will be like not to have that loved one in the family circle any more. After the funeral, adults should be ready and open to the children’s questions, answering them as simply and as warmly as possible without overwhelming them.
As for including children in what happens, it is strongly suggested that children remain a close, vital part of the total experience. As Jesus told his disciples, “Let the children come, and do not forbid them.” The wounds of bereavement and loss do not compare to the wounds of exclusion.
A funeral at Second Presbyterian Church is a worship service of the congregation in celebration of the resurrection and a gathering for mutual comfort and support. Consequently, there is no fee for the use of the Sanctuary or other facilities, nor is an honorarium required for the Minister or Organist. If a soloist is requested by the family, there may be a fee, depending on the soloist who is invited.
It is easy for emotions to overwhelm our judgment at the time of a death. Sometimes, people are tempted to demonstrate the depth of their love and loss through the selection of an especially expensive casket, flowers, or elaborate funeral arrangements. Our Presbyterian Directory for Worship urges that “ostentation and undue expenses are to be avoided in the choice of a casket, flowers, and other appointments.” This is good advice. The amount of money spent on a funeral is not a measure of devotion to the one who has died. Our Session has established policy which states that flowers, other than those provided by the family, will not be allowed in the Sanctuary or Chapel. A pall is also available for covering the casket, in lieu of purchasing a floral spray.
A contribution to the church’s Memorial Fund is a fitting, enduring tribute to a friend or family member who has died. Often, people are urged to make such contributions instead of sending flowers. Memorial contributions made to the church are acknowledged individually and the family is provided with a list of those who have contributed. Memorial Gifts are placed in a special fund which is then used by the Session, with the family’s approval, for special purchases of lasting value as needs arise. It is also possible to specify that Memorial Gifts be used for particular purposes (library books, Hymnals, organ repair, redecoration, etc.). You may consult with the Minister to determine an appropriate designation.
Preparing For Death
Death is often surrounded by shock, grief, and bewilderment. There are things each of us can do to make our own death somewhat easier for our loved ones, and to assure that our personal preferences are honored.
- Have a current will.
- Make a written statement, in consultation with your spouse, attorney, and/or minister, noting your preferences and listing where significant documents are kept. Keep this statement in a confidential file at home, safety deposit box, etc. where it may be readily found and followed.
- The Living Will – There is a growing recognition of the right of individuals to participate in decisions affecting their lives when they are near death, and to have their decisions respected by health care providers. The Living Will is a document which enables individuals, while competent, to give directions concerning treatment during terminal illness, including the withholding or withdrawal of life support systems. You may receive a copy of this document by sending a $5.00 donation to Concern for Dying, 250 E. 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.
- Living with Death
During long, terminal illnesses, and after the death of a loved one, people need a support system. There may be strong feelings, such as anger or guilt, which may seem inappropriate, but which in reality are normal. Your church can help you. Feel free to discuss these feelings with your minister, or with trusted friends.
The grief process may take a long time. Many people find help in support groups, such as those available through the Home Hospice organization. As Christians, we can also help each other live our faith in this crucial area of human existence.
Remember that the Ministers, officers, and members of Second Presbyterian Church want to be with you and support you as you work through your grief, and as you put your life back together again. Turn to them for prayer and counseling, conversation and support, encouragement and assurance, and God will bless, comfort, and sustain you through your time of loss.