Are Funeral Services Necessary?
Q: In pre-planning for my own death, am I required by my religion to have an actual funeral? If I decide to be cremated and my ashes kept with my wife, do I need to plan a memorial service in order to comply with Christian or Lutheran beliefs that I’m not aware of? I know that it’s important for closure for family and friends in most cases. I believe in Jesus and find myself constantly asking him for forgiveness — more so as I get older and, I think, wiser. I daily try to be a better person. I haven’t spent much time in church over the last 20 years but my faith has not wavered and I speak to God on a daily basis. I have been trying to remember from my teenage years in Bible study about God’s attitude toward burial but nothing comes to my brain. I could use your guidance. Thank you in advance.
A: Almost every part of Christendom has some rite or routine for funerals and burials. Some remain fairly constant among confessions and denominations; others vary from congregation to congregation. I don’t know about all other bodies, but the Lutheran churches with which I’m familiar do not require funeral services or burial rites. As you note, however, they may be quite “important for closure for family and friends.”
More than “closure,” a Christian funeral proclaims to those we leave behind the death of Christ for our sins and His resurrection for our justification. The funeral and accompanying burial rite are intended to do much more than merely help the survivors let go of a loved one. The service emphasizes Baptism and Easter, encouraging the mourners to look beyond the grave to eternal life with Jesus Christ. I’ve not only preached this message but, through the death and burial of several loved ones, have received its blessed hope from the mouths of other pastors.
This message is also for you — for now and until the day you die. A true Christian congregation proclaims Christ in Scripture, sermon, and song; a true Christian regularly and joyfully participates in this gathering of saints. Remember also that even if your faith is strong, other worshipers do not have this luxury and even if they’re not going to do much to strengthen your relationship with God, God may call you to help them in their times of weakness.
After all, as baptized children of God, we join together to be encouraged and to encourage each other: “Let us draw near with a true heart ... with our hearts sprinkled clean ... and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope.... And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:22-25)”
Don’t plan for a “memorial service.” Plan instead for a confession of faith in Jesus Christ and a celebration of His resurrection as a foretaste of your own being raised from the dead. Don’t think of your funeral as a long maudlin farewell. Even through tears, your mourning family and friends will have this opportunity to focus on “Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2)” if you make plans to allow your pastor to focus on life in Christ rather than on death, devil, and decay. As for your mention of cremation, let’s tie it in with the following two questions from others.
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Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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