The Pastor and Funeral Visitation
Q: I’ve been a senior pastor at my current location for three years now. Here is my question: How long should I stay at the viewing at the death of a lady in the church? Thanks.
A: I don’t know if your church body, congregation, or region of the country have any special customs and practices. If not, I’d recommend that, whenever possible, you arrive before the viewing officially begins, when the family says they will gather. Of course, this isn’t always possible, since some previous commitments may outweigh even the beginning of a family’s visitation time. Occasionally, also, an emergency keeps a pastor away.
Anyhow, after extending condolences and visiting the departed saint’s coffin or urn, have a prayer and say a brief devotion or give a very short sermon for the family. You might, if you see a need, talk for a few minutes with any family members who appear to be particularly struggling, especially if they’re also members of your congregation. Leave when the situation seems right.
Some bodies give their pastors much more help in this area than do others. Most liturgical churches (those following the orders of service established in the early Christian Church) have for centuries used resources such as what we Lutherans call our Agenda. A full-featured agenda, suitable for use in the worship services, includes all the basic rites and ceremonies we use. These include ordinations, installations, inductions, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals.
My church body, The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS), also produced a scaled-down version that’s easier to take with us on the road. A new agenda was issued to accompany Lutheran Service Book, our newest hymnal. In keeping with previous issues, the LSB Agenda offers prayers, Scripture readings, and related material not only for the funeral but before and after. Meanwhile, the more portable Pastoral Care Companion focuses especially on those rites and ceremonies that may be held outside of the church building.
For hospital and shut-in visits, we have services of prayer, preaching, and Holy Communion. If death seems imminent, the pastor can speak and pray the “Commendation of the Dying” at home, hospital, nursing home, or wherever else. When meeting with the family for a first viewing at the funeral home, the Agenda and the Companion offer a rite of “Comforting the Bereaved.” Then follow the funeral and committal rites with various options, including the placing of the funeral pall. The Agenda also includes a special rite, “Burial for a Stillborn Child or Unbaptized Child.”
If your own church doesn’t offer such assistance, you check with the LCMS’s Concordia Publishing House or investigate similar materials from other bodies. Of course, some may worry that using printed, established rites destroys “spontaneity.” However, the Scripture options, the sermon(s), the pastor’s meetings with the family, and his relationship with the saint at rest allow us to tailor the entire funeral to the survivors’ needs according to our mutual memories of the departed.
Note: This response was updated to reflect the information supplied by Pastor McCain in the comments. I didn’t name the Pastoral Care Companion only because it’s not yet in my library. That will be taken care of once I get a few shekels set aside.
Send email to Ask the Pastor.
Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
Technorati Tags: death | burial practice | funerary practices | Christian funerals | funerals | Lutheran | Christian | visitation | viewing | Agenda | LSB | Pastoral Care Companion | Lutheran Service Book | LCMS | Concordia Publishing House | CPH