An English vicar, Rev. Edward Tomlinson, of the Church of England, got grief for himself when he suggested that his role at funerals that featured pop music and bad prose from grieving participants was superfluous:
“I have stood at the Crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the blaring tunes of Tina Turner summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with “I did it my way” blaring out across the speakers,” he wrote in his blog on the website for St. Barnabas Church in county of Kent.
His remarks angered bereavement counsellors and humanist groups and prompted much debate over what is appropriate and what is not when it comes to mourning.
“The best our secularist friends (and those they dupe) can hope for is a poem from Nan combined with a saccharine message from a pop star before being popped in the oven with no hope of resurrection”, Tomlinson said.
In a follow up post Mr. Tomlinson said it was never his intention to criticize people’s taste in music. “I was actually seeking to raise a question which is important for all society: What are funerals for?” he said.
The question is a good question. What are funerals, especially Christian funerals, for?
First of all, I believe a Christian funeral offers all who come a chance to worship God and to give him their grateful thanks for the life of the one whose days among us have drawn to a close. It is a chance to remember him or her, to honour him or her, and to commend him or her into the care of a gracious, merciful and loving God.
Secondly, though it would be fair to say that many Christians downplay this aspect of the funeral service, the service provides a special opportunity for those who sorrow to share their grief. Most people, even most Christians, believe that death is inevitable and focus on the unbiblical notion of “heaven when we die”. If our loved one is in heaven “playing bowls”, “at the bar”, or (for those with a more religious bent), “singing hymns with Jesus”, it seems uncharitable to grieve or to wish them back. The truth, however, is that death is “the last enemy” to be finally defeated only when Jesus Christ comes again (1 Cor. 15). Until then the dead are “asleep.” Paul himself tells us that we can and should grieve, though not as if we had no hope (1Thess. 4:13-18). Jesus grieved and wept at the graveside of his friend Lazarus (John 11). Grieving is more than the work of a moment but the funeral service can be an important part of the grieving process, especially when the truth about death is put forth clearly and biblically.
With any death, especially when that death is sudden, there can be a sense of unfinished business, things we wish we had said – or hadn‘t said. A third purpose for the funeral service is to provide a special time and place to say some of the things which we might not want to leave unsaid – to say them before the gathered congregation and/or before God (in this latter instance we may only say them in our hearts, but that’s OK). This too is a major benefit of a formal funeral service.
To a certain extent the “secular” person can participate in a Christian funeral. He or she will want to give thanks for the life of a departed loved one. He or she will need to grieve. He or she may feel they have things they want to say.
But a fourth and probably the most important reason to meet, from a Christian perspective, is that the funeral service gives mourners who believe the opportunity to refresh their own belief and trust in God; to affirm the Christian conviction that while death is the end of life as we know it, it is not the end of all life, the end of all hope. It is our chance to affirm what Jesus said when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live [in the resurrection], even though they die [in this life], and whoever lives [until Jesus comes] and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25). How sad that at many funerals, even Christian funerals, the true hope of a resurrection to eternal life when Jesus comes again, has been almost obliterated by a “pie in the sky when you die” hope which is really no part of the biblical hope at all.
Mr. Tomlinson is (mostly) right. If the best we can offer is a bad poem and a platitude with no hope of resurrection, God help us. We need to be concerned, less with the music we play at funerals, and more with the message we proclaim.
Original blog posting:
Updated blog posting: