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Common Events/Observances: Funerals


In This Lesson
Christian Funeral or Memorial Service | Embalming or No Embalming? | Burial or Cremation?
"They're in a Better Place Now" | What Does the Bible Say? | What Should I Do?
Is the Person Now Healed? | Funeral Resources | Bible Verses for Sympathy
Bible Verses to Comfort | Prayer for Comfort in Loss

Christian Funeral or Memorial Service
Everyone experiences the loss of a loved one sooner or later in their lifetime. Death is a sinister enemy that can overwhelm us with grief. Not everyone grieves and heals in the same way and same time. During the grieving process, the pastor needs to be available to console, to pray, and to counsel. And most important of all, he/she must give the person the time and space they need to heal and not impose some arbitrary timeline, which can only worsen and extend the grieving process.

Don't try to cover over their pain with empty religious platitudes. Be sensitive to the person's or family's needs and prevailing psychological state. Even your well-intentioned reciting of Scripture can add the burden of guilt or shame to the person grieving. Don't deny their loss or pain. Being Christian does not mean the person shouldn't mourn; it means simply that we have an eternal promise of never really dying. And the sooner they acknowledge the pain, fear, grief and sometimes even anger, the sooner they can begin to heal — with God's help.

Just as we discussed in the preceding section on Christian weddings, funerals and memorial services also vary from country to country, culture to culture. In this lesson, we will not attempt to strictly outline how one should conduct a funeral or memorial service. Rather, we will try to answer some questions and provide resources that may assist you in planning or conducting a Christian funeral or memorial service.

Embalming or No Embalming?
For most people in developed modern cultures, this question holds little significance, as we usually employ the services of a licensed funeral home. However, in developing or under-developed cultures in which the family and friends normally prepare the body for its final rest, there remain questions about the necessity of embalming.

Embalming is the art and science of temporarily preserving a body to delay the decomposition and to make the body suitable for public display at a funeral. It does not preserve the human body forever; it merely delays the inevitable and natural consequences of death.

The processes and chemicals used vary, but the basic process involves not only arterial embalming wherein the body's normal blood supply is replaced with embalming fluid, but it also includes cavity embalming in which the body's internal fluids inside body cavities are replaced by embalming chemicals. The three goals of embalming are:

  • sanitation;
  • presentation; and
  • preservation.

    Embalming has a very long and cross-cultural history, with many cultures giving the embalming processes a greater religious meaning. The ancient culture that had developed embalming to the greatest extent was that of Egypt, which developed the process of mummification.

    Embalming is rarely required by law, except in instances where a body may be transported across national or state boundaries or when the body cannot be buried within 48-72 hours of death. Also, while most people in developed countries use the services of licensed funeral homes, the family may opt to do everything themselves, including the preparation of the body for burial or cremation.

    There is much difference of opinion among different faiths as to the permissibility of embalming. The fact that the ancient Egyptians believed that preservation of the mummy empowered the soul after death — the latter of which would return to the preserved corpse — has played no small role in some religious objections.

    • Most branches of the Christian faith in developed countries generally allow embalming. Some churches within Eastern Orthodoxy profess an absolute ban against embalming except when required by law or other necessity.

    • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [Mormon] does not discourage or prohibit embalming. Often, due to the custom of church members dressing the deceased, embalming is given preference.

    • Traditional Jewish and Islamic law forbids embalming, and burial is to be done as soon as possible — preferably within 24 hours. However, under certain circumstances, if it is impossible to bury a person immediately, the family and those responsible for care of the corpse may opt for the minimal, least-invasive embalming to delay the body's decomposition.1

    The Bible records only two instances of embalming, both of which took place in Egypt. The first one is in Genesis 50:2 when Joseph commanded his physicians to embalm his father, Israel (Jacob); and the other is in Genesis 50:26 upon the occasion of Joseph's death.

    Thus, as there is no Biblical mandate for or against embalming, other than places where the law requires it, the practice really is dictated by the personal preferences of the family.

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    Burial or Cremation?
    Perhaps the most controversial subject deals with whether it is okay for a Christian to be cremated or not. Contrary to some people's beliefs, the Bible does not provide any specific teaching concerning cremation. All we know for sure is that it was neither common nor acceptable for Jews or the early Christians to be cremated.

    Today, both Judaism and Islam prohibit cremation. Also, Eastern Orthodox and some "fundamentalist" Christian denominations forbid cremation.

    As is the case with almost every aspect of our lives that are subject to a poor economy and rising costs, funeral expenses in the West have drastically increased over the last ten years. As a result, many people in the West are choosing cremation instead of burial for purely financial reasons. For example...

    • Burial Costs
      Assuming you engage a licensed funeral home to make all prepartions for the deceased, you can expect to pay between $5,500 and $9,500 for the casket, outer concrete or steel vault, flowers and transportation to the cemetery; and the average burial plot costs another $4,000. So, the grieving family can expect to spend between $9,500 and 13,500.

    • Cremation Costs
      It costs between $1,000 and $6,000 for a cremation. The driving factor in the price here is what type of memorial service the family wants. Cremation alone with no flowers or funeral service is only about $1,000. For an additional $2,000 you get visitation funeral services and flowers, without the body present. For the top-of-the-line $6,000 package, they include all the services of the burial package, except that after the ceremony they cremate the body instead of burying it.2

    As you can see, there is a significant difference between the costs for burial and cremation. However, the decision of whether to bury or cremate cannot be relegated to a purely financial one. For many, it is a religious issue.

    For example, in India, where the majority of the population is Hindu and practices cremation as a part of their religion, the Christians see cremation as a religious ritual to the Hindus' pagan gods, and thus, are offended at the very idea of a Christian being cremated.

    And in places where Islam is the predominant religious and civil authority in which cremation is strictly forbidden, Christians defer to the Islamic tradition so as not to jeopardize their witness among Muslims.

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    Arguments against Cremation
    Most Christians who object to cremation base it on the promise in 1 Corinthians 15:42-55 that tells us one day the bodies of those who have died in Christ will be resurrected and reunited with their souls and spirits.

    42"So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
    42It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.
    42It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body."

    54"When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
    55'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'"

    1 Thessalonians 4:16—

    So, the opponents of cremation argue that if a body has been destroyed by fire, it is impossible for God to resurrect it later and reunite it with the person's soul and spirit.

    Another argument against cremation is that most of the key people in the Old Testament were buried, and those who were burned in the Bible — either as an execution or after death — were receiving an eternal punishment.

    Arguments for Cremation
    Proponents of cremation argue that just because a body has been destroyed by fire, it doesn't mean God cannot resurrect it in newness of life and reunite it with the soul and spirit. Otherwise, they argue, all believers who have died in a fire — including those who died and were burned in Hitler's concentration camps during World War II — are without hope of the resurrection and the perishable putting on imperishable as promised in Scripture.

    They also argue that all flesh-and-blood bodies eventually decay and become like dust in the earth. "...till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19b) They say that cremation simply expedites the decaying process, but in no way replaces it.

    Another argument to debunk the opponents of cremation who infer that God is not able to create a new body is found in Genesis 2:7 that tells us: "then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature."

    Does God really need the old body of flesh-and-blood in order to provide the new heavenly spiritual body? He created the first human from the dust of the earth, which He had created from nothing on Day 3 of the creation narrative. If He could create a man from nothing the first time, then can He not do it again? Who are we to place restrictions on Almighty God, the incomprehensible, omniscient and omnipotent I AM?

    Additional Considerations
    As we consider the arguments for and against cremation, the next question that comes to mind is, "What about all those who died at sea?" Their bodies have likely been consumed by scavenger marine life. If we exclude them from the argument about cremation, then is it logical for us to assume that God can raise those non-bodies in the sea, but He cannot raise those burned by fire?

    There are other factors to consider when it comes to cremation vs. burial, and we are not advocating or advising in favor of one or the other. The fact is that the Bible does not give instruction one way or the other. Thus, it is a personal decision of how one wishes to be laid to rest and one in which the minister's primary duty to the family is to comfort, not confront.

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    "They're in a Better Place Now"
    Are they? Most people today believe in a life after death. And most want to believe their loved one — who was most likely a loving, decent, law-abiding person — is now in Heaven and healed of whatever infirmities they had in life. And certainly, it would be much easier to officiate funerals if we could permit ourselves to believe that, too.

    What Does the Bible Say?
    As we have studied in other lessons, God's Word is the only truth against which all other beliefs and practices can be measured. Let's review quickly what the Bible says about our hopes for the future, for life after this one.

    "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'" (John 14:6 emphasis added) "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 emphasis added)

    Romans 3:10-12—
    10"as it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one;
    11no one understands; no one seeks for God.
    12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.'"
    (emphasis added)

    Romans 3:20-23—
    20"For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
    21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it —
    22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
    23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
    (emphasis added)

    What Should I Do?
    Yes, yes! I believe Jesus is the only way to God and the only way to be saved! But, what do I do when someone asks me to conduct a funeral for an unbeliever?

    Unfortunately, there is no single right answer for how to conduct an unbeliever's funeral. Much depends on your familiarity with the family and whether any of them are believers or not. But one thing of which we can be certain is that only God knows what was in the deceased person's mind and heart seconds before they drew their last breath. It is God "who tests the minds and hearts" of people (Psalm 7:9), "who searches hearts [and] knows what is the mind of the Spirit" (Romans 8:27), and who "sees not as man sees . . . but the LORD looks on the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7)

    Certainly, we can know if the person accepted Christ during their lifetime and if they were living in obedience to God's Word. But we cannot know what their last few seconds were like, so we cannot say conclusively whether or not the person was saved at the moment of their death.

    Therefore, as it is within the realms of possibility that the person embraced Christ in their waning seconds of life — because "with God, all things are possible" — we can read Scripture just as we would for a believing saint's funeral; we can pray for the survivors; we can even give a Gospel message. But what we cannot do is declare the person saved or lost, as that is outside the bounds of our knowing.

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    Is the Person Now Healed?
    Technically speaking, no. This question opens a whole new discussion about which there are many errant beliefs within the Church. Much of what the Church believes concerning what happens to the souls of those who die comes not from God's Word, but from Hollywood and artful renderings of ancient religions' mythology.

      Nowhere in the Bible does it say that deceased saints become angels sitting on clouds strumming harps or that they can see into this world and "watch over" us in our day-to-day struggles. Those notions come, not from the Bible, but from movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life" or shows like "Stairway to Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel". Also, people don't die because "God needs another angel in Heaven", as some parents tell young children or as put forth in stories like Dale Evans' book, "The Littlest Angel".

      For a more in-depth study of angels, go to "Angels: What Does the Bible Teach?".

    Back to the lesson at hand, when we say the deceased person is not immediately healed, we must go back to the Word of God to fully understand this truth. Scripture clearly teaches that those who have died in Christ will receive their glorified bodies during the Rapture of the saints, sometimes errantly called the "Second Coming".3

    " a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed." (1 Corinthians 15:52 emphasis added)

    1 Thessalonians 4:15-17—
    15"For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
    16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
    17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."
    (emphasis added)

    Prior to the Rapture and this resurrection of the saints, the disembodied spirits of all who have died in Christ are in Heaven with the Lord, but they have not yet received their glorified bodies. Thus, while we are correct in saying they are no longer suffering, it is not correct to say they've been healed. When their decaying or decayed perishable body is raised to an imperishable one, then they will have received their complete healing.

    Certainly, as this is a non-salvific issue, we would not suggest that you confront or oppose someone who believes these myths, especially if it's someone who's grieving the loss of a loved one. There is a time and place for confronting heresy; and the funeral of a spouse or parent or child is not the place to do that. Remember, we are admonished to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15), and it would not be loving to shatter a lifelong-held belief at the moment of a person's greatest vulnerability.

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    Some Funeral Resources
    When a person experiences the death of someone they love, it's difficult to know what to say or how to console or advise them. And again, culture plays a significant role in planning and conducting the services. For instance, in most Western countries the deceased is embalmed, bathed, and prepared for burial by a licensed funeral director; but in Asia, South America, and most African countries, the family bathes and prepares the body for burial, which often takes place that same day, especially if the body has not been embalmed.

    Thus, this is another observance about which we cannot provide strict instructions. Really, the minister's most important purpose in this event is to remind the mourners of the reality that their loved one is not really "dead". As the evangelist D. L. Moody once said about his own predicted demise: "Some day you will read in the papers, 'D. L. Moody of East Northfield is dead.' Don't you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now..."

    Therefore, your job as the pastor is not to perform a perfect funeral or memorial service, but to comfort those who mourn; and the best place to start is with the many promises contained in God's Word.

    1 Corinthians 15:50-57—
    50"I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
    51Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
    52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
    53For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
    54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
    55O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'
    56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
    57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
    (emphasis added)

    Bible Verses for Sympathy
    font color="#800000" size="2">"The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble."
    (Psalm 9:9)

    "O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear." (Psalm 10:17)

    "For it is you who light my lamp; the LORD my God lightens my darkness." (Psalm 18:28)

    Psalm 23—
    1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    2He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
    3He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
    4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
    5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
    6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

    Psalm 34:18—

    Psalm 46:1—

    Psalm 61:2-4—
    2"...from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,
    3for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.
    4Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah"

    Psalm 94:19—

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    Bible Verses to Comfort
    God cares about us and promises that He will never leave us. Scripture teaches that God knows what is going on in our lives and He is faithful. He is our ever-present help in times of trouble.

    "You shall not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who fights for you." (Deuteronomy 3:22)

    "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1)

    Psalm 71:5—

    "Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant." (Psalm 119:76)

    Proverbs 3:24—

    Ecclesiastes 3:1-8—
    1For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
    2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    5a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    7a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace."

    "Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation." (Isaiah 12:2)

    Isaiah 49:13—

    "The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness." (Isaiah 57:1-2)

    "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." (Psalm 34:18)

    Lamentations 3:22-26—
    22"The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
    23they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
    24'The LORD is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.'
    25The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.
    26It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD."

    Lamentations 3:31-33—
    31"For the Lord will not cast off forever,
    32but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
    33for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men."

    Mark 5:36—

    "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." (John 14:27)

    See also Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9; Jeremiah 1:8; Micah 7:7; Matthew 5:4; Luke 12:7; John 14:1; 16:7; Romans 15:13; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4; Hebrews 13:6.

    Prayer for Comfort in Loss
    Perhaps the following prayer will provide guidance to help give hope and strength to those grieving the loss of a loved one.

      Dear Lord,

      We ask You to comfort this grieving [daughter/son] or Yours in this time of loss and overwhelming grief. We know that Christ conquered death, hell and the grave at Calvary, butt still we grieve when a loved one leaves us.

      We turn our eyes to You and we seek the strength to trust in Your faithfulness. Help this [family/husband/wife/child) to wait expectantly on You and to not despair. Help [them/him/her] to quietly wait for Your comfort and salvation.

      [Their/Her/His] heart is crushed, but we know You will not abandon [them/him/her] forever. Encompass [them/him/her] completely with Your overflowing compassion, Lord. Help [them/him/her] through the pain so that [they/she/he] will hope in You again. I believe this promise in your Word to send [them/him/her] fresh mercy each day. Though we can't see past today, we stand on Your promise that Your great love will never leave or fail [them/him/her].

      We ask this, in faith believing, in Jesus' holy name. Amen.

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    1"Embalming", Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 11 December 2012. Web. 06 January 2013.

    2"Cremation vs. Burial Costs", Money Talks, np. web. 07 January 2013

    3The "Second Coming" — Technically, the Rapture is not the "second coming" of Christ, as He is only coming for the saints, not to make Himself known to the whole world. Because of widespread confusion about this topic, some Bible teachers now refer to the Rapture as the "second coming" and a "third coming" when Christ returns to set up His Millennial Kingdom.