The Psalm I Want Sung At My Graveside

To my friends, no I am not, as far as I know, in imminent danger of death. My enemies shall have to wait a bit longer. My reflections this morning are inspired by a series of posts at TGC including “The Song Scott Swain Wants Played At His Funeral.” As a pastor and a Christian I have have had opportunity to give some thought to the whole business of dying and how we remember those who have left us.

It Was Not Always This Way

The first thing to say is that death is not normal. I know that there are those, including friends and at least one former professor, who speculate (or speculated) about animal death before the fall. I use the verb speculate because this is a classic case of speculation. I do not use this word in pejoratively. By it I mean only that it is a conclusion drawn from a premise that is itself an inference and that inference may be good (or it may not be) but it is not necessary. Therefore the conclusion is not necessary. It is possible but it not something that we can know with certainty in this life. It is also worth considering that, as a matter of history, Pelagius (fl. c. 390–418) was the first Christian writer to suggest that there was death before the fall. That does not mean that it is wrong but that fact does urge caution since his interest was to blur the boundaries between the the two worlds, that before the fall and that after.

Again, death is not normal. We were not created to die. We were created “good, and after his own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him” (Heidelberg Catechism 6). We were created for fellowship with God. We were created for blessedness and glory. Adam had it within him (remember, this is before the fall) to obey God’s holy law, to keep, as the federal head of all humanity (Rom 5:12–21) what the Belgic Confession calls “the commandment of life” (art. 14), and thereby to enter into eternal blessedness.

Death is so unnatural, so wrong that God the Son agreed with the Father from all eternity to became incarnate as our substitute, to obey, to die our death, to receive the wrath we deserve, to be raised on the third day, and to intercede for us upon his ascension to glory. Death is so unnatural that it must be reversed with the resurrection of the dead, which glorious outcome began with the resurrection of Jesus and will be consummated upon his return.

There is another sense in which it was not always this way: Christians have not always conducted funerals as we do now. Indeed, in some places, the Reformed churches discouraged and even forbad funerals. The Great Synod of Dort (1619) ruled: “Where funeral sermons are not held, they shall not be introduced; and where they already have been accepted, diligence shall be exercised to do away with them by the most appropriate means.”

Before I proceed note well: in the Reformed tradition, funerals are regarded as private, as distinct from ecclesiastical, functions. They are not compulsory, ecclesiastical administrations of the Word and sacrament. Thus, at least in the Modern period, a fair bit of latitude is typically granted. Nevertheless, our forebears would be surprised to see what funerals have too often become: schmaltzy mini-concerts and, in the worst cases, an opportunity to settle scores with the departed during “family sharing time.”

One last note under this heading. There are a lot of fine people in the funeral industry. They deal patiently and compassionately with the grieving. Nevertheless, pastors know that remembering and burying people has become a big business. The parlor has moved from the family home to the funeral home. Many people do not make preparations for their death or burial and leave families to make expensive decisions at the height of their grief. That  works out well for the funeral business, where they take grieving families into a room and show them the most lavish and beautiful coffins, which will be visible for a few hours or a few days. More on this below.

Why We Should Reform Funerals

The old Reformed discomfort with funerals was rooted partly in distrust of popular piety—have you noticed what people want sung at their funeral? Whatever was popular, in the church, when they were in their teens and twenties. The generation that is leaving us now was much influenced by pietist hymnody. The dreadful hymn, “In the Garden” is far too popular but the Boomers, Xers, Millennials, and Zoomers should not laugh. If the pattern holds it means that in the 2050s, those of you who will be around then should be prepared to sing “Shine, Jesus Shine.” Those attending funerals in the 2090s will have to suffer through “How He Loves.” Folk in their 80s will be singing the line “like a sloppy wet kiss” of and to the God who is “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3).

I am well aware that there are many famous funeral orations given in honor of Reformed luminaries but it is true that the old Reformed discomfort with funerals was also driven by the justifiable concern about the eulogy. Every pastor knows that eulogies are, at best, only mostly true. More than a few eulogies have been almost entirely fiction and more than a few preachers have “preached into heaven” people who were known to be pagans and reprobates. The propensity of funerals to focus on the virtues of the departed and to warp reality, whether out of sentiment or sheer mendacity should make us Christians, who are to be committed to truth, uncomfortable.

There is also the matter of taste and aesthetics. Years ago, a now discredited comedian joked that he wanted a tape recorder to play back at his funeral, as people passed by his casket. It was amusing because it seemed so far fetched. It is no longer far fetched. Technically it would be easy to arrange and I would be shocked if it is not already being done. As we descend farther into post-Christian darkness, we may expect that our culture will become increasingly bizarre.

I was first alerted to the truth that we were losing our shared sense of decorum when, at a funeral, the family played a record (yes, an actual vinyl record) of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson singing, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” I love that song. I am a fan of outlaw country but a funeral simply is not the place for it, not even for David Allan Coe’s, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (1975), which is the perfect country song.

The great problem of course, is that, in all of this, the biblical and Christian faith is largely lost. The funeral has too often become a Irish wake. The basic biblical and Christian truths of creation, fall, redemption, resurrection, and the new heavens and the new earth are obscured. There is a time for families and others to gather and to remember the lost, in whatever way they will, but those are private gatherings to be held in restaurants, pubs, or homes. To the degree the church is involved in the process of hatching, matching, and dispatching it is constrained by God’s Word as confessed by the churches.

At The Graveside

I want no funeral or memorial. If people want to have a private gathering to tell jokes at my expense, more power to them. Obviously, I will not be in any position to control what the living do after I am gone (I have precious little influence now). My wish is to be buried as simply and inexpensively as allowed by law. I am a Christian and my hope is not to keep out the effects of the fall but in the resurrection of the dead. I want a simple, Reformed graveside service. The only thing I want sung at the graveside is Psalm 68 (t0 Geneva 68) and that a cappella. It will be a struggle and it may even be awkward. The aesthetics may not match those of a great choir but I very much doubt that the singing of the Psalms in the apostolic and early post-apostolic church was anything to record for posterity. If they want to sing Psalm 23 (to Crimond a cappella please), that will be fine. Why Psalm 68? It was the Huguenot psalm sung by the Reformed during the persecution of the Reformed by the Spanish and the French. They sang it on the way to the gallows. It is a celebration of Christ’s triumph over his enemies and a promise of final justice to God’s enemies, among them death itself. Psalm 23 is appropriate because we pass this life through the valley of the shadow of death in the care of Jesus, our Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4). Just as he lifted up his head in victory so shall all those who are united to him sola gratiasola fide.

I want the Word of God sung at my graveside because the Word of God is sufficient. If there is anything for which it is sufficient and intended it is for  addressing God reverently, realistically, and without schmaltz and sentiment. Whatever difficulties presented by God’s Word we may be sure that it is God’s Word and as such is fit to sung to its author.

Why no  funeral? It is superfluous and an opportunity for mischief. It adds burdens to what is already a difficult time. I expect that a Reformed minister will read a Christian burial form, briefly and clearly preach the law and the gospel over my grave, and that he will call all those present to recognize the greatness of their sin and misery, offer Christ freely to all, and them to trust Christ alone for their salvation from the wrath to come. Lower the simple casket into the ground in the sure hope of the resurrection to come. Push the dirt over it. Place a simple marker at the grave and that is enough. Christ is coming and all the graves shall be opened, the dead raised (Isa 26:19; 1 Thess 4:13–18; 1 Cor 15:12–58) and then the judgment (Heb 9:27).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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22 comments

  1. I am with you all the way with 2 minor differences at least in my opinion. The Canadian reformed church has Lord’s day 1 set to music and it has been sung at many funerals. I think a service is appropriate but I want only the gospel preached. And songs sung that reflect the hope we have in Christ. No eulogy of any kind just the gospel preached.

  2. Sigh. Having been subjected to many evangelical type “memorial services” for the past 16+ years I have grown very weary of attending any “services” of those kind altogether. If my survivors insist upon a “showing” or “visitation” (whatever those mean) at a funeral home, fine. But don’t bring out easels plastered with old photos and other memorabilia. Stand around telling stories and anecdotes if you wish, but don’t carry them into the funeral service. If such a service is to be held, let it consist merely of a casket to remind those in attendance that death is imminent for all of us and let that serve as a warning to the reprobate. Further, let the preacher focus entirely on the faults we all have as sinners and not on any “great accomplishments” I might have made in this world, but entirely on our brokenness, need for redemption, and the wonderful promise that we have been SAVED, not “from hell per se” as it were not from “ourselves” whatever that means, but from GOD’S WRATH, which is something we absolutely cannot escape on our own but for the grace of Christ alone in his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection and ascension and belief (faith) that we are his own (elect) and that he will come again, inviting us as stewards into a new creation.

    • George,

      If funerals are private and visitation is at a funeral home, I don’t object to whatever people want to do. Personally, I don’t mind old photos etc. It’s fine to remember.

  3. Thanks for this post, Dr. Clark. I think simplicity is best. I would also like to see a return to churches having a graveyard on their property.

  4. Church Order #49 Funerals: “A Christian funeral is neither a service of corporate worship nor subject to ecclesiastical government, but is a family matter, and should be conducted accordingly.”

  5. Preach it, brother! One hears such schmaltz at funerals.

    Psalm 90 works too.

    When my time comes, if I have anything to say about it, I want the eulogist to get death right, and get the resurrection right, and not say anything there is no warrant to say. And not say much about me, as the significance of my life is probably not going to be much more than “husband to that woman, father to those children”.

    Some years back Modern Reformation had an article that was good, Craig Parton, “Funerals From Hell, Where Have All the Graveyards Gone”. Worth digging up, I couldn’t find it last time I looked.

    • Lee – I found it (I have a subscription to the magazine), copied and saved it as a .pdf file. If you give me your e-mail address I can send it to you. It was published in a January, 2010 issue. Our blog moderator may be willing to act as a third party for e-mail addresses if you don’t want to post here publicly.

      George

    • Thanks George. I’d done a print to pdf of that myself, years back, so I do have a copy. But I have pointed people to it in the past and was disappointed that they took that down from being freely available.

  6. Dear Scott,
    Your comments are so clear-minded, I find myself almost looking forward to your demise!
    You might also have noted that funerals are a field of landmines for the hapless minister who presides. An older lady in my church in NH survived cancer once; when it returned I visited every Saturday, and she made it clear that she wanted no eulogy. When she died, I asked her husband, and he, too, wished to honor her request, so there was no eulogy. Well, of course, after the inside service and the graveside service, her daughter read me the riot act for not giving a eulogy. Of course I didn’t tell her that both her mother and father had so instructed me; I just apologized for disappointing her and wished her God’s blessings.
    T. David

    • The drama could probably been avoided with a note in the bulletin of the service, something along the lines of “To honor the request of the deceased, there will be no eulogy.”.

  7. I want a funeral (unless Jesus comes first) but I do not want a celebration of life. Assuming more than my family attends my funeral, I want them to hear the Gospel. I want my family and any other Christians to hear of the resurrection and the second coming. I want the hymn Lift Your Glad Voices sung along with other hymns. I Thessalonians 4:13ff will be the sermon text.

  8. Why would singing unaccompanied at the graveside be difficult?

    It’s beautiful and fitting.

    • Hi Phil,

      Most Americans aren’t familiar with the Genevan tunes and 68 is not terribly difficult but it’s not Shine, Jesus Shine either. I’ve sung Ps 68 enough times to know that people will struggle but I’m with you. It is beautiful. People just need to recalibrate their aesthetic measuring stick.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    You do have influence! I am regularly blessed by your writing ministry and you have shaped my theology so much. Thank you for this beautiful post. The psalm that I want sung at my death is Psalm 39.

  10. Thank you Dr. Clark for these insights. As I’m getting up there in age myself this topic is more on my mind. Could you also point me toward Reformed resources considering the appropriateness of cremation rather than burial. Thanks again. I have been continually blessed by your labors.

  11. When our first daughter, Marian Ruth, died of leukemia when she was 14 weeks old, we had several hymns at her memorial service, including Christian Gellert’s “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I,” whose fourth stanza is:

    Jesus lives! I know full well
    naught from him my heart can sever,
    life nor death nor pow’rs of hell,
    joy nor grief, henceforth forever.
    None of all his saints is lost:
    Jesus is my hope and trust.

    We also sang W. W. How’s “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest,” which celebrates the union of the saints militant with the saints triumphant:

    Oh, bless’d communion, fellowship divine!
    We feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
    yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
    Alleluia, alleluia!

    • “But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
      the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
      the King of glory passes on his way.
      Alleluia, Alleluia!”

  12. I turned 69 this year. My wife and I have just attended our fourth funeral of the year. I have either officiated or assisted at two of them, one my own father-in-law. I have read your post now three times and I have to agree with you more each time, although I think the funeral service in the Anglican Book Of Common Prayer provides a good template.

    At two of the funerals, questions from the Heidelberg Catechism were recited, including :
    Q. 42. Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?
    A. Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life.

    Death graciously puts an end to our sinning. We should teach this at our funerals if we’re going to have them.

    The ages of the departed is pertinent to your post: 87, 56, 91, and 65.

    The departed assisted in choosing the music in two instances.

    The 91 year old chose: “You Are My Sunshine” which has many verses — the lyrics are really not all that sunny.

    The opening piano music played at the funeral of the 65 year old was telling, as attendees were being seated, I recognized “We Built This City” by Starship.

    Later, after Holy, Holy, Holy—sure enough, we stood to sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”

    My wife and I have decided to write outlines for our own funeral services in advance.

  13. “…Death graciously puts an end to our sinning. We should teach this at our funerals if we’re going to have them…”

    I love that remark! I’m going to have to remember it for the benefit of those who think they’ve achieved ultimate perfection in this life (and believe it or not I’ve met a few like that).

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