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 is 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 two worlds: that which was 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 an 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 rather for 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 gratia, sola 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 might be presented by God’s Word, we may be sure that it is God’s Word, and as such is fit to sing 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 exhort 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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