This is the final part of a three-part series by Fr. Jesse, leading up to All Saints Sunday and the construction of a Columbarium.

(To read Part I on the Body, click here.)
(To read Part II on the Resurrection, click here.)

 Reclaiming the Christian Funeral

In an interview about his new book on Christian funerals Accompany Them with Singing, preaching professor Tom Long made a startling observation: “We are the first people in the history of the world for whom the deceased is no longer needed at his or her own funeral, or even wanted at his or her own funeral…” It’s true. I heard the same feedback from clergy colleagues across North America when I audited a class on “Rites for the Sick, the Dying, and the Dead” last summer. A cultural shift has occurred in our society (which advertises more anti-aging creams and medicines for youthful vigor than we probably need) where many people now prefer not having a funeral home visitation time, not having the dead person around at his/her funeral, and not inviting people to the graveside.

The result is that the average priest is getting more and more requests for a service in honor of someone who has died but whose body (or remains) will not be physically present. Such a service is called by different terms, but “a Celebration of Life” tends to be a popular one. The intent is innocent enough; the family would prefer to focus on happier memories of the person’s life and avoid the more somber and depressing aspects that the word “funeral” conjures up.

This marks a stark contrast to the traditional theology of Christian burial. As Professor Long went on to say in his interview remarks, “If you look at the history of the Christian funeral, Christian funerals are accompanying the saints of God on the last mile of their baptismal journey, singing and praying as we go. It is good for our soul and it’s good for the culture in which we live, if honor the dead by taking them all the way through, to God.”

It is no surprise, then, that our Book of Common Prayer anticipates the body being present for a funeral as the norm. The Prayer Book rubrics note, “Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church” (p. 490). In fact, the Commendation said at funerals can only be done when a body (or cremated remains) are present (see p. 499). The theological reasoning is that the Commendation prayers are about entrusting an entire person—not just a soul, but both body and soul—to Almighty God.

Some people ask if there is a difference between a service with a casket and a service with an urn. After all some churches and even funeral directors differentiate between a “funeral” with a casket and a “memorial service” with an urn. The Episcopal Church, however, makes no differentiation. Our Prayer Book only talks in terms of a service with human remains (embalmed or cremated) versus a service without remains present.

Some of the most powerful symbols of Christian burial (and our inseparable belief in the Resurrection) only come out if a casket/urn is present. Consider the funeral pall, the white cloth that a casket or urn is covered with throughout the funeral. It has powerful “sign value” – pointing us to the deceased present reality in God. In the Episcopal Church, caskets must always be closed and sealed (see p. 490) and no photographs are permitted in the church during the liturgy. This is because during the liturgy for Christian burial our attention moves from the person’s mortal life here on earth to his/her present, eternal life in the nearer presence of God.

(Sidebar: With the same rationale, the Prayer Book makes no allowance for eulogies during a funeral, only for a homily during which our faith in the Resurrection is expounded. As a crafter of the Prayer Book liturgies put it: “The prayer book permits a homily, not a eulogy. This does not mean that it is inappropriate to mention significant facts about the person’s life as a part of our witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection, but the homily should proclaim the gospel” (Leonel Mitchell, Pastoral and Occasional Liturgies, p. 93). Eulogies, subsequent authorized materials say, should be left to wakes, receptions, or funeral home visitation time.)

In keeping with that reality, urns or caskets are covered with the parish’s pall, which is used for all funerals, so that before the altar the pauper’s humblest casket will look the same as the most expensive and ornate casket, just as all souls are regarded the same before God.

Another powerful symbol is the Paschal Candle, that huge ornate candle brought out each Easter. Although it might be lit for a service without human remains, the Prayer Book considers its presence integral in a proper burial liturgy with remains present. The Paschal Candle symbolizes the Light of Christ, the Light which death itself could not hold back and which burst forth unto Resurrection. (Remember that after baptism by water, a person is traditionally presented with a taper candle that is lit from the Paschal Candle and given with the words, “Receive the light of Christ.”) The Prayer Book envisions the Paschal Candle not only standing lit at the head of casket during the liturgy, but also meeting the casket at the doors when it is brought to the church and then leading it—and the rest of the funeral procession—into the church (see p. 467). Yes, you read that right, cradle Episcopalians: the Prayer Book now prefers for the funeral procession to be led by the lit Paschal Candle rather than by a processional cross!

You may have caught on that there’s quite a bit of a resurrection motif when it comes to funerals. The Prayer Book explicitly says that “the liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy” (p. 507), which is why even during Lent white is used as a liturgical color, flowers are around the altar, and “Alleluias” are sung/said. That’s a marked change that has happened since the Liturgical Renewal Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.

It used to be that funerals were called “requiems,” that black (or violet) vestments were used, and that language about death, judgment, and lament were used. But, since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was adopted, we have returned to an earlier Christian understanding of the burial rites as a celebration of a Christian person now taking his/her share in the eternal, resurrection life of Christ. (At the same time, an “All Souls Day” service, now called “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed”, when observed, usually still incorporates a number of the qualities of the old requiem service.)

I suppose that it was around this same era that churches began to shift their views on cremation. Some people still think of it as taboo, and in some traditions (like the Eastern Orthodox Church) it is still forbidden. This is rooted in two situations in Church history. First, in the ancient world, cremation was the method of disposition preferred by a number of pagan religions; in later centuries, some anti-Christian writers defiantly promoted a funeral pyre as superior to the burials Christians did. Second, some heretical groups would later adamantly oppose the Church teaching on the resurrection of the dead (see my second article for context on that) and in protest would burn bodies rather than bury them. The Church responded by condemning the teachings of both groups and, by extension, cremation in general.

Nowadays, most churches, including the Episcopal Church, have come to realize that cremation is a practical decision (not a theological statement) and that it might be chosen as more economical means of processing human remains and as better stewardship of land. Therefore the Church has no problem with cremation–as long as it isn’t done with that ancient intent of denying the resurrection. (And, to be honest, everyone has grown up a bit in their reasoning: If our God could create the world and all of the universe out of nothing, then that same God probably wouldn’t have a problem resurrecting from ashes!)

Cremation does invite some other important considerations. The big one is, What a family does the ashes of a loved one? In popular culture, many options are available: scattering of ashes, division of ashes, compressing them into a diamond, etc. Although our tradition would never disparage those who choose these alternatives, Anglicans across the world have maintained that it is best to reverently bury cremated remains altogether in a cemetery, or to reverently inter them into a niche of a columbarium (a storage place for ashes). As one Church of England writer put it, “For Christians, keeping ashes together in one place also offers a better witness to the belief in the resurrection of the body.” In fact, canon law in the CofE only makes provision for burying of ashes in a grave; and their official prayer book only ever imagines doing otherwise when it comes to scattering ashes at sea.

Pastoral experience also shows that it is helpful to have a designated spot to put cremated remains to rest, so that family and friends have a specific place to say goodbye and alter to visit. Many Episcopal parishes now create such a space within their church property, either with a church cemetery and/or a columbarium.

Here at St. Stephen’s plans for a small columbarium are underway. Our goal is to have a small unit installed in the nave and blessed on All Saints Sunday (Nov. 3, 10am). To learn more about securing a niche in our columbarium for yourself or a loved one, contact the parish office.

(To learn more about new columbarium, click here.)