Value of a Funeral Service
The Acceptance of Reality
One of the major goals of the funeral service is the facilitating of “grief work.” The first segment of the grief journey is that of acceptance, facing up to the reality of death. This fact of human experience must be acknowledged because there is a tendency to deny the reality of death. Denial is our first line of defense when we are faced with the painful reality of death.
One of the values of viewing the body is to confirm the fact that a death has occurred. There are some cultures which actually encourage a family member to kiss the corpse. What appears at first to be a very strange custom may be a tangible way of confirming a death has indeed occurred.
There are stages through which most persons pass as they walk through the “valley of the shadow” of a loved one’s death. While it is totally inappropriate to place a timetable on someone, there are observable stages which characterize a healthy journey of grief. The stages of shock, numbness, flood of grief, acceptance, and the return to a new routine provide a sense of direction for the support of the bereaved person. Repressed grief is very risky. The funeral service should facilitate the grief process. That grief process begins with acceptance, and the funeral service provides a structured, supportive setting for those early hours of grief work.
Viewing the Body
There is also value in the tradition of viewing the body before the funeral service. We encourage family and friends to participate in this tradition for the reason that it puts people in contact with symbols of death. There is a tendency within our culture to insulate the bereaved at the expense of emotional health.
The viewing process is more than just putting a corpse on display. It provides another tangible way of reinforcing the fact that a death has taken place. The practice of viewing the body should not be discouraged in our funeral tradition. The viewing process is usually done at specified times previous to the funeral service. The funeral tradition and wishes of the family will influence the viewing times, especially in regard to the funeral service. In some cases the casket will be open immediately before the service in the chapel or sanctuary. However, the casket should be closed during the funeral service.
As an Expression of Grief
The funeral does much more than work against the denial of death. It also provides an opportunity for family and friends to express their grief. In the process of this expression, there is also opportunity for this same group to offer support and embrace one another.
Within reason, there is nothing unseemly about displaying emotions. Naturally, when we have loved someone and lost that person, we are hurt and sad. Pain is a reality of life. Our emotions are a powerful part of our human makeup, and to deny the normal emotionality of human existence is unfair. It is not a sign of weakness to cry. In fact, it may be an indication of care.
A Christian funeral service provides a ritualized structure by which one can express deep, human sorrow. Jesus reminded us all that those who mourn “shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Symbolic Embrace of Community
Another positive value of the funeral is the ritual of community support. Most of us take for granted our presence at a funeral. One lady who had just lost her mother stated, “I did not realize how meaningful the presence of my friends at the funeral could be until I was the one seated with the grieving family. I have made a promise to myself to do better by being there for my friends.”
Even as friends are seated around the grieving family, their supportive presence becomes a symbolic embrace. The funeral service provides an obvious setting for a supportive network in one of life’s toughest moments.
The Funeral as Worship
Above all else the funeral service should be characterized as worship. All of the other positive values would still be inadequate for our needs if the funeral could not take on the act of worship.
The worship of God is the act of giving God His place. He is the Giver of life, the One from whom we came, and the One to whom we go. The time is most appropriate to praise God and offer thanksgiving for sharing the life of a certain individual. The funeral is a time to be still and know that God is God (see Psalm 46). The setting is a time to listen to what God has to say about life’s mysteries and hurts. Through God’s Word we can be reassured that the world is not out of control, and that the pain of the moment has not separated us from God or His love.
The funeral becomes worship when the minister holds before the grieving family the priceless gem of Christian hope. The funeral is a setting where much takes place. The acceptance of death, the expression of grief, and the embrace of community are helpful. The priceless nature of the setting comes when Christ is lifted above the pain of the moment. After all, He is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2). He is the strength for our race, and the goal to which we run. “O Death, where is your sting? 0 Grave, where is your victory?… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:55,57). by Pastor Al Cadenhead, Jr.