Funeral and Memorial Services

Honoring the Dead and Ministering to the Living

 

A Christian Understanding of Death

As Christians we are called to recognize the inevitability of death. But as a people of faith we also believe in the promise of an eternal life made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the faithful Christian, then, death brings only an end to our physical being. At death, we spiritually "cross over" or "pass on" to another phase or dimension of our relationship with God, joining God in his "heavenly" realm or kingdom. Jesus explained this well when he declared that "In my father's house, there are many rooms..." (John 14: 2-3). In his own letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul also eloquently described what lies ahead for us as a people loved and redeemed by God, declaring that death shall be "swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55) amid our new life with God.

When a family member or friend passes on, the funeral or memorial service is, at one and the same time, an occasion for mourning and celebration. In the company of family, friends, and congregational members, we acknowledge our own sense of loss as we say goodbye to the loved one who has died. Yet we also commend the person to God and offer God our thanks that death is not the end for those of us who live and die believing in Jesus Christ.

When to Call the Pastor

The pastor is not only available to officiate at funeral and memorial services but also to provide emotional support and spiritual guidance in the face of your loved one's death. Please don't hesitate to call him or her in your time of need either at the church office or at his or her home. As you meet with a funeral director and make funeral or memorial arrangements, you may also wish to have your pastor present. Often, he or she can offer helpful suggestions based on past experience and our own United Church of Christ faith tradition. After basic funeral arrangements are made, there can be opportunity for you to discuss with your pastor the kind of religious service that you would like.

Where to Hold the Funeral or Memorial Service

Many years ago, funerals were held in the intimacy of the family home and at church. Today, almost all families make use of funeral homes and may or may not gather for a funeral service at church. Nevertheless, where the person who has died has been an active and faithful Christian, a church service is always keenly appropriate. A funeral or memorial service at church not only affirms the ministry of the faith community to the bereaved family. In a gentle yet potent way, a funeral or memorial service held in church can also remind us that even in the midst of death the shared life of Christ's disciples continues. This can be a comforting reassurance as we deal with our loss and say good-bye to someone we love. In addition, a church service usually provides more opportunities to include meaningful music with helpful, healing words. Families who request a church service for their loved one usually continue to hold "visitation" at the funeral home. The pastor may even be invited to offer a prayer at the funeral chapel on a evening in which family members and friends are gathered. But on the morning of the funeral the casket is taken to the church in preparation for the service. It is customary for the body to lie in state in the church for an hour prior to the beginning of the funeral service. This provides further opportunity for family and friends to pay last respects.

Funerals and Memorial Services: Differences and Similarities

In recent years, many people have chosen cremation over burial for themselves, as evidenced by the "Memorial Garden" for cremation remains along the west outside wall of the church sanctuary. In some cases, individuals or families choosing cremation may still opt for a funeral service, making use of both funeral home facilities and the church with the body present in a casket prior to cremation. Yet in other instances the preference has been to forego any presentation of the body. Instead of a funeral service, a memorial service may be requested. Memorial services at church are conducted much like a funeral service. In lieu of the body and casket, the family will often bring a photograph of the deceased to be placed on the altar or on a special cabinet stand moved to the bottom of the chancel steps where the casket would ordinarily be positioned. If the "cremains" or ashes of the deceased are already available, their container may also be placed on the altar or "memorial stand" cabinet next to the photograph and a vase of flowers. The actual words of the memorial service are identical to those of a funeral service, except where reference is made to the body. 

Funeral and Memorial Service Liturgy

Funerals or memorial services at our church generally follow the order of service or "liturgy" found in the Book of Worship for the United Church of Christ. The liturgy is appropriately entitled "Thanksgiving for One Who Has Died." Accordingly, the funeral or memorial service is offered in a spirit of thanks to God. Although much flexibility is possible, the service includes numerous prayers for the deceased and the living; various readings from Old and New Testament scriptures; and a sermon or eulogy offered by the pastor. For funeral or memorial services conducted at church there is also an opportunity for the congregational singing of favorite and beloved hymns accompanied by the church pipe organ. In preparing for the funeral or memorial service, the pastor will invite your family's help and participation. He or she may, for instance, want to ask you some simple questions about the life and faith of the one who has died so that the eulogy offered is relevant and informed. The pastor will also want to know if there are scriptural passages or hymns that would be particularly meaningful for your family as it gathers for the funeral or memorial service. Last, but not at all least, the pastor will inquire as to whether any family members or close friends would like to directly participate in the funeral or memorial service by reading scripture, providing music, or offering personal reminisces and remarks. Such remarks usually follow the eulogy or funeral sermon delivered by the pastor. For funeral and memorial services conducted in church, family members are customarily seated on the east side of the sanctuary in the front pews near the casket or the memorial stand. Depending on the expressed wishes of the family, the funeral casket, which is usually open for the earlier lying-in-state period, may remain so during the worship that follows. An organ prelude is offered as the altar candles are lit by the funeral director or a designated family member, signaling the start of the service. The pastor then commences the actual words of the service. Prayers, scripture readings, and the eulogy may be interspersed with hymns or special music. Families may choose up to three hymns but are always encouraged to select words and melodies that are going to be familiar to those who are present for the occasion. At the conclusion of the funeral or memorial service, the pastor will usually greet the family and extend personal condolences. Thereafter, members of the congregation are invited to process past the casket or memorial stand and to greet the immediate family. The family, which departs last, is then briefly left in privacy to make their own good-bye. The church bell is tolled for the deceased as the family takes their leave. Funeral services are generally held in the morning or early afternoon. Memorial services may be held in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Although it is preferable to hold a memorial service within a short time after the family member has died, it is sometimes delayed to enable out-of-town family members to attend. Whether offered immediately or later, a memorial service, like a funeral, can help families find greater emotional closure in the midst of their grief and loss.

Graveside Observances

Following a funeral service at the church or funeral home, graveside observances or a comparable gathering at a cemetery mausoleum are frequently held. It is customary for the pastor to officiate at graveside or mausoleum observances. If a fraternal organization has been asked to extend ceremonial honors to the deceased, the pastor's prayers usually follow their presentation. The one exception is the military salute, which may occur after the pastoral benediction. The pastor's prayers, which are brief, conclude the larger service of Christian burial. If a family chooses not to go to the cemetery, an interment prayer will conclude the service at the funeral home or church. In the case of cremation, committal services for ashes or cremains may be held immediately after the memorial service or deferred to another day and a more private family gathering. The family has the option of interring ashes in the St. Paul Memorial Garden or choosing a different location.

Children at Funeral and Memorial Services

Many families are uncertain about whether to have children present for funerals and memorial services. Contrary to what people often assume, the presence of children at funeral and memorial services can be healthy and helpful. Those who are mourning are reminded of the continuity of life and its many blessings. Meanwhile, children have an opportunity to learn that death is a part of life, as well as experience first-hand how men and women of Christian faith respond to death with love, hope, and courage. Indeed, children generally take their own emotional and spiritual cues from parents and close relatives. If the immediate family is dealing with the death of a loved one constructively and with a realistic sense of acceptance, children will too. Like adults, children can and do benefit from the rituals of the funeral or memorial service and the Christian promises of an eternal life, which can be interpreted for them in simple, understandable language (Example: "Grandpa isn't here anymore. His spirit is with God in heaven...") Accordingly, children should be included rather than excluded in this important time of passage and transition for the entire family. Parents with very young children may choose to bring them for a single visitation night or strictly for the actual funeral or memorial service at church or the funeral home. There are many good books and pamphlets concerning children's questions about death and grieving. Your pastor can make them available to you. Please ask.

Memorial Flowers and Donations

Flowers are often used to express condolences and sympathy when someone has died. If the funeral service is to be held at church, the funeral director will usually transport many of the floral arrangements or sprays that have been received at the funeral home to the church sanctuary so that they can be displayed alongside the casket. For memorial services at church where a funeral home is not involved, floral arrangements are frequently sent directly to the church. In either case, following the church service and any graveside observances families will often distribute the floral arrangements among family members and friends. Sometimes one or two floral arrangements are donated to the church for use on Sunday morning services. These donations are welcomed and are customarily mentioned in the Sunday morning bulletin.

In lieu of flowers, family and friends sometimes prefer to make donations in honor of the deceased to worthy organizations and projects. Most commonly, the family will designate a suitable charity for donation purposes. Church members and their families often choose to remember the church and its needs at this time. St. Paul United Church of Christ has many worthy funds which, welcoming donations, help our congregation support and sustain various ministries of caring. A brochure on memorial donations and giving at St. Paul United Church of Christ, simply entitled Making a Gift or Bequest, is available through the pastor or the church office. Our church also provides local funeral directors with memorial cards and envelopes for any financial donations in memory of the deceased that can be made available in the funeral chapel during visitation hours. 

Fees and Charges for Church Services

There are no fees or charges for use of the church for funeral or memorial services. The congregation makes the sanctuary available to families for such services as a part of its ongoing ministry. However, it is customary to extend an honorarium to the presiding pastor, the organist, and any other musician assisting with the service.

Funeral Receptions at the Church

Following a funeral or memorial service, families frequently choose to host a luncheon gathering for those in attendance. Although local restaurants are sometimes used, the church also has space to accommodate receptions. Our church's women's groups regularly cater buffet-style funeral and memorial luncheons, except for desserts which family members and friends are encouraged to provide. Arrangements for the meal, including menu preferences, can be made by contacting the church office. It is customary for the family to reimburse the women's group preparing the meal for the cost of food. A donation to the group is also appreciated. Alternatively, families can also make arrangements for meal service through their own private caterer. In either case, there is no charge for the use of the kitchen or church room. Larger gatherings are held in the spacious Fellowship Hall. Where less than fifty guests are expected the church's West Room across from the church office and west lobby is used. To help plan for the church luncheon, guests signing the memorial book during visitation hours at the funeral home can be asked to indicate with an check mark or asterisk if they will be present at the wake and reception following the funeral. The pastor is generally available to offer words of grace before the funeral luncheon is served.

Additional Prayer Services

As a part of long-standing tradition at St. Paul United Church of Christ, church members who have died are remembered in a special memorial prayer offered at Sunday morning services following the funeral. Their name is also included in the Sunday morning bulletin. Families are encouraged to be present for this time of special prayer and acknowledgment on behalf of their loved one and themselves. In addition, deceased church members, as well as deceased non-members who have had the benefit of a service conducted by the church pastor, are annually remembered as a part of a "Totenfest" or Memorial Sunday. The service, which has its origins in All Saints' Day observances, is held at St. Paul United Church on the first Sunday of every November. In addition to a special liturgy for the occasion, the names of those who have died over the past twelve months are individually read aloud from the pulpit. Our historic church bell is simultaneously tolled for each person who has passed on. Families and friends of those who have died are invited to be present for the Memorial Sunday service. The church office can provide mailed notice about the upcoming service if your address is on record. Please let the church office if you would like a mailed notice of the Memorial Sunday service remembering and honoring your loved one.

Grief Counseling

The grief process following the death of a loved one can have many stages or phases. Sometimes it seems to last forever. In recent years, much literature has been written on the grief process. A wide range of books on grieving can be found at both Christian and non-religious bookstores. One of the best short books ever written as an explanation of the personal grieving process is Good Grief (Fortress Press) by Granger Westberg. He notes that a sense of shock, uncontrollable emotion, loneliness, depression, physical distress, panic, guilt, and anger often follow each other in the aftermath of a terrible loss before we ultimately regain hope and emotional and spiritual equilibrium. Your pastor may have a copy of the Westberg's book, as well as other helpful literature, that he or she can readily lend you.

Many local funeral homes regularly provide excellent bereavement seminars free of charge to participants as a public service. Our church posts announcements for these bereavement seminars on our bulletin boards. Please speak with the pastor if you would like more immediate information about the seminars or are in need of personal counseling.

Making Your Own Funeral and Memorial Arrangements

The death of a family member often makes us more conscious of our own mortality and the arrangements that we would like to have in place for our own funeral or memorial service in the future. For the convenience of all church members, our church office offers a Funeral and Memorial Service Preferences form which can be kept on file at church and with your personal family records at home. The form, which is actually a simple questionnaire, provides an opportunity to indicate your personal preferences regarding burial or cremation, organ donation, favorite hymns and bible scriptures, preferred charities, and other matters. In recording your preferences for a funeral or memorial service it is important to be sensitive to your family's likely needs in their time of grief and mourning. You are encouraged to discuss your preferences with your own family so that they are aware of them in advance. You should also let them know that your completed preferences form is on record at the church office.