Thinking about funeral practices and traditions

Published 6:00 am Friday, June 11, 2021

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As a pastor, I have had a share in a number of funerals.

This is probably no surprise. Just recently, though, the funerals of my mother-in-law and a longtime family friend pushed me to think a little more about the practices and assumptions we make about funerals.

People can have strong feelings about the arrangements and traditions. I got into an argument once with a funeral director friend about the appropriateness of cremation. He was personally against the idea and was only offering it because of public interest. It is hard thinking about funeral practices since normally we only really confront them when it is personal, when we are facing times of personal loss or grief. We consider these practices and traditions when our own emotions are raw, and we don’t have much capacity for unbiased consideration.

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I have actually written out my own funeral service before. A number of people I have served in my congregations have put together a fair bit of planning. It is smart to consider what scripture you would like to have read and what hymns or other music shared. I even wrote out what I want preached as the funeral sermon.

Too often I have witnessed funerals that are a series of personal stories. I want to make sure what is proclaimed at my funeral is Jesus Christ, the risen one, who has given me a place in his resurrection. In the Presbyterian tradition, we believe that the service is a witness to the power of the resurrection in that person’s life.

One of the biggest points of contention is what to do with the body. I have remarked to my wife just to burn me up and throw me out the window. Without trying to sound callous, I personally see no real advantage in preserving the body. We are getting a new one, anyway (1 Corinthians 15:42-44; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). A lot of money and effort goes into trying to save something that will never be used again. I am very sympathetic, though, to having a place of remembrance where the body or ashes of someone is entrusted to the earth. Genesis 2:7 is the foundation of this idea that we come from the dust of the earth. Our very name, “human,” means someone from the dirt. My dream idea is to have a memorial garden where ashes could be scattered and names remembered.

Obviously, you must do what is right for you. It is not my place to judge anyone for what they want or for what they have already done. This is really just an invitation to intentionally consider something that is pretty important to us as a culture.

How we honor those who have died is a big deal. What we emphasize reflects our commitments and beliefs. The practices we keep express our understanding of life itself. The most important service we have as people of faith is the funeral. This is where faith, love, hope and grace get real as we entrust those who are dear to us to that never-failing embrace of God. With some foresight, we can even help ourselves.

Just a thought.

REV. DR. PETER SMITH is the transitional pastor for Farmville Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at