As far as funerals go, we have agreed together as churches in Article 68 of the Church Order that "church services shall not be conducted for funerals." Thus we do not have official church services when a member dies. Behind this article lies the practice of the Church of Rome which does have ecclesiastical funerals. In official services the priest speaks over the dead body, which is present; he offers prayer for the dead; parishioners sing a song of farewell; the church bells toll in order to drive away evil spirits and to remind the people to pray for the dead; and other superstitions are practised according to local custom. These customs prevailed for members of the Church of Rome. The reformed churches disapproved of these customs.
- First of all, we preach to the living and not the dead, nor for the dead. The dead in Christ are in heaven, and not in purgatory (cf. Lord's Day 22). Men must live out of grace, and not try to earn his own salvation and entrance into heaven. Thus there is no need for masses to be held. Those who are lost are lost forever and no number of masses for the dead will change that fact.
- Secondly, burials are family matters in the first place. Individuals have the right to determine their own funeral, without having the church dictate that to them.
Seeing all the superstitions surrounding funerals, the reformers stopped official church services for them. The Synods of Dort in 1574 and 1578 respectively introduced rules in the church order for that purpose. If no such customs prevailed, then they should not be started. Indeed, the last synod even went so far as to say that no official sermons were allowed; only extemporaneous speeches were allowed. No prayers were allowed for such funeral 'services'. Coming back to the matter of sermons, in those days ministers were expected to have their sermons 'black on white'. Expanding on a subject while on the pulpit would not be honoured. God's Word should be carefully prepared. This counted for prayers to God as well. Only form prayers were allowed in church services. In official church services everything had to be prepared; in an unofficial gathering a preacher could speak 'off the cuff.' Thus one can see that a clear distinction was made. In the old rendition of the Church Order one can read "funeral sermons and funeral services shall not be introduced."
However, the above rendition could give us the wrong impression today. We no longer are plagued by the superstitions of the Church of Rome. Indeed, since we often fail to understand the background of the Church Order, the articles can confuse us. Article 68 is a case in point. Our Canadian sister-churches in Art.65 read, "funerals are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly." The benefit of this rendition is that it does not confuse the reader, making it clear that the arrangement of funerals belong with the family and not with the church. Accordingly, the conducting of a funeral is different from that of a Sunday church-service. However, in my view, the Canadian version does not adequately cover the subject. For funerals are not only family affairs. The whole Family of God is involved as well. If one suffers, all suffer as Paul instructs us in Romans 12. Moreover, the need for the Word of comfort is not mentioned. In the Form of Ordination of Ministers the duties of a minister include the task "to comfort the sick and sorrowing ... thus comforting and admonishing, he shall call the whole congregation to the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (p.621, BOP). If this is part of a minister's task, why not state it in the church order? I make these comments with a view to the fact that deputies have been appointed to see whether we can adopt and adapt the church order of the Canadian sister-churches. No-one will accuse me of prejudice in this matter.
At a funeral, as at a birth or wedding, three parties are involved – the parents or family, the church, and the government. All three should be recognised. The family makes the arrangements with the funeral director who knows all the legal requirements of the government. In the midst of the sorrow of a death the church is there too – in the various expressions of the communion of saints; in the helpfulness of deacons; in the comfort by the elders and in the funeral gathering where God's Word gives consolation and direction.
But should funerals be held at all? Some say that it is unnecessary. I believe the practise to be worthwhile. Anything that comes from a Christian background and has withstood the test of time deserves attention. The custom of assembling together to hear the comfort of the gospel is good.
- First of all, it glorifies God. At such a gathering one can acknowledge that God is the author of life and death. God gives and God takes; blessed be His name. In addition, in Christ we have grace and eternal life. At a funeral we focus on the living God of the living people; not on a dead body. All this can be jointly and communally confessed in such a gathering. I stress the word "communally" because the dead in Christ belonged to the fellowship of believers. So we can glorify God for the life He gave, for the blessings received through the deceased brother/sister.
- Secondly, a funeral assembly fortifies the mourners. We grieve and sorrow, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Paul has taught us the hope we have as Christians. Together the saints feed on this comfort, so that we can support the bereaved. This is important. Funeral directors often stand amazed at the numbers of 'mourners' (the term which the funeral people use) which accompany the bereaved to the cemetery. In a discreet manner the funeral directors ask whether the deceased had an important position, possibly in the church! When the answer is given that he/she was a normal member of the church, they look puzzled. Why do so many attend the burial then? They are not accustomed to such a display of fellowship. Every member seems to be a v.i.p in the reformed churches! Yes, that is true. Chapters such as Romans 12 have ingrained that lesson in our minds. So funerals help to fortify the mourners, especially the family who looses a loved one.
- Thirdly, funerals dignify man. In the beginning God created man as his own image. Through Christ our bodies have also become the temple of the Holy Spirit. We have become important to God. Our work has meaning. Though we will not eulogise the dead, we do not just want to discard this 'leftover body' in silent ignominy. To have a proper funeral honours both God who created and renewed us to be his image, and man who is the image of God.
- Fourthly, funerals do justice to the church as the communion of saints. Christ has formed us into one body in which many individual members learn to function as one body. When one member sorrows owing to a death, then all members suffer sorrow. An opportunity for all to show that communal sorrow is given at a funeral gathering and at a communal burial at the cemetery.
These then are some reasons for our practice of having funerals, even though they are not conducted as an official church service.