No Firm Procedures
From the outset it should be clear that we have no firm rules, no laws of Medes and Persians. Since funerals are not official church services, but gatherings arranged between family and church leaders, it follows that there is room for personal choice and taste. Even though certain traditions may have grown over the years, there are no hard and fast rules for funerals amongst us. For instance, if a family wished only a private funeral gathering and private burial at a cemetery, these wishes would have to be obeyed, though one would lament the omission of the communion of saints.
This elasticity in the arrangement of funerals makes this writer somewhat uneasy. For it is easy for him to tread on sore toes. Also, he may be used to different customs. And who is to say that he has all the answers, which he does not, especially not in this matter. The reader may have other useful points. Put all that together and you can understand that he would love to have your input on this matter. Please write to him about your reactions and suggestions on this topic.
Facts Re Funerals
It might be worthwhile to mention some facts about death and funerals, facts which everyone may not know. First of all, legally the executor of the deceased person's will is the 'owner' of the body. Either the executor or the next of kin whom the executor asks will arrange the funeral. When there is no next of kin or relative (something which would hardly arise in our midst) or there is no one responsible (which would be unthinkable in the church), or there is no will (but there is some estate), the public trustee will administer the affairs. Another unlikely situation in our midst would be that a poor person dies and the state government would provide a crown burial or otherwise known as a 'community welfare funeral'.
Upon death, a certificate must be completed by a doctor to certify that life is absent. In some cases, such as an unexpected or accidental or unusual death the coroner has to give approval for the disposition of the body, usually after a post mortem examination has been performed. This can cause delay and some frustration to family and friends.
Choosing a Funeral Director
Distress and overwhelming shock usually immobilise bereaved persons to the point that we cannot expect them to arrange a funeral for a loved one. Someone else such as a close relative or friend or the executor of the deceased person's will makes the arrangements. The bereaved person who will be left with paying the bill does not mind as long as everything is taken care of. In a sense funeral directors have people 'over the barrel' for it is not a matter of wanting the service or not but a matter of whose service to employ. Traditions grow and people just turn to the funeral home everyone else went to. A few weeks after the funeral, after the initial shock has also worn off, and after life must be resumed, the bill arrives. My experience is that people are often surprised and shocked at the bill which comes in the mail later on. However, by that time it is a 'fait accompli'. Just pay the bill.
How can one avoid that syndrome? There are at least two ways. One can pre-arrange and pre-pay a funeral. This method helps you in that no one needs to worry about your funeral. You can arrange it as you like, keeping it flexible enough for changing circumstances. Also, you pay for it at today's prices, in fact most funeral organisations even discount such funeral arrangements.
Secondly, one could inquire with various funeral homes about services and prices. Surprisingly, there is quite a differential, especially in certain cases, such as the funerals of babies or infants. Some companies keep things simpler than others. Usual costs for a funeral include the following:
- the services a funeral company charges for all handling and preparation of the body, and all labour costs.
- the selection of a coffin or casket.
- the costs of burial, including the plot (usually three bodies are allowed to be buried in one plot) and the digging.
- costs for announcements, flowers, etc.
It therefore pays to make several inquiries, not being afraid to ask for details about specific items.
Another possibility that others in reformed circles have used is a society or fund for funerals of their members. Such a group can receive rights for burials and receives better benefits than individuals can.
Insulated or Isolated?
What is more important in my view is the matter of being quarantined from the facts of death. It seems that family and friends, including members of the same household of faith, are more and more insulated as death approaches. Only a select few gain entrance. This counts after death as well. For example, only a few usually view the deceased's body. Why?
Many people naturally feel a little apprehensive when the question of viewing a deceased person comes up. Some feel that they wish to remember the person as he/she was when alive and well. That is a legitimate sentiment, especially when a loved one has been ill and has physically deteriorated. However, viewing does not necessarily prevent one from remembering the deceased as they were. Indeed, viewing can have good benefits, even though it is difficult and painful.
For example, some who have let the opportunity to view the body pass afterwards regret it because felt they did not say "goodbye" properly and fully, or they have difficulty coping with the reality of the loved one's death. And in order for healing to begin one needs to face the reality of death. Moreover, it is reassuring to see that the person is at peace, no longer suffering, for example. A dead person will often look peacefully asleep. It is thus no wonder that the Bible often speaks about death as sleep. That is the way one observes it. The RIP (rest in peace) signs at a cemetery attest to this as well.
My experience from Canada (yes, those Canucks with their ideas again!) was that people benefitted from attending the funeral home where the body could be viewed in the presence of family. The reality of death was faced; yes, the suffering was over; and it gave people an opportunity to speak with one another about this reality in the light and comfort of their faith. A side benefit was that no one needed to overwhelm the home of the bereaved to bring comfort; it was given in the funeral home at the same time when viewing the body. In many cases here in Australia the homes of the bereaved are filled with comforters for a number of days before the actual funeral. That in itself is quite a burden, not discounting the comfort that is brought.
Moreover, why not have the body in a casket or coffin in the church-building? In the past this was avoided because of the Roman Catholic custom of praising the dead and holding masses for the dead while their bodies were on display in church. We do not have such practices. Why then fear bringing the body into the church-building? Is it a matter of custom or feeling? In my view, this practise seems strange. One is brought into church as a baby as soon as possible to be baptised; one is brought to church as a youth regularly; one is expected in church each Sunday without exception; but when one dies the church doors seem shut. Why? Being accustomed to seeing coffins in church during a funeral, even having them open for some time in order to allow people who have not viewed the body the opportunity to do so before the funeral begins, one starts to ask questions why this is not done here.
Overall the question that props up is "do we insulate ourselves from the reality of death too much?" This writer feels we do and to our detriment, but he would like your input on this.
We will accept for granted that one should honourably bury one's dead and not opt for cremation, even though the tendency is to favour cremation. God has created our bodies wonderfully and fearfully (cf. Psalm 139).
Those bodies should not be deposed as something undesirable or hopeless, something to be burned. NO! In Christ we have the hope of the resurrection of the body. Greeks rejected the body as lesser, praising the nobility of the soul. At death the soul sprang free from the cage of the body. We do not believe that. God will raise and transform our lowly bodies to be made like Christ's glorious body. A honourable burial reflects that hope.
But do we need expensive coffins and elaborate burials with cement vaults, towering tombstones and carpets of flowers? Everyone is different and must choose for themselves. Yet one wonders why expensive coffins are needed? To avoid returning to the dust from which we came? One wonders why a more simple casket with an ornamental and reusable cover could not be used, for instance? It seems inevitable that the dead must be buried in expensive coffins which no one can see after burial and from which no one benefits except their sellers.
Another matter concerns the procedure at a burial. What do we expect at a cemetery? Usually it is short, with the accent being on the burial itself. In order to do so in the hope of the resurrection of the body and in faith that Christ gives eternal life we recite the Apostles' Creed and read from the Bible which is applicable to burials. For those words of Scripture register when one stands beside 'the yawning pit' as the Bible calls it. Also it is good to pray on such an occasion, expressing our sadness and our hope that Christ may come soon to defeat that last enemy. Do we expect anymore?
Maybe someone could explain the custom of having all the family members proceed to the edge of the grave to have one last look before leaving. Is this the final farewell? Is it not cruel to do this with everyone looking on? To me such moments are private and not for public consumption. Thankfully it is not a rule.
Yes, keep the funerals simple, with the accent on our hope and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life. One day He will stand on the dust of the graves to raise our bodies from the dust of death.
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God...
how my heart yearns within me!Job 19