by Rob Lohmeyer
Where was the first funeral in Bible? How did it mark the occasion of death and what might it mean for us? In Genesis, Abraham buried Sara “in a cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron), in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 23:19). It was one of the first instances that the ritual of location was tied to the occasion of death.
Years later, Abraham was buried with Sara in the same location (Genesis 25:9-10). Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah and Leah were also buried in the same location (Genesis 49:31-32). This was part of God’s covenant with Abraham (Abram) from the beginning, “As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (Genesis 15:15). In this way, the ritual of burial and location were grounded in the theological awareness of connection to a particular God and a particular people in life and in death.
Biblical funeral rituals
The rituals of fasting, mourning and prayer were also common theological practices associated with occasions of death. After the death of Saul and his sons, the people of Israel fasted for seven days (Genesis 31:13). When Aaron died, the house of Israel mourned for 30 days (Numbers 20:29). David fasted and mourned the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 12:16). David fasted and prayed prior to the death of “the child of Bathsheba” and worshipped following the child’s death (2 Samuel 12:20). Through mourning, fasting and prayer, God’s people drew near to God in response to the reality of death.
In the New Testament, rituals on the occasion of death took on a broader theological significance through the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, Jesus’ life and ministry are depicted within the reality of his death and resurrection. A woman at Bethany anointed Jesus with an expensive jar of ointment, resulting in confusion about the ritual’s meaning. Jesus defended the woman’s actions. The Gospel of Matthew indicates that the woman at Bethany anointed Jesus in preparation for his “burial”(Matthew 26:12). In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus adds, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). The theology of the cross and resurrection would ultimately become the theological impetus for Services of Witness to the Resurrection in Reformed Christian settings among many others.
Even after Jesus’ death, as some of the first disciples made their way to an empty tomb, what made them think it was a resurrection? If you recall, Mary was weeping, Thomas would later doubt, and the women in Mark’s Gospel were speechless. How did they move from tears of loss to cries of Easter joy? Scriptures tell us that they had an experience of the risen Christ in community. They breathed his breath, they shared his peace and experienced the signs of his presence. By the time the Spirit descended upon the church at Pentecost, the only thing left to do was tell the story, to bear witness to the truth that “in life and in death we belong to God” (Romans 14:8).
Bearing witness to saints in Christ
Such a witness may not sound significant unless the heart of the theology of the cross and resurrection is examined. The doctrines of justification and sanctification are critical in this regard. At the time of the funeral, when so often the focus is on the life of the deceased, the doctrines of justification and sanctification remind us of the life of God. As John Calvin wrote in “The Institutes,” Christians “explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into [God’s] favor.” The cross of Christ is the clearest expression of God’s acceptance. Calvin described sanctification as follows,
Hence he [Christ] is called the “Spirit of Sanctification”… because he not only quickens and nourishes us by a general power that is visible both in the human race and in the rest of living creatures, but he is also the root and seed of heavenly life in us.
Why is this theology so important? Doesn’t it sound a little academic in the face of grief? Perhaps.
However, I am reminded of those occasions of death where the loved ones of the deceased do not have the words or understanding or faculty of remembrance to see how their loved one is included in God’s grace and claim. For example, I presided at a funeral service many years ago for a woman who had passed away after a long illness. The woman’s son died two years before in another city. As we were preparing for the service for the woman, her husband asked if I could also say some words on behalf of their deceased son; the husband said had not been much of a memorial service for their son. When I asked the husband about the circumstances of the son’s death, he informed me that his son died of AIDS.
When I inquired further about the memorial, the husband finally said through clinched teeth, “Rob, my son was gay.” I told him I would be honored to say some words on his son’s behalf at the service for his wife. The tears that flowed in this ritualistic moment brought to remembrance that proverbial dove hovering over the waters of a flood. The doctrine of justification speaks of God’s love and acceptance of those who are sometimes considered to be unacceptable. The doctrine of sanctification draws our attention to ways in which the Holy Spirit has been evident in the lives of these who are also members of God’s family.
At another time, I presided at a funeral for a man who took his life. He suffered from a terminal illness and did not want to burden his family. The question on the minds of many parishioners was, “What do you say about such a life (or death)?” The doctrine of justification and sanctification still held true. This person wrestled with hellish demons and is accepted by God. He did not die the way that some would deem acceptable, but the Holy Spirit was evident in his life. The theology undergirding the Christian funeral is imperative to helping those who gather make sense of circumstances that do not always fit conventional categories.
Additionally, Services of Witness to the Resurrection do well to lift up the theology of the communion of saints. For example, John Calvin in “The Institutes” described the communion of the saints as “all those who, by the kindness of God … , through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession; and that when we are of their number we share that great grace.” Here, Calvin emphasizes God’s work in identifying the lives of saints through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Karl Barth in “Church Dogmatics” asserts that part of our Christian identity as ”saints in Christ” is acknowledging the nature of human sin:
In sum, there is a real identity, not present in abstracto, but given by God and enacted in the mighty work of the Holy Spirit, between the Holy One, the kingdom of God as perfectly established in him, and the communion of saints on earth, which as such is also a communion of sinners.
Both Barth and Calvin affirm that being a “saint” is less about our efforts and much more about an acknowledgment of God’s grace and claim upon all of life. In such an acknowledgement, we may also find the workings of the Holy Spirit moving us toward acts of faith and discipleship.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, writing from a Roman Catholic perspective, makes a very provocative statement with regard to the universal nature of the communion of saints. In her book, “Truly Our Sister, A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints,” Johnson writes,
While the phrase “communion of saints” itself arises in a Christian context and often functions as shorthand for Christians themselves, the Spirit does not limit divine blessing to any one group. Within human cultures everywhere God calls every human being to fidelity and love, awakening knowledge of the truth and inspiring deeds of compassion and justice. Happily, those who respond are found in every nation and tongue, culture and religion, and even among institutional religion’s cultured despisers.
What Johnson asserts is that even though we may worship and serve in a particular context, we must be open to the universal nature of God’s claim upon the world in Christ. God’s grace extends to all and invites a response of faith and discipleship.
Christian funeral as rite and ritual
This is why the funeral is indispensable in bearing the weight of pain and loss associated with occasions of death. Thomas Long, in his book “Accompanying Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral” makes a profound observation in this regard:
The late Stella Adler, a celebrated teacher of acting whose students included the likes of Robert De Niro, Martin sheen, and Marlon Brando, often reminded her students that the word “theatre” did not always suggest entertainment and escape. The word comes from a Greek term meaning “the seeing place,” and, at its most profound, the theatre, she said, “is the place that people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.” Because the theatre is about the truth, there is, Adler said, one inviolable rule that an actor must learn: “Life is not you. Life is outside you. If it is outside you, you must go toward it.”
In this way, says Long, the funeral as rite and ritual has a powerful role to play in times of grief. The funeral provides a “seeing place” for claiming and being reclaimed by the resources the gospel brings to bear upon realities of life and death.
The funeral gives us a language not only for coming to terms with death, but our experience of new life. In her book, “Finding Language and Imagery,” Jennifer Lord uses a term called “resurrection speech” and describes it as:
The church continues to claim that Jesus Christ has conquered death by his own death and that he bestows life on us, on the whole world. God is a God of new life and by the power of the Holy Spirit, this new life is working on us and in us and through us now. It is not just new life for after-life; it is new life for our regular lives now. The church continues to profess that death is not the last word; God acts to bring about new life. We call this resurrection speech by different names. We call it gospel and we call it good news.
The theology of the Christian funeral, as in all Christian worship, is grounded in the practice of “resurrection speech.” Whether the minister is preaching the sermon, a worship leader is voicing a prayer, a family member is speaking on behalf of the deceased, or a friend is consoling the bereaved, “resurrection speech” is the foundation of the church’s proclamation and witness at the time of the funeral. It sets the stage for healing and transformation to occur as God’s story becomes a part of our story and we experience the power of the Risen Christ in our communities.
ROB LOHMEYER serves as senior pastor of First Presby-terian Church in Kerrville, Texas. He enjoys life in the Hill Country with his wife Kim and son Benjamin.