At graveside

Preaching scholar Thomas Long shares some thoughts on preaching funerals.

Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash

A pastor friend, Matt Fitzgerald, wrote recently about a funeral he led on the day before Easter for a newborn who had died in delivery. The service was in the parents’ backyard, where they buried the ashes. Matt read Paul’s defiant words, flung into the face of death, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” As the service ended, the stunned and grieving family filled the grave they had dug on Good Friday with dirt carried in their bare hands.

Matt wrote that, in his 19 years of ministry, “plenty of people have asked me if I believe in the resurrection. No one has ever asked me that question at a funeral.”

It is a loss to our culture and to our faith, I think, that our funerals and memorial services have mostly retreated from graveside entirely to the quiet confines of sanctuaries and funeral chapels, leaving the sorrowful pilgrimage to the grave to only a few or to no one at all. A young Muslim man once told me, “I have the privilege of washing and preparing the bodies of the dead in my small mosque in Wisconsin. I don’t understand Christians. You leave before it’s over.”

A Christian funeral was always meant to be a journey in grief and hope to the graveside, where the mystery of the resurrection comes face-to-face with the reality of loss, grief, and death. By the time American Presbyterians issued their first prayer book in 1906, the funeral was already cloistered safely inside. “When all are assembled in the house or in the church, “ the funeral rite opens, “the minister shall begin the service.” But, a century earlier, the first American Book of Common Prayer captured more clearly what is at stake. The funeral service begins, “The minister, meeting the corpse at the entrance of the churchyard and going before it….” Meeting and accompanying the corpse at the church gate reveals where you are going, to the wounded earth of an open grave where the gospel’s firm promises are sharpened on the flint of mortality.

On November 1, 1829, Friedreich Schleiermacher, one of the finest theologians the Reformed tradition has produced and an admired Berlin pastor, stood at graveside, not as the father of a theological system but as a stooped and grieving father come to bury his beloved nine-year-old son, Nathaniel. The boy, who “lived among us,” his stricken father said, “as the joy of the whole house,” had died in his mother’s arms of scarlet fever. Schleiermacher stood beside his son’s coffin and preached the wisdom best learned beside an open grave.

At graveside, the stark reality of death banishes all false comforts. Friends had tried to console Friedrich that his son was now in a much happier heavenly home, spared the dangers of this defiled earthly life. But for Schleiermacher this only deepened his loss. His faith assured him that this world, for all its sorrows, had been glorified and made holy by Christ, a savior whom Nathaniel “had already begun to love with his childlike heart.”

There at graveside, the grieving father joined in the psalmist’s plea, “Teach us to number our days” and affirmed afresh the truth that Nathaniel was not merely a child but a gift from God. When we know that our days are numbered, each moment becomes a precious opportunity to cherish those whom God has given us. “Ah yes,” Schleiermacher told those gathered at the grave, “let us all love one another as persons who could soon be separated!”

On that cold November day in a Berlin cemetery, Friedrich Schleiermacher stood before the grave that would soon receive his cherished Nathaniel. “I know you are not come,” he said to those with him graveside, “to see a reed shaken by the wind.” But he admitted that his grievous and sudden loss “has shaken my life to its roots.” The strong pastor and theologian, faltering now at graveside, leaned on his only comfort in life and death, the promises of the gospel. The final words of his sermon are a prayer: “Grant that even this grave hour may become a blessing for all who are gathered here.” He prayed that they would be able to look “beyond the void” to see God’s “peace, as well, and eternal life, to which through faith we are delivered out of death. Amen.”

Even at the grave, we make our song “Alleluia!”