Death, Funeral, Burials- these are subjects which many people shy away from. However, these matters inevitably affect every single human being and cannot be avoided. Nor should they. While grief and sorrow are naturally connected with every death, these emotions must be put in a Christian perspective.
The Christian believes that Christ overcame death by His Resurrection. The Christian believes that this victory over death purchased for us our own future resurrection and our eternal life with God the Father. We say this in the Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead: and the life of the world to come”. We also say it with poetic beauty in the Te Deum: “ When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers”.
So, the Christian does not fear death. He rejoices in the promise of what lies beyond, even though he suffers from the temporary parting of a beloved relative or friend. This is the cornerstone on which the forms and traditions of Anglican funerals and burials rest. Though sorrowing for ourselves, we have no fear for the departed. Our customs at death are designed to support this belief in the joy to come, however muted by the grief of the moment.
Thus, the Christian is well aware that the familiar and loved physical body is only the earthly dwelling place of the soul. When death occurs, the real person, the soul or spirit, has departed from the body. The body is to be treated reverently and decently disposed of, but it is no longer the home of the soul; it is no longer the departed person. Therefore the Church does not allow open coffins at the service and does not encourage “viewings” and “wakes.” The corruptible body returns to dust and will be replaced by a new resurrection body at the Second Coming. The Church has come to recognize this and accepts cremation as entirely proper when desired.
Except in very unusual circumstances, the service for a believing, practicing Christian should take place in the church, not in a residence or funeral home. Death is but the last event in a person’s life in the Church on earth and the funeral should find the remains of the departed in his church, in the midst of his fellow Christian churchmen.
Since the earliest centuries, the Church as thought the Holy Communion to be a fit and proper, indeed perhaps the best, accompaniment to the service for the deceased. In this way, the family and fellow-Christians can unite themselves in the most intimate and sacred manner with the spirit of the deceased at Christ’s altar and in Christ’s Sacrament. Such a Requiem service is a solemn reaffirmation of the indissoluble ties that bind us all together in Christ and of our belief in everlasting life with God.
To emphasize the equality of all in death and before God, the Church frowns on masses of flowers at funerals. Flowers may be consoling to the mourners, but they do not help the deceased and they may only turn into a competition for show. Likewise, the coffin is covered by a cloth, a “pall”, again to stress the equality of all in the sight of God, and also to cover and discourage ostentatious display in the matter of coffins. Ostentation, display and evidences of extravagance or wealth are out of place at this moment on final leveling before God.
The Burial Office, as found in the Book of Common Prayer, is very similar to Morning and Evening Prayer. It has the same mixture of the prayer and readings from scripture, including the Psalms, and the same elements of corporate participation as the Daily Offices. There is no provision, in the Burial Office, for a sermon or eulogy, although very occasionally there may be such in unusual circumstances.
Traditionally, the color of all Church vestments and hangings at a funeral has been black or violet (purple). An exception is the service of a child, when white is used. Music is entirely proper when desired and available, for it is a customary form of expressing our praise, joy and sorrow and increasing the beauty of our worship, as well as our corporate participation in it.
In the final analysis, the entire context of Christian death and burial is determined by our acceptance of Jesus’ words to Martha of Bethany: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”.