When my husband, Rob, asked me to marry him, I seriously entertained the idea of elopement. Young, penniless, and impatient, I reasoned, “Who needs a big church service to express our commitment to each other?” A short legal ceremony and a picture on the courthouse steps would allow us to eschew the pomp and circumstance (and cost) of a wedding and jump right into the thing we wanted most—a life spent together.
As our engagement progressed, Rob convinced me that we should opt for a traditional Christian ceremony. “Later, you’ll wish you did it,” he told me. So we rented a church, invited our friends and family, and hired the organist. When it was all over, I had to agree that Rob was right. We needed to start our life together with worship as the context for our marriage.
Waiting to marry, waiting to bury
For the past year, state restrictions have prohibited large gatherings in most states across the US, a burden felt particularly by those who hoped to wed. But starry-eyed lovers aren’t the only ones who’ve had to give up ceremonies; grieving people have too. Restrictions on large gatherings have required families to re-envision their early days of bereavement as church services switched online and funerals were delayed. For many, the waiting further complicates their grief.
With all of the challenges of grief in a pandemic, many bereaved families have chosen to delay or omit funeral worship. Behavioral health and hospice organizations have worked hard to help people find alternative, meaningful ways to say goodbye, but for Christians, none can replace funeral worship amid the gathered congregation. Death-defying worship defines the Christian life. As it should mark the beginning of covenanted married life, so it should mark the end of our earthly journey, too.
As vaccinations proliferate, transmission ebbs, and state restrictions lift, we should invite grieving families to enact their loss in funeral worship—even if months or a year has passed since their loved one’s death. It’s never too late to mark a loss. State restrictions may still require creativity and the unconventional. However we enact it, though, funeral worship should be preserved, and here’s why.
1. Funeral worship offers space to sorrow.
“We live in a culture that runs from true death,” writes Courtney Reissig. Suffering and grief aren’t socially acceptable in the workplace, and it’s often hard to find space for them in the church either. To grieving people, the only ones welcome in the office or the pew are the happy. To grieve is to be excluded with no place to go.
Funeral worship offers that first formal space to sorrow. In worship, we can lay ourselves bare before God, offering the full range of emotions grief elicits. We need not run from death or sorrow. Instead, we wrap our deceased loved one in the burial shroud of gospel truth. We lament the world’s real brokenness. We create space for intimate, personal sorrow in all of its pain and emotional depth.
2. Funeral worship offers physical rituals to process loss.
In prior centuries, physical rituals guided the bereaved through their first months and years of mourning. Special clothes gave loved ones a way to embody their sorrow. Ritual washing of a loved one’s dead body, or preparing it for burial, gave mourners opportunities to enact their heartbreak with tenderness and intimacy. Churchyards provided gravestones as specific locations dedicated to bereavement.
Modern mourning rituals come with few of these tactile experiences, but there are contemporary alternatives. Pallbearing. Placing a casket in the nave of the sanctuary for viewing. Walking forward to light a candle or place a rose. An empty chair. Even lifting our hands in worship. These physical acts enact our loss. In funeral worship, we gather as the body of Christ, even if at a distance, to bear witness to very physical, earthly sorrow.
3. Funeral worship connects death with resurrection.
Each Sunday in church sanctuaries, our bodies intersect with our faith. We baptize our children and marry our lovers. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. We sing praise. We hear stories and imagine ourselves in them. With funerals, we return our dead to their Maker. What other single room encompasses such a wholistic narrative? The arc of God’s redemption does not occur in nature or a funeral home as much as the sanctuary.
In funeral worship, we lament the brokenness of our bodies and of the world. We praise God for his sovereign love and awesome power. We revel in the gospel’s truth and long for its fulfillment. We rehearse the great drama of the gospel and avoid preaching a truncated message of future glory without real, present pain. We baptize believers “unto death" and marry believers “until death do you part.” In funeral worship, we usher these same believers beyond death unto eternal life.
4. Funeral worship connects the congregation.
Funeral worship provides tangible support to the bereaved. The grieving stand in a sanctuary surrounded by a congregation who assures them they are not alone on this hard journey. Funeral worship bears one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), to comfort with the comfort we’ve received (2 Cor. 1:5–6), and to encourage each other as we see the day approaching (Heb. 10:25).
Noah Livingston writes, “It is the memory and hope of the Resurrection that makes the Christian funeral one of the most potent services of Christian worship. The Christian funeral is uniquely positioned to help those far from death attend to it, so they need not obsess over it when it is near.” Funeral worship benefits more than the bereft. It gives perspective, chastening, and hope to the whole church. Grieving people need their congregation, and the congregation needs them. Especially in these times when relationships grow thin because of social distancing, the funeral reaffirms those ties that bind us and help and heal in the hard months and years to come.
In a conversation I now consider a gift from God, my late husband Rob insisted, “Someday when I die, you need to have a funeral. You need to grieve and worship.” If I skipped the funeral, he believed, later, I’d wish I hadn’t. Funeral worship will look different in this season, but pandemic, like death itself, cannot thwart the ultimate intentions of God. When the sorrows of life press in, worship lifts our gaze together to the Healer and Restorer who holds our loved ones in everlasting arms.
Clarissa Moll (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the young widow of author Rob Moll and the mother of their four children. She writes on grief and offers support to others in the new CT podcast Surprised by Grief with CT editor in chief Daniel Harrell. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.