A funeral is meant to give substance to Biblical questions raised in places like Job 14, and to theological questions like those asked in the Book of Common prayer, “In the midst of life we are in death, of whom may we seek comfort but of Thee oh Lord who for our sins are justly displeased?”
I need to start by saying that I love music and that some of the greatest sacred music ever written was written for funerals. The requiem music of Bach is considered some of the greatest music ever written. I don’t have the capacity to speak to the theology of Bach, but as the old saying goes, I know what I like. I am not a fuddy duddy that hates everything that is not played on a pipe organ, but I can’t help but notice that what passes as appropriate at funerals today is getting creepy.
Somewhere I read an account of the funeral of a famous person which was described with the unforgettable phrase, “a concert with a corpse”. That is a marvelous image and it portrays wonderfully what so much of our religious expression has come to mean today. We have a liturgical battles, and our fights over what is praise, what is entertainment, what is good right in salutary, and what is pap. Regardless of where you stand on contemporary worship or the liturgy you have to admit that so much of what passes as religious observance today is basically a concert. When you bring a corpse to the concert you have a funeral service. I can’t think of anything that might show the problems we have in our culture more completely than what is happening to the funeral service. I haven’t attended that many that I wasn’t presiding over, but the ones I have been to without exception were utterly devastating.
The purpose of the funeral, or at least it had had been for countless years, was the application of the comfort and admonition of God’s Holy Word to living people. In many ways the deceased was not the star of the show, but a kind of object lesson to bring home the marvelous grace of God. This person died the common death of all man because all have sinned and the wages of sin is death. But this person, because of the marvelous grace of God will rise again in glory to a new life because of the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. The emphasis was upon the grace of God. The eulogy was “good words”, the gospel (good news) of what God had done in Christ to save this person. The funeral used to be about the reality of death and the promise of resurrection. It was a ritual expression that “this mortal is swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
Today’s funeral seems to be a mix of fun remembrances, a family reunion, and a chance for various family members to get up and sing something. What the “something” might be is often the latest country paean to “country folk” and their love affair with pickup trucks, a recollection of the “Great Speckled Bird”, or another iteration of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. I have sat through funerals were neither the law nor the gospel was ever mentioned. I have been at funerals where the death of Christ in the place of sinners in order to save them was never mentioned. There is no committal service as near as I could tell. Placing these remains into the earth in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection it seems to me might be an important concept. In many ways I felt I was witnessing a denial of death. The corpse was brought to the concert and was somehow listening to the music in the great beyond.
Professor David Scaer wrote an article for Concordia Theological Quarterly, July/October 2004 entitled “Johann Sebastian Bach as Lutheran Theologian” where he says, “………the contemporary person runs away from the reality of death. He/she would like to shun funerals, pretend that he/she will not get old, and does all in his/her power to retard the ravages of old age with a proper regimen. Christians are not immune from this secular attitude to life. A majority celebrates Christmas and Easter but avoid Lent and Good Friday. Christmas is the birth of life and Easter its recovery. We can face life, but death is the insoluble enigma. Christian life defined must first be defined by the crucifixion. Removing death from any definition of human existence creates a fanaticism. In his Passions Bach does not take the listeners beyond the tomb where Jesus’ body is placed. We are left as weeping mourners at the grave with little more than the promise that God will in some way vindicate the dead Jesus. In the art world, the counterpart would be Michelangelo’s “Pieta” in which Jesus’ sorrowing mother holds the dead body of her son in her arms. All this is pathetic, but how better can we define ourselves and our world?”
Well I guess the answer to that question is found in bringing the corpse to a concert. But that raises another question – why have the concert in a church?