I asked my former church leader Canon Stephen Leeke this question:
Because I am a Christian and am occasionally found doing ‘religious stuff’, I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?
In previous posts Stephen suggested four guidelines:
- All human life is precious and God loves us all.
- I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
- I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
- A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.
Here are his final three:
- The deceased’s opinions should be respected but not be paramount.
- Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
- Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’.
The deceased’s opinions should be respected but not be paramount
Only a couple of days before writing this I was in conversation with someone who had asked me to do his funeral. He gave me details of the Bible reading and hymns he wanted and I carefully filed them away. But he now informed me that he has since talked to two other ministers, asking them to do his service, and choosing different hymns! Unless the details are specified in a will (and sometimes that is not read until after the funeral) they should not be too influential.
It is more important to consider those who are present. So he may have been a determined atheist, for example, but his wife and children may be devout Christians. Their wishes should be taken seriously. Even practicalities like travelling difficulties are important.
He may have wanted his ashes to be scattered in their back garden, but his widow may be planning to move and wants somewhere to lay flowers.
By the way, make sure they decide what is to be done with the ashes. Too many ashes sit around on the shelves of Funeral Directors or in the cupboards of relatives or are fought over or (heaven forfend) even split up and shared out. Urge them to make a proper decision.
Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
I recently presided at a memorial service for a popular man in a packed village church. His ashes were present, and buried afterwards, but the funeral had taken place the day before at the crematorium with only the undertaker present! A memorial service can start with a blank sheet and can be held at any time after the death.
Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’
Jesus’ quotation does give one the opportunity to turn down an invitation to preside at other-than-Christian funerals. Our calling from Christ is clearly not to bury the dead but to minister to the living, indeed to preach the good news, in season and out of season, to the living.
It would be entirely appropriate to say, ‘If I am leading it will be a Christian service, if you don’t want a ‘religious service’ I won’t do it’. I will happily lead a funeral for someone who is not a Christian, but it will be a Christian funeral.
‘That’s my advice, Glenn.’
… and many thanks.