Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral by Thomas G. Long

Posted: September 23, 2013 in Book and Article Reviews
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Thom Long’s book was fantastic and I will definitely be using several of his ideas in my own ministry.  Long states, “A society that has no firm hope for where the dead are going is also unsure how to take the hands of its children and lead them toward a hopeful future.”[1]  This is profound and truthful.  If everything is for not, then what good is life or what purpose is there apart from nihilism or hedonism?  If there is no future hope, then we have no future to orient ourselves toward or that draws us into that future!  Funerals are about proclaiming the hope that we have found in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Long notes that funerals arise out of “necessity, custom, and conviction.”[2]  We have to do something with the body of the dead.  There is a prescribed (generally) way of disposing of the body and acknowledging this life.  And, the manner of our convictions often dictates how we do this as a community.  We must be aware of our culture, the assumptions underlying that culture, and we must ultimately see those in light of the Gospel.

Dualism, the belief that our soul is separate from our body, is prevalent in the culture and has infiltrated the Church.  But, we are both breath and dust.  Neoplatonism has created a sense that we are merely souls and the body is unimportant.  I agree entirely with Long that we have tried to distance ourselves from death and the bodies of the dead.  We have forgotten the hope of bodily resurrection.  This is a place where the funeral must re-capture the hope of the Gospel.  In this way, the funeral actually becomes a counter-cultural act when we proclaim that Death has no power but has been defeated.  We are not there to commemorate a soul or to imagine a disembodied person that floats off to heaven.  Rather, we assert again that the “perishable has become the imperishable.”

Essentially, there are three ways to view death and resurrection.  First, the body and soul separate at death and reunite at the resurrection.  Secondly, there is a general resurrection.  Finally, purgatory is waiting place for souls “in-between places.”  However, this only takes into account chronological time without eschatological time.  Because we believe that to be human is to be embodied, this presents a problem for the three views mentioned.  However, eschatological time, which is God’s time, might allow for bodily resurrection while the body of the deceased still remains dead with us.  This doesn’t lessen the mystery, but it does allow us to maintain the bodily resurrection without the separation of the soul!  Moltmann suggests that God’s salvation is outside of time because God exists outside of time.  Thus, we are raised in an instant “Today.”

Long outlines two ways Christians understand death: natural death and death as mythic force (enemy of all God wills in and for life).  But, there is a third way to understand death, which is death in Christ.  This is important because death happens both on the individual and corporate level.  There are “powers” that impact all of Creation.  However, “death in Christ” actually, and ironically, becomes the vehicle for life.  Because we are crucified with Christ, we are also raised to new life.  It is about our baptism!  I love this connection.

The purpose of worship, and thus the funeral, is narrating the great drama of the journey to God.  It is the re-enactment of the Gospel.  It is something that must continuously be proclaimed and performed as the community.  As we remember we are re-membered (put back together).  Thus, funerals are not merely utilitarian in nature.  Rather, they are to shape our being.  In this sense, the funeral is a procession.  We march with the dead once again in worship on the last leg of the journey of faith.  We are rehearsing for death but not embracing it – it is a foe.  Rather, we speak a defiant word – the Gospel which is Christ.  But, it should be noted that we die as we live.  Thus, the way we live out our faith in ordinary time will also be the way we die (i.e., begging, blessing, angry).  Anointing the sick with oil is a time-honored tradition.  It recalls baptism and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, therefore, calling to mind that we are God’s children.  As in baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised to new life with Christ also.

There are four necessities for the Christian funeral: holy person, holy place, holy people, and holy script.  Although we don’t lie about a person’s life, we also see their life in light of God’s redemption – which names them as saints of the Church.  This is naming our hope.  Holy place is significant because it recalls the community, the dedication and vows made, it recalls God’s covenant, and it signifies belonging.  Place is vital to who we are.  We ignore holy place to our detriment, not surrounded by the symbols of faith and life.  Holy people is also significant, despite being neglected.  The funeral has become individualized.  This is a place where we can push back on the privatization of the culture.  The holy script helps us to recall the purpose of our meeting: worship.  Yes, the dead is an essential element in the funeral, but ultimately the funeral is not about them or about those grieving.  It is about God.

Long then highlights eight purposes of a funeral: kerygmatic, oblational, ecclesial, therapeutic, Eucharistic, commemorative, missional, and educational.  There will likely be some overlap.  But, these were helpful distinctions that I will certainly employ.  It helps us keep in mind that we are proclaiming the Gospel but that it must also be contextualized.  Depending on the situation, we must be willing to adapt and exercise pastoral wisdom in how we approach the funeral and the sermon.  Long also mentions things that make funerals more difficult: a person outside the faith, cremation, infant death, suicide.  Each of these situations takes pastoral care and consideration, but there are also resources available to aid us in providing meaningful liturgies for the community of faith (and even those outside the faith).  Overall, Long’s book was immensely helpful and challenging.


[1] Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 7.

[2] Ibid, 8

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Comments
  1. Thank you, Levi, for your reflections upon Long’s books, which I have not yet read. However, I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about what I call “personal eschatology,” i.e. the destiny of the human being at death. Soon, Wipf and Stock will publish my book, The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined. If you’re interested, I can give you the link to Amazon.com when the book is published, which should be before the end of 2013.

    I’ve added you to my blog roll at “Theology in Overalls” (or TIO, at gregorycrofford.com). Thanks for the recent “follow.” Looking forward to poking around a bit on your site in my free time.

    – Greg

  2. Levi, I just re-read this post. Long speaks of “holy place.” For me, this bespeaks the sanctuary where the people of God gather for worship. Isn’t it strange that “funeral chapels” have grown up? Doesn’t it make more sense to have the funeral for a Christ follower in the place where he or she gathered regularly with the community of faith? So, as pastors, should we not gently insist with funeral directors that the funeral will be held in the church building? That might inconvenience (a bit) those organizing the funeral, but for me, it’s more than worth it. What do you think?

    • Levi Jones says:

      I agree with you. If we understand the funeral to be a worship service, as Long does, I think it is important that we are in the place of worship where we gather as the community of faith. It might be the case that a chapel at a funeral home can be adequate, especially if we are able to incorporate some of the symbols of our faith. But, I think this should be done with careful discernment by guiding the family to keep in mind what we are doing as a community of faith in the funeral to begin with.

  3. I must agree with Dr. Long that the New Testament teaches two views: the general resurrection and instantaneous resurrection. Time and eternity are just not the same. Revelation chapter seven shows that Christian saints are already with the Holy Trinity in heaven. The immortality of the soul is a Greek concept; however, there is no “soul sleep.” For those who die in the faith before time sees the Second Coming, we are all raised and find ourselves on the new earth. We know that this is the eternal heaven, a glorious place that I want to see one day. For us, bodies are still in graves; however, the dead see themselves as already resurrected.

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