Christian Funerals

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Ladder of Divine Ascent

Christians believe that when someone dies, they are judged by God. The righteous go to Heaven and the sinners go to Hell. Christians believe that Hell is the separation from the love of God: They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified by his saints. — 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 [Source: BBC]

According to the BBC: “When a Christian dies, it is seen as the end of his/her life on earth. A funeral is held for friends and family to grieve for the person who has died and give thanks for their life. If someone is on their deathbed, a minister will prepare them for death. This is most likely after a long period of illness. Prayers of preparation and reconciliation may be said, with only the minister in the room. Family and friends can participate in the Lord's Prayer, the Word of God and Holy Communion. [Source: June 23, 2009 BBC ]

Christians have traditionally placed a great deal of emphasis on heaven as a reward for faith but conceptualizations of what heaven is like has changed greatly over time, with interest in it often peaking in times of stress and chaos. The idea of heaven as a garden, a temple of God, or a kingdom with streets of gold and precious stones, palm trees, ladders and people in white clothing playing harps emerged after Jesus's death.

According to a 2002 Newsweek poll, 76 percent of Americans believe that heaven exists and, of those, 71 percent think it is an actual place, 13 percent thinks it like a garden, 13 says it looks like a city, and 17 percent don’t know.

Websites and Resources on Christianity BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Sourcebook ; Christian Denominations: Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church

Christian Funerals

According to the BBC: “Often, the deceased will have left information in his/her will concerning what they want to be included in the funeral service (hymns, prayers) and will also say whether they wanted to be buried or cremated. The funeral is held about a week after death. It can either take place in a church or at a crematorium. It usually takes this form: "The Gathering: the priest will open the service with this reading from the scriptures: 'I am the resurrection and the life,' saith the Lord; 'he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.' I know that my Redeemer liveth... — Book of Common Prayer 1979 [Source: June 23, 2009 BBC |::|]

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Funeral in Old Jerusalem
“Readings and sermon: 1) a psalm from the Bible is read out. It is often Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my Shepherd'. Verses from the Old or New Testament are also read. 2) Personal readings: The priest will talk about the person who has died. This can be quite a personal section, reflecting on the person's life and their role in the Christian church. A family member or friend may wish to read out a poem or a passage from the Bible. 3) Prayers: prayers of thanksgiving, penitence and readiness for death are said. 4) Reflection: Silent time for reflection. The congregation is given a minute to reflect on the deceased. 5) Commendation and farewell: The priest speaks these words: "Let us commend (the person's name) to the mercy of God, our maker and redeemer." The priest then reads a prayer of entrusting and commending. 6) The committal: this is probably the most solemn moment of the service. At a burial, this is when the coffin is lowered into the grave. At a cremation, the curtains are closed around the coffin. "We therefore commit (his or her) body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life." |::|

“There may also be a selection of hymns which are sung throughout the service. Some parishes still have space for burials. The burial follows a church service and the family and friends of the deceased gather round the grave for the Committal. It is tradition to throw some dust/mud onto the coffin. A short prayer will be said by the minister. For those who wish to be cremated, the body is taken to a crematorium, where it is burned. At the point of Committal, the curtains close around the coffin. The ashes are put into an urn and given to the family, who may choose to keep them or scatter them in a place that was meaningful to the deceased. |::|

Christian Funeral Customs

For the most part the burial customs for Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox are fairly uniform and difference often have more to do with local customs than religious ones. Traditionally, Christians have been buried and funeral services have been held in churches. Cremations and services outside churches go against Christian traditions and are mainly the result of trends that began in the 19th century.

In the old days many Christians held wakes. The purpose of them was to guard the home and body from evil spirits until the funeral and burial. Later they evolved into social events. Now they are rarely held except among some Roman Catholics.

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Funeral Corpse of late princess Kleopatra
These days most people die in hospitals and when they do die at home their bodies are removed as quickly as possible to a morgue or funeral home, where the body is prepared for the funeral by undertakers. All this means that care of the dead is no longer presided over by Christian traditions but rather by professionals and businesses.

These days it also increasingly common for priests to preside over funerals of confirmed atheists and people they did not known. Many churches have special instructions on how to conduct funerals for the “unchurched,” and people who donate their bodies to medical research. It also has become increasing common for people to dispense with priests and churchs and have cut rate secular funerals conducted by a funeral home, or have a funerals specially designed by the family of the deceased.

During a Catholic funeral, the body of the deceased is sprinkled with holy water as a sign of purification and thurified with incense as a sign of respect because, according to St. Paul, our bodies are members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit...They are called upon to enter transfigured, into the heavenly liturgy.”

Ancient Funeral Customs

At the time of Jesus, Jewish families built tombs in the hills throughout Judea and stored human remains in caves in ossuaries (boxes with bones). A newly deceased body world be laid on a rock shelf in the cave. When that body decomposed, family members would stack the bones inside the ossuaries and place the box into a niche. Over the years the caves became crowded with bones and boxes and to conserve space families often places the bones of several individuals into one box.

The ancient Copts mummified their dead.

Extreme Unction refers to ritual anointment when death seems imminent. In the old days for superstitious reasons, so not to invite death, families waited until the last moment before calling in a priest to perform the last anointment and viaticum (last communion, or last rites). The Second Vatican Council reintroduced anointing the sick which negated the need to wait until the last moment for anointment. Unction is anointing the sick with oil. Regarded by Catholics and some other Christians as a sacrament, it is thought to alleviate suffering by bringing peace to the souls of the sick, dying and aged. Orthodox Christians regard as a kind of faith healing that is used to treat people with physical, mental and spiritual problems or who need purification.

Funeral Services

Funeral Procession on Sakhalin
In most cases funerals services take place in a church or funeral home. Sometimes the casket is closed. Other times it is open. Before the service starts candles are lit, which symbolizes the presence of God. In traditional services hymns are sung while the casket is carried in and placed before the altar. The procession bearing the casket is led by a person with a staff with a cross, followed by a person with paschal candle, symbolizing resurrection. These days the procession is often skipped and the casket is simply placed by the altar before the service begins.

The service begins with prayers read by a priest or minister. These are followed with by readings by lay people of solemn passages from the Old Testament. Next some hymns are sung or psalms are recited. Then there is a reading from the New Testament, often from the Gospel of John, which deal extensively with the afterlife and resurrection.

This in turn is followed by a sermon, usually dealing with resurrection and how performing good deeds is rewarded in the next life. After the sermon is a eulogy, which was not part of a Christian funeral in the old days, but today is usually conducted by a family member and offers a brief reflection and celebration of the life of the deceased. This is sometimes followed by the Apostles Creed or Communion. The service closes with a final prayer recited by the priest (minister) and congregation that recognizes death as a transition to another life.

Catholic Funerals

Catholic Church favors the burial of the dead but stopped opposing cremation in 1963. Cremation has generally been frowned upon because of its close association with hell. During a Catholic funeral, the body of the deceased is sprinkled with holy water as a sign of purification and thurified (bathed in incense smoke) as a sign of respect because, according to St. Paul, our bodies are members of the Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit.” They are called upon to enter transfigured, into the heavenly liturgy.”

Catholics believe in Heaven and Hell, but also in Purgatory. This is a place for those who have died in a 'state of grace' (that is, they have committed 'venial' or forgivable sins) and may not go straight to Heaven. Last Rites are important to Catholics. The last rites are when a priest is summoned to the bedside of a dying person so the dying person can confess his or her sins. The priest usually says prayers and sometimes lays hands or anoints the dying person. The custom of last rites arose in the Middle Ages to address the concerns of people, who worried about dying before they confessed their sins and would thus be denied of a place or heaven, or would have stay longer in purgatory.

According to the BBC: “A Catholic funeral is slightly different and can be with or without Mass: 1) The Vigil for the Deceased: this is a service of prayers, songs and homilies either at the home of the deceased or in church, before the day of the funeral. 2) Introductory rites: the priest greets the congregation and says: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." He leads the coffin and congregation down the church aisle. Holy water is sprinkled and there is an opening song and prayer. 3) Liturgy of the Word: sermons from the Bible are read out, as well as a homily (a practical rather than theological sermon) and a Psalm.“[Source: June 23, 2009 BBC |::|]

Liturgy of the Eucharist: there is a preparation of gifts, a Eucharist prayer is said and Holy Communion is received. 4) Final commendation: Mass ends, prayers are said and the coffin is taken out of the church. 5) Rite of Committal: prayers are said by the final resting place (at the graveside for burial and before the curtains close for cremation). |::|

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines what a funeral is: The Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration of the Church. The ministry of the Church in this instance aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community. |::|

After the Funeral Service

The service ends with a hymn or a procession in which the casket is carried out. During open casket funerals, people walk by after the service and say a short prayer or goodbye to the deceased. At the grave site a short service is given and the body is interred. Sometimes there is a memorial service which take places days or weeks after the funeral.

Catacombs, See Romans.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources:Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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