“The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith”

There are funeral rites
Seen in different lights
As we vary by time and by culture
Though the details may change
It should never seem strange
That death is a feast for a vulture

The original bird
As you doubtless have heard
Is a beautiful, dignified creature
But today, you will find
A more sinister kind—
One who preys on the living… a preacher

I’ve written about death, dying, and funerals here on a number of occasions. Some of my verses have actually been used by others at various different memorials, and have been noted by the folks at Good Funeral Guide (their site, and especially their blog, comes highly recommended by yours truly). If you poke around there a bit, you’ll see that funerals have changed–they are personalized, they heed the needs and wishes of family and friends, rather than the church doctrine (unless, of course, that is what is desired, in which case…). And in my own experience, the most moving and meaningful funerals have been those that are the most personal, and (though I think this is simply incidental to the people I know) thus the least religious. I suspect that personal and religious could work well, but, well, more on that below.

Via the Naples News, at least one religious writer has noticed the same trend:

For centuries, religious believers have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that, in some cultures, could get pretty lively.

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people didn’t confuse their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted author Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known online as a poet and hymn composer.

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: People started planning fun funerals.

Well, I would not say fun, though I suspect Bird would have described the last three funerals I have attended as “fun”, simply because they were not religious–a very specific kind of “religious”. He gives a list of no-nos for funerals, and you’ll note that at least two of them are still religious in nature (or at least, to my eye–they don’t pass muster to Bird’s True Christianity). The following are to be banned at his own funeral:

“He was a good man.” That’s out of line, he said, because “even if I were the moral equivalent of Mother Teresa,” funerals are not supposed to celebrate someone’s “moral resume.” In Christian theology, the goal is to remember God’s love for sinners — including the one in the coffin.

“God now has another angel.” It’s important to understand that “people don’t become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever,” he wrote. This is a sobering statement about the importance of decisions made during this life.

“We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life.” This is a false note, argued Bird, because the “gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause.”

“What’s in that coffin is just the shell of Chad.” Actually, he said, “My body is God’s creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God’s gift to me.”

I would also ban the second and fourth, if it were up to me, but for vastly different reasons than Bird would, of course. The first, I have little danger of anyone saying at my funeral–though again, I loathe his reason for excluding it. The third I almost fully agree with, though I would argue that it is Christianity that “disregard[s] the reality of death”, with John 3:16 as my evidence. And any funeral that focuses on sin and redemption, that makes God rather than the deceased as the focus, is an insult. At the last memorial I attended, half the relatives there were complaining about a funeral the previous week, at which the preacher went on at length trying to leverage their grief into saved souls, insisting that all are sinners and that without God’s grace, they would all suffer in hell for eternity, yadda yadda yadda.

Which is precisely what Bird wants to see at funerals:

“The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith,” he noted. “If you pass up the chance to do that, then you really haven’t honored anyone, including the person who has died or the people who are mourning. …

So, honor your dead loved ones by ignoring them and telling mourners there is a chance they are writhing in eternal agony if they didn’t say the magic words.

Fuck that. I prefer vultures to Bird. At least their attention is on the deceased.


  1. says

    I skipped past your reasoning to the part where this guy is a scumbag. What’s the point in logically parsing Christian nuance when it’s all bullshit?

  2. Kevin Kehres says

    The minister who officiated at my dad’s funeral did this…spent 20 minutes talking about what Christians believe about the after-death and the alleged resurrection of all the human bodies ever when Jesus returns (seriously, it’s right there in the Nicene Creed — all the bodies are going to be reanimated). Took every ounce of strength I had not to vomit. (My mom is a church-goer and a church funeral was her idea; so I wasn’t going to disrespect her, either.)

    As if none of the people in the audience had ever heard of Christianity. It was positively surreal.

  3. John Morales says

    The preachers preach?

    It seems unfair to me, to complain that someone is doing the job they’re paid to do.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    John @#3… at my brother’s memorial, there was a clergywoman. She was there because, apparently, this is what they do. My brother was an atheist; his children were, and roughly half of his family (children, siblings, parents included, but not beyond that). The clergywoman did the job she was paid to do, which was to officiate a memorial service. There was quite a bit of “I did not know him, but…” from her. One of the memorial speakers (my brother’s neighbor) gave an explicitly religious talk, but no others did.

    The clergyman responsible for the service a week prior to the last one I saw (as mentioned in my post) was there because, apparently, this is what they do. Unlike my brother’s service, this one was explicitly religious, and the clergyman warned everyone of the dangers of hell, and encouraged them to give their lives to Jesus Christ before it was too late and they went to hell for eternity.

    My brother’s memorial was a beautiful thing; people talked about it long afterward. The other memorial was ruined, spoiled, not about the deceased at all… and was complained about for weeks after.

    Both clergy were doing the job they were paid to do. One did it well; one did it poorly. Tell me, please, why we should not complain about the one who did it poorly. And tell me why we should not complain about the system that led that clergyman to feel he was perfectly in the right to do such a shitty job.

  5. John Morales says

    Um. OK, Cuttlefish, I grant that if being explicitly religious and warning everyone of the dangers of hell and encouraging them to give their lives to Jesus Christ before it was too late and they went to hell for eternity is poorly doing the job clergy are supposed to do at a funeral, then you have good reason to complain.

    FWIW, last time I was a funeral, I interjected during the droning to note that the deceased was an atheist and they would not have been impressed at those antics, but it was pointed out to me that the priest was there at the request of his family and that I was being very rude by speaking on behalf of my (ex) friend.

    (I’m getting that feeling again)

  6. Cuttlefish says

    Thing is, that (your first paragraph, that is) would be exactly the right thing for clergy to do at Bird’s funeral, and exactly the wrong thing to do at mine. The difference is, I absolutely support his funeral being explicitly fire and brimstone if he wants–it’s his funeral, after all–whereas he would urge clergy to insert his magic words in any and all funerals–it’s for the glory of God, and not about the deceased.

    FWIW, at my brother’s graveside, we had been asked specifically to honor his wishes and thus not to have an organized prayer or hymn. (When, earlier, someone had said “he may not have believed in God, but God believed in him” his wife simply said “he was an atheist and I am going to respect his views”, and that was that.) But, of course, the extended family was (and is) more religious than not, and of course they spontaneously broke out into the Lord’s Prayer and Amazing Grace. My feeling is, they were far ruder than you were. But I suppose it was what they needed.

    And at the service I did not attend (the one a week prior to the last one I did attend), the priest was there at the request of the family–it’s just that no one expected that particular religious message. There is sufficient variety in religious belief that a roomful of people can have a roomful of different expectations, and every one of them still be surprised by that the preacher says.

  7. johnhodges says

    My parents died last year, a few months apart, so I attended two memorial services at the senior-community where they lived, and a third memorial service and gravesite ceremony in another state, where our family plot is located. Both parents were (by all evidence) sincere Christians, so I did not object to them having Christian services. All three were mostly memorial and only secondarily religious services. Still I found the contribution of the chaplains quite painful. The chaplain at the senior-community basically said “DEATH!!!! Therefore, JESUS!!!! GET WITH IT, FOLKS!!!!” The chaplain at the gravesite was not that bad, spent two-thirds of her talk on personal memories and appreciation of my parent’s lives, and only one-third praising them for their faith. Both of them being, to that degree, self-serving, trying to drum up business for their own future employment.

  8. raven says

    I’ve been to xian funerals in the past and lately to None or Pagan funerals.

    The old style xian ones are terrible. The Pagans are far better. The last one was a party around a bonfire outdoors with a Celebration of Life thrown in.

    The new xian ones are Celebrations of Life type. They are OK.

  9. raven says

    1. My friend’s parents died recently a few years apart. They were very old.

    They were lifelong Catholics. Supposedly. In their wills, they both said they were atheists and didn’t want a Catholic or xian funeral!!!

    2. I’m intending to do the same thing as an ex-xian Pagan. Realistically, being dead, I won’t have any say or care one bit but funerals are for the living.

    My relatives and friends won’t care. AFAICT, virtually all of them are Nones and Pagans.

  10. says

    The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith,

    What the heck? I thought that was accomplished at church.

  11. opposablethumbs says

    Non-religious, really personal funerals can be of (some) real solace. I even got a laugh out of the audience at my mother’s funeral (well it was more like a very gentle ripple of amusement (not surprisingly, considering the circumstances)) which – speaking through tears as I was at the time – felt just right, and like a good match.
    A funeral where the officiant didn’t even know the deceased, let alone care about them, seems so wrong. I fail to get how that can be an expression of respect, or regret for loss, or any comfort to anyone, but eh, trad ceremony – if that’s what the relatives want … ? :-\

  12. raven says

    The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith,

    What the heck? I thought that was accomplished at church.

    You don’t understand xian Ghouls.

    When a member dies, they provide on last service for the church. The Ghouls feed off of them. They aren’t going to let a pefectly useful dead body go to waste!!!

  13. cafeeineaddicted says

    Because some people only show up at churches for weddings and funerals, and during funerals, the honored parties can’t object.
    The people who show up on church every Sunday are already hooked. Funerals are where you bring in fresh meat.

  14. cactuswren says

    Last funeral I was roped into attending, I only put in a courtesy appearance and didn’t stick around through the service.

    Just as well. I heard afterward that it culminated with an altar call.

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