Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago

Second in a series on rituals at the time of death

Funeral Liturgy in "Christian Worship: A Service Book," 1953

Funeral Liturgy in “Christian Worship: A Service Book,” 1953

My first instructions on doing funerals came in 1954 early in my theological studies at the School of Religion, Butler University. My teacher was O. L. Shelton, dean and professor of church administration. Prior to coming to his faculty position, Shelton had been pastor of a Kansas City church with 2,500 members. His instruction was firmly grounded in practical experience.

Although I was barely into my 20s, about half of the class were returning to school on the G.I. bill. Some had been pastors prior to serving in World War II and already had been doing funerals. Others were like me, with virtually no experience with death and little knowledge of what should take place in the rituals with which the church marked the passing of people from this life into the next.

Shelton was a skillful teacher whose pastoral experience infused his classroom instruction. Whatever our previous practices might have been, we were inclined to listen carefully to his practical and sensitive guidance. My work as pastor and my early years of teaching as Shelton’s successor (twice removed) were influenced by his counsel. Five of the principles he taught have remained in my memory.

First, base your funeral practice on one of the patterns you find in a published book of worship. Since many of my classmates were Methodist, that meant they should use the funeral materials in the Methodist Ritual. For the majority of us in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ tradition, the book he recommended was the recently published Christian Worship: A Service Book, edited by G. Edwin Osborn. My copy, which I bought on November 16, 1955,, still bears the marks of the many times that I used it during my years of pastoral service.

Second, the sermon in the service should lift up one of the classic themes of life and death as proclaimed by the Christian faith rather than be a eulogy describing the life of the person whose funeral is being conducted.

Third, and this point is a direct follow-up of the second idea, the service should consist of scripture readings, music, sermon, and prayers. In fact, and this was an idea that surprised me but which I was willing to accept on his authority, it is unnecessary even to mention the name of the deceased in the service. As I remember his explanation, funerals had become events in which “people were being preached into heaven” and this was not their purpose.

The purpose of funerals, and this is the fourth point as I remember Shelton’s class, was twofold: to remember the deceased and to comfort the bereaved. This, he believed, could best be done by offering carefully composed, standardized prayers; hence the emphasis upon rituals in the recommended books of worship.

Fifth, funerals should be brief, never more than half an hour in length. This word of advice seemed to be consistent with what people mentioned to me when we would talk about a funeral for a loved one had died. One of the few requests they would make was, “Keep it brief.”

Normal practice for the funerals I conducted and others that I attended was for the casket to be present in the front of the congregation. When the funeral itself was over, the pastor would go to the head of the casket and the congregation would file past for their last viewing of the deceased. Then, the family and some others would drive in procession to the cemetery for a brief committal service and the first part of the actual burial.

One of the few items that students would discuss vigorously was whether the procession past the open casket in the church should be allowed. The preferred opinion was that the open casket and procession should be suppressed, on the grounds that their primary purpose was to display the embalmer’s skill.

At one of my first funerals, I came to a different point of view. The deceased was a village legend because of his mildly raucous ways. During the procession, his longtime buddy, stopped and with tear-filled eyes grasped and held the hands of his friend. It was one of the tenderest gestures I have ever seen in all of my pastoral experience.

Dr. Shelton was a persuasive teacher, and I continue to affirm part of what he taught me so long ago—especially his emphasis upon the funeral as a time to express a classic Christian theme about the meaning of life.

Almost from the beginning, however, I found myself demurring from the aggressive impersonalization of funeral services. Something more personal, it seemed to me, was needed.







8 Responses to Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago

  1. Gary L. Rose says:

    Hi Keith,

    First, my warmest thoughts and prayers are with you and your family on the loss of Billie.

    Living with a terminal illness, I’ve had lots of time to think about what I want for my memorial service. My thoughts are very similar to yours and O.L. Shelton’s. I was introduced to performing funerals at NCC (‘69-‘73) and TCU (’73-’76).

    Like you, I think the service should largely be a worship service; thus I think the service should be about 1 hour. I want my service to include an offering; going to a personal charity, the Multiple System Atrophy Coalition. I know that I could request that gifts be sent there in lieu of flowers, but I’m hoping many $5 gifts will be given in the offering, as opposed to a few gifts of $50 mailed in.

    Again my sympathy and best wishes. And thanks for sharing your thoughts in your blog.


    • Gary, I appreciate your response. While I’m working on this topic, I would be glad for a conversation with you about your ideas. Thanks, too, for your expression of sympathy. Keith

  2. Keith, thank you for your posting on this part of the funeral process. I am at this moment in the process of preparing for a funeral for a long time member of the church. Finding that balance is important. I draw upon the services in Chalice Worship — along with years of experience. I find it incomprehensible though that one could comfort the bereaved without speaking the name of the deceased! So, this is good food for thought.

    • Bob, what I decided to do in those early days was to begin the service with a prologue to the effect that we have gathered today to remember the life of (name), give thanks for, etc., and to surround the family with our prayers and loving care, etc. And I tried to shape the choice of scripture texts and theme and development of the homily to the particularities of the person who had died, but at this point to follow largely in the direction that Shelton had recommended.

  3. Paul Freeman says:

    I’m not sure if you mentioned, but one that is irritating to me is to attend a funeral that for all intense purposes, the pastor utilizes this time to evangelize those in attendance, for fear there would be some that would loose out on receiving the gospel message. I’m thankful for being taught differently and in doing my own funeral services to lift up the person instead and share insight to how that person has impacted those in attendance.

    • Paul, thank you for reminding me of this kind of funeral. It may also have been in Shelton’s mind back then. I have attended only a few like this, but they are offensive to me. Keith

  4. jacbikes says:

    I remember the first funeral at which I officiated was when I was a student at UGA & Christian College of GA in 1968. I was student pastor of a rural north GA Christian Church, & the patriarch of those north GA congregations was Rev. Elmer Anthony, in his 70’s-80’s at the time, who had pastored in many of them. He took me under his wing, had me read scripture & offer a brief prayer, & he handled the rest of the service – a suicide, by the way! It was so helpful to have a mentor, & to see how he effectively used scripture & offered such a caring pastoral presence in the brief graveside service. He, too, emphasized the importance of scripture & the gospel message, while also including supportive comments related to the deceased & the family. Ever since then, I have grounded all of the services I have conducted in scripture, & have developed the homily in relation to the person’s life, but rooted in scriptural affirmations of the good qualities in their life as well as the Christian promises of comfort, strength, & hope. Thanks for sharing this series!

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    Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago | Keith Watkins Historian

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