Singing our way to the cemetery

The Christian funeral according to Thomas G. Long: a review essay

(Continuing a series on rituals at the time of death)

Accompany Them with Singing My first funeral was one that Thomas G. Long would have approved. It took place 60 years ago in Somerset, Indiana, a village on the Mississinewa River where I was serving as pastor while doing my theological studies in Indianapolis, 75 miles to the south. The deceased was a frail old man who died shortly after a fall and broken hip. He was embalmed in the funeral home in the town of Wabash where he had died in the county hospital. His family and a few villagers whom he had known all of his life gathered at the little Christian Church for the funeral. The open casket bearing his body was at the center of the church where the communion table ordinarily focused attention. I used the order for funerals of my church, which was published in Christian Worship: A Service Book, edited by G. Edwin Osborn.

Following this simply, traditional funeral rite, most of us followed the hearse to the village cemetery, whose caretaker was a third-generation resident of the Somerset community and long-time elder of our church. There we conducted a committal service and watched the first phase of the burial. The mood of the occasion was very much like that in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard.” Although the theme was muted, the family and the larger community were joined together in a journey in which we accompanied this old man as he moved from his embodied life with us to a new form of life, reposing upon “the bosom of his Father and his God.”

Long would have approved this funeral because the traditional ritual, the immediacy of the body, the sympathetic presence of community, and the reasonably clear gospel narrative were all present in a way that was self-evident to participants and respectful of the life of the deceased. His book, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Westminster John Knox, 2009), mourns the loss of such closely integrated funeral practices and scorns many of the alternatives that have become commonplace in urban American during the sixty years since I conducted that traditional liturgical journey.

One problem in our time is that cemeteries and churches are far removed from one other so that the cohesion of the journey is hard to sustain. Another is the fading away of the Christian narrative that once provided the plot line for funeral rites and the resulting personalization of ceremonies and services that mark the end of life. We now concentrate attention upon remembering the details of the deceased life rather than upon the theological narrative of how that person now moves forward from this life in our world to a new way of life with God. Long deplores funerals that are intended to be therapeutic sessions for survivors rather than occasions for worshipping God. Read more. .    Singing Our Way to the Cemetery

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