Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago (Keith Watkins)

Today I will be officiating at a funeral for a long-time church member.  I have done many of these over the years.  Sometimes I've not known the person for whom I am leading the funeral.  At other times, the person is someone I have had a close relationship with.  The question that we face as clergy when it comes to funerals and memorial services is focus and demeanor.  In recent years the focus has increasingly been placed on the person, with much celebration and laughter.  In some cases funerals turn into roasts. Very little of the religious/spiritual is present. 

 Today I am reposting the second of a series of posts written by my friend and mentor Keith Watkins.  It is a month since his own wife passed away, and that event has stirred his thinking about death and funerals.  In this piece he shares what he was taught sixty years ago.  He notes that he was taught to keep it short and keep it focused on the religious.  Indeed, little emphasis was to be placed on the deceased.  One needn't even mention the person's name.  For me that is much too impersonal.  I can't imagine standing today before the congregation and not say anything about Joanne's life.  So, how do we find that balance?  Invite you to read Keith's essay and invite you to go to his blog and follow his journey.  


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.

Keith Watkins taught at Christian Theological Seminary for 33 years, where he specialized in the history and theology of Christian worship. His books Liturgies in a Time When Cities BurnFaithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worshipand Thankful Praise: The Eucharistic Norm of Christian Worship illustrate this interest. A continuing interest in religious history is evident in his 2009 book A Visible Sign of God’s Presence: A History of the Yakama Christian Mission.


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