ACCOMPANY THEM WITH SINGING: THE CHRISTIAN FUNERAL
THOMAS G. LONG
WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX PRESS, 2013
242 PAGES (PAPERBACK)
In many contexts today, funerals have become a show to feature the distinctive loves and interests of the deceased. Pastors and laypeople tailor funerals to the exact specifications and desires of the deceased or their grieving loved ones. According to Thomas Long, this move has “ended up allowing them to become more individualistic and even narcissistic … Pastors have desired to make funerals more faithful expressions of hope in the resurrection, but have allowed that strong hope to be edged out by sentimental views of spirituality and immortality.” In Accompany Them With Singing, Long argues that funerals today have been commandeered by our collective individualism and removed from their proper biblical, historical and theological footing in exchange for a more hollow celebration of individual life untethered to the strength of Christian community.
The Christian funeral can and should be a tool of discipleship.
Most of us are familiar with how this appears in contemporary funerals. From video montages of the deceased’s life story to long lines of open-mic tributes from friends, the overarching message of these “memorials,” or “celebrations,” is about the remembrance of a friend or loved one and allowing space for public grief. In addition, these celebrations of life often do not even include the body or presence of the dead, instead opting for a picture-board display or a smattering of the deceased’s favorite things. “The saint is not even present, except as a spiritualized memory, a backdrop for the real action, which happens in the psyches of the mourners,” Long writes. These decisions seem to temporarily remove aspects of death from our view, but in the end only stifle our understanding of the Christian hope of resurrection.
This appears to be the complete opposite of the more historic approach to death and funerals discussed by Long. In the earlier precedent, funerals were meant to be moments of presence. They are a place where the presence of the deceased meets the presence of the Christian community.
AN ALTERNATIVE NARRATIVE
Given this stark contrast, it bears asking the following questions: is this what a Christian funeral should be about? Is this the story we wish to tell? Has something been lost? Long writes, “Surely the task before the church is now to retrace our steps and to recover the grand liturgical theater in which Christians embrace their dead with tender affection, lift up their voices in hymns of resurrection and accompany the saints to the edge of mystery.”
The work of recovery brings us to the question of what should be at the very center of a Christian funeral. The theologically correct answer is, of course, the gospel of Jesus Christ, but though many would offer that answer, it seems to bear little impact upon Christian funerals today. For Long, the story of the gospel, the actual place where a funeral is conducted, and the people present in attendance are central elements in recovering the meaning of Christian funerals. It’s here that Accompany Them With Singing offers such a helpful resource for pastors and lay people alike. Prayerfully considering these questions will no doubt help recast the Christian funeral. “A Christian funeral is the enactments of an alternative narrative, one in which the living God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, speaks the last word,” Long writes. If this is true, even the place in which a funeral is conducted is important, as are those who come to witness and profess the alternative narrative of Jesus Christ. Death and funerals then become unique aspects of our Christian discipleship.
The great promise made to the Christian that “to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6) is, in fact, a tool of discipleship in the hands of a loving God. In kind, the Christian funeral itself can and should be a tool of discipleship in the life of the Christian community. Gathered together in those holy moments as God’s people, we are reminded of and renewed in our belief in the true and alternative narrative of Jesus Christ and our hopeful longing for a day yet to come. John Calvin, in his commentary on Psalm 90 writes, “True believers alone, who know the difference between this transitory state and a blessed eternity, for which they were created, know what ought to be the aim of their life. No man then can regulate his life with a settled mind, but he who, knowing the end of it, that is to say death itself, is led to consider the great purpose of man’s existence in this world, that he may aspire after the prize of the heavenly calling.” Long beautifully demonstrates that the Christian funeral should indeed be the vehicle in which we, the community of faith, routinely rehearse what “ought to be the aim of our life.”
There is no doubt some will object to Long’s theology in certain places – including his treatise on simultaneous resurrection and his hope for the redemption of all creation, including all human beings. That said, Accompany Them with Singing is a helpful a theological field guide and resource book for pastors, seminarians, chaplains, hospice workers and funeral directors. In particular, it offers the pastor’s library something truly unique and wholly beneficial. The latter chapters in the book outline funeral services and decision-making practices for families and congregations and include a helpful discussion on a faithful approach to preaching in funerals.
Though not a recent work (it was originally published in 2009), Accompany Them with Singing deserves a wider audience within the Christian church. Thomas Long insightfully calls the Christian’s attention back to what is paramount in a Christian funeral (that which we profess and make witness to): the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His call to recover the resurrection as the central element of our Christian funerals begins with recognizing that a Christian funeral is first and foremost a worship service and not only a celebration of an individual’s life. A funeral can and should be a regular communal rehearsal of our belief in Christ’s defeat of death and our hopeful longing for the great day of resurrection.
Phil Letizia is assistant pastor of discipleship at Community Church, Boynton Beach, Florida, and a student in practical theology at the University of Aberdeen.