Several weeks ago I had the honor of officiating a memorial service for a dearly beloved friend and churchgoer. His family sought to balance his request to have a simple service with the need to accommodate all the things of which he was a part, such as the military and the Masons.
What was a special honor, however, was the fact that we conducted the memorial service at our church. More often than not, funerals and memorial services are now carried out at the funeral homes instead of traditional church buildings. It is certainly more convenient that way, but it was nice letting the departed come back home to church one more time.
When I conducted the service in the church, I was reminded that a funeral or memorial (no matter where it is held) is, above all things, worship.
We think that worship is too flippant or celebratory a word to use in service of someone who has passed on. We reserve worship, or at least the use of the word “worship,” for the living. It may seem to border on disrespect to talk about our remembrances of a lost loved ones in the context of worship because, for all involved, evoking such memories feels like anything but worship.
Worship, however, is appropriate and precisely what happens in a funeral or memorial service. It is worship, and the service itself should be designed as such. We know instinctively that the service is for the grieving family as well as a time to say our goodbyes, but saying goodbye is but a part of acknowledging the fact that the passing of a loved one is a way of saying hello to God.
Truth is, when Christians come together, no matter the occasion, we come before God in worship. Worship is the correct context to voice our deepest grief as well as our exuberant gratitude. We grieve the fact that we will miss our loved one, that we will never hold his or her hand, get a phone call from him, or even see her at church. But we are thankful that death does not have the final say. In the words of the late Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-Hsi, “Dying is falling into the loving arms of God.”
Worship also serves as a safe place to express our anger and our despair over the circumstances of death. It’s one thing to frame a memorial service as worship for someone who has lived a full and vibrant life; it’s another thing entirely to come together by force because of a sudden or premature death. I have yet to do a memorial service for a child or infant, so I have no authority to speak from experience here.
What I do know is that worship does not preclude or exclude our anger and resentment any more than it expresses our deepest grief. The psalms express anger in meaningful, worshipful ways–“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” was the very prayer our Lord uttered at his own death (Psalm 22:1). This psalm comes before Psalm 23, which acknowledges that we have to walk “through the valley of the shadow of death.” There is no way around our grief and all that grief entails. Worship empowers us, anger and sadness and all, to at least take one step in front of another.
What better way to bring the fullness of our emotions at at time of loss than in the womb of a church sanctuary? At a recent funeral for my grandmother, my eight-year old daughter asked: “If Grandma is in heaven with Jesus, then why is her body still here?” There is nothing like coming into the presence of stained glass, acolyte candles, and a communion table to find the permission to ask such hard questions, to let us speak hope to despair and victory Christ’s promise of eternal life to fragile life.
Worship is the place in which God “makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters” (Ps. 23:1)