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When a Christian dies, it is believed to be the end of his or her life on earth and the beginning of an everlasting life with God.
This is based on teachings in the Bible, such as John 11:25, when Jesus told Martha of Bethany that:
“I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he die, he yet shall live.”
Although the number of ‘no hell’ Christians has grown over the last half-century, a good number of the faithful also believe that after death, God judges the life of the deceased, punishing sinners with an eternity in hell, and rewarding the righteous with eternal life in paradise.
Continue reading to get the full nitty-gritty details about Christian funerals.
These core beliefs are reflected in Christian funeral services. Even though there is an ever-expanding number of Christian denominations and cultural interpretations of the faith (even in the UK), most Christian funerals have certain things in common and tend to follow a familiar routine:
1. People gather in church before the funeral party arrive and take a seat in the pews. The front row is normally left empty, for close friends and family who arrive later.
2. The funeral party arrives. It is normally made up of close friends and relatives, who may or may not be helping to carry the coffin of the deceased. If relatives are not carrying the coffin, professional pallbearers take it to the altar at the front of the church. As it enters, the congregation stands as a mark of respect for the deceased and the bereaved.
3. The funeral service begins. The vicar will lead the congregation in prayers to God a number of times throughout the service, both for the soul of the deceased and those left behind.
This is based on the Christian idea that the soul of a person is to be judged by God in death for their actions on earth, as well as a belief in compassion for the suffering of others.
If there is a choir at the church, they may sing religious songs, known as hymns, as an expression of faith. Even in churches without choirs, it is common for there to be an organist, or even a sound system, to play hymnal music. The congregation is normally encouraged to sing along.
There are also readings from the Bible read by the pastor or members of the congregation. These may be chosen by the vicar, members of the family, or may even have been chosen by the deceased person while they were still alive.
It is also common for someone in the congregation, usually a family member, to give a eulogy for the person who died. This is a short speech about a person’s life and how they will be remembered by those left behind. In many services, there are also opportunities for family members to speak, read suitable secular texts or perform poetry and music in memorial of the person who died.
1. As the ceremony draws to a close, the vicar asks the congregation to give thanks to God for life and for his forgiveness of sin in death. They may also ask for help from God for the bereaved family and their community.
2. After the church service, the body will go for the Rite of Committal. This is a short ceremony held at the final resting place, either the graveside or crematorium, in which the vicar commits the body to God through prayer. Normally, only those close to the person will attend committal if it is in a different location to the service.
3. At the end of the service, the guests may give their condolences to the family, although often this waits until the wake. Awake is a reception held after the funeral where mourners and the bereaved can gather to share their memories of the deceased and offer their condolences to the bereaved. It is not a religious affair, although it is a common custom at Christian funerals in the UK.
There are many different denominations of Christianity, and the ‘typical’ funeral service for each is slightly different. The two most common denominations in the UK are Anglican (Church of England) and Catholic. Anglican funerals tend to follow more or less the same outline as above, but Catholic funerals differ slightly.
Catholic funerals follow a strict ritual: Vigil, Mass, Rite of Committal and Burial. The Vigil is a gathering of the funeral party before the service at which prayers are said for the deceased. It may take place at the family home or in a funeral parlour.
The Mass (the name for a Catholic church service) and Rite of Committal are both similar to Anglican traditions. However, the Catholic Church encourages its members to be buried rather than cremated. As a result, the Rite of Committal almost always takes place at the graveside.
In simple terms, Christians believe that death is not the end. The soul lives on after the physical body dies, and enjoys eternal life.
Many Christians believe that in death, God judges the soul of a person based on the actions they took in their worldly life. Sinners and people who reject God are believed to spend eternity in Hell.
Hell itself is rarely mentioned in the Bible, but in many Christian cultures, it is conceived of as a fiery place where souls spend eternity in suffering and pain.
On the other hand, people who devoted their life to serving God on earth will have their souls reunited with him in eternal heaven, a paradise inconceivable to mortal man:
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, is what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
• Flowers: Flowers are common in all Christian funerals and may be provided by the family or well-wishers. White lilies are the most traditional choice, as they are believed to have covered the grave of the Virgin Mary. They also symbolise beauty and hope in a time of darkness, as well as representing the fragility and temporary nature of life.
• Paschal Candle: The Paschal Candle is a large white candle which is traditionally lit over the Easter period and symbolises the resurrection of Christ. In Catholic funerals, it may be lit and placed near the coffin, to symbolise the resurrection of a new life for the deceased.
• Holy Water: In Catholic funerals, holy water may be sprinkled by the priest on the casket of the dead at the Vigil or during Mass. This is a reminder of the pledge of eternal life given by Christ when the deceased was first baptised in holy water.
• Bible & Crucifix: A bible and a crucifix may be placed on or near the casket as a reminder of the deceased person’s dedication to God and the sacrifice of Christ so that his followers could have eternal life.
Services vary in length depending on the family and denomination. Of the two most common denominations in the UK, Catholic and Anglican, both services tend to be around an hour, although Catholic funerals may be slightly longer than this on occasion.
The Catholic Vigil may also last for around an hour and normally takes place the evening before the funeral.
Unlike the Muslim and Jewish faiths, there is no obligation for Christians to hold their funerals within a given window of time after death.
Thanks to modern mortuary and funeral parlour facilities, many people now set a funeral date between 1-3 weeks after the death, to ensure that there is time to make arrangements and for family and friends to take time off from work.
Given the fact that services are relatively short and formal, it is important to be on time or slightly early for the funeral service. In general, being late isn’t well tolerated in the UK and may be interpreted as a sign of disrespect for the ceremony and bereaved.
Wakes tend to be a more relaxed affair, where people can come and go as they wish.
It is common for a basket or charity box to be passed around the congregation at some point during the service. This is for donations to help the bereaved family, which are distributed after the service. If you would like to give something (it’s totally up to you), discreetly drop your donation into the basket and pass it on. Otherwise, just pass it along to the person sat next to you.
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