The final stage of life on earth and the passing from this life to eternal life is marked by the Christian funeral service.
At the heart of the funeral service is the belief that at the end of time, each believer is resurrected to share in Christ’s victory over death.
Few Christians believe in actual physical resurrection of the body, which is why most Christians allow cremation.
After death the body is washed and placed in a coffin which sometimes bears the Christian symbol of the cross. Christians believe that death is not the end. They believe that the soul of the person lives on and is united with God.
In the Protestant tradition the coffin is taken to the church or chapel where the mourners meet. There are some variations within the three Christian traditions:
The coffin is usually carried into church and the chief mourners follow it in. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and all those who live and believe in me will never die.” The vicar or Minister recites from John’s gospel at this point…
Prayers, readings, hymns and a talk about death, resurrection and the life of the deceased form part of the service. This is followed either by the cremation or the burial of the body.
A short service is held either at the crematorium or at the graveside. Christians believe that they will be reunited with Christ after death.
They also believe that the person will rise again and enjoy eternal life, which has been assured by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Roman Catholics believe that sometime after death, the soul may remain in purgatory to redeem the sins committed on earth. For a Roman Catholic funeral service, the coffin is taken to church the night before the funeral so that prayers can be said for the soul of the departed.
They also believe that the time the soul remains in purgatory can be affected by the prayers of those left behind. The priest wears white, which is the colour associated with life after death and the resurrection.
At the committal (the burial or cremation), the coffin is blessed with holy water as a sign of the cleansing of sins. There is usually a special mass called a Requiem Mass, which has prayers and readings for the deceased.
It remains open during the service to remind the people that death is an unnecessary tragedy, since it is God’s punishment for sin. In the Orthodox Christian faith, as soon as a person dies their body is washed and dressed in new clothes and placed in an open coffin, which is positioned at the front of the church.
The tragedy of death is accompanied by the hope of resurrection, and this is symbolised by the candles that are burning and the incense, which is sprayed near the coffin.
Readings from the Bible emphasise the resurrection of the dead and the hope that is shared by all believers in God.