"Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living."
That's a popular sentiment, and one which I've uttered many times. After all, at the funeral we speak words of comfort to those who are mourning, and words of hope to the living that death is not the end of the story but simply one part of the everlasting life we have in Christ Jesus. We proclaim that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," not even death. These are words for the living.
Furthermore, we don't tend to believe that in the prayers and worship of the funeral liturgy we actually do anything for the deceased. Again, a popular sentiment – which I've uttered – is that God has already taken the deceased into his loving care, so that there is nothing we can do for the deceased because God has already worked in and for the deceased.
The burial of a lonely woman with no living relatives, with no one to grieve and thus no one to comfort, has caused me to question these sentiments which, until now, I had never examined in any depth.
If a funeral is essentially for the living, but there is no one living who really cares about the deceased, then is there a need for a funeral at all? And if God will do what God will do whether or not we pray (I think of Martin Luther's explanation to the second petition of the Lord's Prayer), then why bother with all this funeral stuff – especially if there is no one who needs to be comforted by the Gospel?
I'm still working on how I would answer my own questions, but let me start out with these words: We bother with the funeral because, though God will do his thing, "nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and to drum into his ears our prayer." (1) Indeed, we are commanded to pray, whether or not we see a "pastoral need" to pray with the living. As Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, "[God will not] allow our prayers to be futile or lost, for if he did not intend to answer you, he would not have ordered you to pray and backed it up with such a strict commandment." (2) I also think of Abraham, bargaining with God for the life of the righteous in Sodom (Genesis 18). Our prayers, our appeals, our words to God matter. God listens, and God promises to respond.
As I pray this day for a deceased child of God and lay her body in the ground, I do so in obedience to God's command, to ask God to fulfill the promises he made to her in baptism, and to give thanks to God for the promise of resurrection life in the new heaven and new earth of God's coming kingdom.
Some of these questions get to the matter of what happens in the act of worship. Is worship just for
our comfort, as
I've suggested in the past? Is prayer a
means to an end – in this case the end of pastoral comfort – or is prayer an
end in and of itself? Does our worship and prayer actually affect
God in some way? Yes, I believe it does, for the Bible is filled with stories of God being
moved by the prayers and appeals of his people. But this conversation is re-opening my eyes to the ways that we often use prayer and liturgy merely as a means for personal comfort and not as an end to which we are commanded and to which God promises to respond. Indeed, our Lord's command to pray is filled with promise.
OK, more to think through on this matter …
1) From the Introduction to the Lord's Prayer, in Martin Luther's Small Catechism – pg. 440.2, Book of Concord, trans. Kolb/Wengert, Augsburg Fortress, 2000).
2) Ibid, pg 443.18