What's Tony Thinking

What’s Wrong with Memorial Services


Every now and then I encounter someone who has been to a Roman Catholic funeral mass and is aghast. “The priest never even mentioned the person who died!” For shame.

I have the opposite problem. Going to memorial services in the mainline Protestant churches these days it is only the deceased who is mentioned. Well, considerably more than mentioned, and generally at length by multiple speakers. Often there is an open mic so that “anyone who would like to share a few words about (name of deceased) may do so.”

I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon, even a brief one, preached at a memorial service.

A Scripture or two may be read, a hymn may be sung (or not), a prayer will be said. But there is no preaching of the gospel. The presiding minister might read a biographical statement or offer their own fulsome remembrances of the deceased, but no proclamation, no testimony to the God, “Who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4: 7). Still less are you likely to hear of “Christ who died for the ungodly,” (Romans 5: 6) as so much of the service has been devoted to telling us that the deceased was, if not precisely godly, then at least very special.

Of course, there is a place at such services for the honest and heartfelt remembrance of the deceased in all their particular glory and endearing peculiarity. But that’s not enough. After such a service, no matter how much “celebration” there has been, one has a vague sense of something missing.

When the deceased is the de-facto focus of the entire service, and is discussed in the most laudatory of terms, what is implicitly communicated is that a person is saved or justified or enjoys the eternal love and fellowship of God because of their goodness or good deeds. But that’s not the gospel. The gospel is not about how good we are, but about how gracious God is. Christianity has not held that a person is saved or justified by good deeds, but by an utter reliance on the grace of God.

Remember the famous Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 9 – 14)? The Pharisee touts his good deeds, which we have no reason to doubt. Really, I’m sure he was a very good person. I can just imagine his memorial service. The publican, looked down upon by others and the Pharisee (and probably with good reason), simply says, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus tells his astonished audience that the publican, not the Pharisee, was justified before God.

Memorial services these days sound increasingly like the Pharisee summing up his good deeds, with an added spice of sentimental stories. Underneath this is a theology of “works righteousness.” We are saved or made acceptable by our works, our good deeds. No, a Christian’s good deeds (which do matter) are not done to get on God’s good side or to show that we are on God’s side. They are our response to the God who in Jesus Christ has taken our side and promised never to leave it. “We love,” says John, “because God loved us first.”

When the operative theology is that salvation is the reward for our achievements or stand-up character, there is a terrible temptation to go right on with the resume-building up to and beyond the grave. Given a choice, between that and than casting myself on the mercy of God, I choose the latter. Which makes for a shorter service.

There is a considerable irony in that memorial services, despite the omitted sermon, are going on longer and longer. With something essential missing, we fill the void and then some.

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