Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why (Real) Lutherans Do Not Do Eulogies

For the newspapers this week, I wrote a bit about the Eulogies and Christian Burial:

Q:  Why do some churches always include eulogies for the deceased, while others forbid eulogies during the church service?  What is the nature and purpose of a Christian funeral?

A eulogy is commonly understood is a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died. In some traditions, this might be given by a pastor, or perhaps the floor might be handed over to a close friend or relative to give a positive description of the person’s life.  On some occasions, congregations even open the microphone to any person with something to say about the deceased.

For many congregations, particularly among individualistic Americans, this seems a natural thing to do during the services following a friend or relative’s death, but for others, a eulogy would be extremely foreign, and in fact, would be understood as a standing against what that congregation believes and teaches.  While there are many factors which influence how a congregation or denomination approaches the practice of giving eulogies, several seem to be most prevalent: 

First, if a congregation understands the Office of the Ministry to be something instituted by God to preach His Word to the congregation and administer His Sacraments, it would be unheard of to hand the pulpit over to a non-pastor in the midst of a service or to allow non-ordained persons to speak authoritatively in the course of any service of the church.  This would immediately rule out most eulogies. 

Additionally, in congregations which take seriously the responsibility to proclaim only pure teaching, it would be unthinkable to allow speeches in front of the congregation which may include elements contradictory to the congregation’s beliefs. 

Similarly, a congregation’s understanding of worship plays a large role in their approach to eulogies.  Much like congregations who see worship as an offering from the individual or congregation up toward God worship in one way, while congregations which understand worship to be an occasion where God delivers His grace down to the congregation, particularly those who focus that delivery in the Word and Sacraments, worship in other ways; approaches to eulogies follow a similar pattern. 

If a congregation understands a funeral’s purpose to be that of honoring the deceased and making the mourners feel better, a eulogy is a natural element to include.  However, if a congregation understands the purpose of a funeral to be that of honoring God by proclaiming Christ and to give the grieving hope in the face of death through the promise of Resurrection, eulogies would be potentially difficult. 

The most important factor, though, seems to be the church’s understanding of salvation.  The historic position of Christianity, and that by which it stands out from the world’s other religions, is that God saves by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus alone, and that good works play no role in this.  Historically, Christians even discourage the faithful from looking at their good works as evidence of salvation.  In such a case, the giving of eulogies during the funeral service would only confuse the communication of that belief, and if the eulogist is not particularly careful, may even explicitly contradict that belief.  Therefore congregations which this approach to the idea of salvation by grace alone typically do not include eulogies. 

In contrast, some denominations believe that the Christian cooperates with God in saving themselves by doing good deeds.  Based on that understanding, recounting the deceased person’s goodness at their funeral would fit what they believe. 

Even those which do not believe that the Christian helps save themselves by good works often turn them back to their deeds by other routes.  For example, John Calvin strenuously defended salvation by grace alone, but he directed believers to look at their own good works as comfort and evidence that God had saved them.  John Wesley looked at the Christian’s good deeds even more favorably than Calvin, going so far as to assert that Christians were capable of moral perfection in this life and relying heavily on the Christian’s good works in their remaining saved after conversion.  In these cases also, it makes sense that eulogies would be part of a congregation’s funeral ceremony. 

Like most questions about worship, the inclusion or exclusion of eulogies comes down the connection between belief and practice.  Churches who believe in certain ways will naturally lean toward eulogies, while churches which believe in other ways will find them to be problematic and request that such expressions be shared privately among the mourners or reserved for the visitation or the funeral luncheon rather than included in the services of the church. 

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