January / April 1996 A Christian Burial for Christians Only
From the January / April 1996 issue of The Concordia Lutheran
A CHRISTIAN BURIAL FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY
(a sermon delivered by one of our old Lutheran fathers many years ago)
For many this matter is a vexed question, and they cannot come to any positive decision, and always hesitate as to the action that should be taken. But the matter is, indeed, simple enough, and even from the standpoint of reason and common equity the principle expressed must be conceded as entirely correct. Why do conscientious Christian ministers and their congregations insist on this principle: A CHRISTIAN BURIAL FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY? or, in other words: Why do they refuse to bury with the rites and honors of the church those who lived and died as unchristians? Before I proceed to state the more important reasons for this, let me ask you a question: How do people ever come to demand that the honors of the Christian church be shown to such as never had any connection with the church, or who voluntarily severed that connection, or whom the church, for just reasons, was obligated to expel from her communion? Is there any sense, any reason, any justice in such a demand? What would you say if a military burial, with all the honors of the army or navy, were demanded for a person who never belonged either to the army or navy, or a person who had deserted his flag and post of duty, or one who had been dishonorably discharged and expelled from his office? Or what would you say if the demand were made to bury with all the honors and rites of a secret lodge, or society, such persons as had never been members of such a society, or who had withdrawn from it, or who had been expelled from membership? Would you not say in such and all similar cases, that it were foolish, unreasonable, and unjust in the extreme to make such a demand? Well, why don’t people judge in the same way of the demand to bury with Christian honors those who either never were or no longer are, Christians? Is the Church of Christ less than the army or navy, and are the rites and honors which she shows to her departed less sacred than those of lodge and society? For what reason, then, should the Christian church be expected to confer her sacred rites and honors upon them that are outside of her pale? Surely, even from the standpoint of human reason and the laws of equity everyone must concede not only the correctness but also the justice of the principle:
A CHRISTIAN BURIAL FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY
But there are other and graver reasons why this principle shall and must be upheld. One of these is Christian honesty. If anything is expected and demanded from Christians and their ministers it is, that they be honest and upright in all that they say and do, and the most despicable thing that could possibly be laid to their charge is dishonesty and hypocrisy. They must under all circumstances speak the truth, and not only speak it, but act it, too! And this holds good not only in regard to the living, but the dead as well. Now, I say, Christian honesty and the demands it makes upon all Christians shows the correctness of the principle: A Christian burial for Christians only, and the necessity on their part to uphold this principle.
A Christian burial must be regarded in much the same way as a military or any other burial by which special honors are shown to the dead. You see a funeral pass your door, with military attendance, soldiers with shouldered guns, officers with drawn sabers, the flag draped in mourning, drums and bugle sounding forth their sad notes, and as the procession reaches the burial grounds you hear the firing of guns over the grave; seeing and hearing that you need not first be told that he who is thus borne to the grave was a brave soldier, because you know that otherwise such military honors would not be shown him.
Another funeral passes your door, attended by members of some lodge or secret society, with their banners, badges, and regalia, and following them to the grave you see the body placed into it under the rites and ceremonies of the lodge, and as you witness all this you know at once, that man was a member in good standing of that lodge or society, because if he had not been such, these particular rites and ceremonies would not be performed over him and these special honors would not be shown him.
And then another funeral passes by. The hearse bears the emblem of the cross, and in the carriage heading the procession is a Christian minister in his ministerial garb; the church bells ring, the church doors are opened, and under the solemn notes of the church organ the body is carried in and placed before the altar; a Christian congregation is assembled, Christian hymns are sung, Christian prayers are said, Christian doctrine, comfort, and warning are proclaimed; and then the funeral proceeds to the burial-grounds, and again with prayers and rites of the Christian church the body is committed to the grave. Well, what does all this mean? What are all these rites and ceremonies of the Christian church for? What must you judge when you see a person honored by such a Christian burial? Is it not the most natural thing to assume at once that the person so honored must have been a Christian, a confessor of and believer in Christ crucified, and a member of His holy Church on earth? How could you judge otherwise but for the shameful dishonesty and hypocrisy practiced by many unprincipled ministers of the church in bestowing these sacred Christian rites and honors upon those who were no Christians? “Precious in the sight of the Lord,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 116:15), “is the death of His saints,” that is, of them that lived and died as Christians, and to them certainly belong the honors of the Christian church. But as to all others we just ask: What has the Christian church to do with them in death who, during life, had nothing to do, and would have nothing to do, with the church? Of them our Savior says, “Let the dead bury their dead,” and to bury them with Christian rites and honors is, indeed, a piece of hypocrisy such as it will be difficult to find a second time.
A person receiving a military burial is thereby publicly honored as a brave soldier; people buried under the rites and honors of a lodge are thereby publicly honored as members of the lodge; likewise all those who receive a Christian burial are thereby publicly honored as Christians. This is the way, too, in which everybody looks at this matter. People want a Christian burial for their dead so that they may be publicly declared as people who died as Christians. They know that to refuse them a Christian burial is to say that, as far as men can judge, they were not Christians. This is regarded as a disgrace, and to avoid or to cover up the disgrace the services of a Christian minister are required, which many think must always be readily tendered, no matter what may be the purpose. But the disgrace is well-deserved, and the Christian church and her ministers are not to blame for it. They who live and die without Christ, without His Word and His church and His ministers, must themselves bear the burden of the disgrace if they are also buried accordingly. The Christian church and her ministers dare not, for their sake, play the part of hypocrites, and though Christian charity covereth a multitude of sins, yet it dare not do one sin to cover up others: it cannot countenance dishonesty and hypocrisy even at a burial; and Christian honesty and uprightness demand that the principle be ever upheld: A CHRISTIAN BURIAL FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY.
But here, methinks, I hear some objections raised which still need attention before I can close for to-day. I hear someone say: Why lay so must stress on a Christian burial as being an act honoring the dead? The dead do not need any such honors shown them and know nothing of the whole proceeding. But there are the living attending the funeral, and, above all, the bereaved family. Why not consider them who, on such occasions, are deeply in want of sympathy and of comfort and encouragement? Surely – the funeral services even at a Christian funeral are not held for the dead one but for the sorrowing ones who stay behind in this dreary world! I answer, my friend, What you have said is to some extent quite true. But your main assertion on which your entire argument hinges, is not true: It is not true that even a Christian burial does not concern the dead but the living.
The burial is for the dead, not for the living, and by the honors of the Christian burial not the living, but the deceased is to be publicly honored as a Christian. This I have already sufficiently shown you, and that this cannot be done in the case of such as have not lived and died as Christians has been clearly proved. As to the bereaved family, however, and others that may be in need of sympathy and comfort, they are, of course, in a sad position, and the Christian church and her ministers will certainly do for them all that they can conscientiously do, even if they are forced into the necessity of refusing to grant to the deceased member of their family the honors of a Christian burial. Besides this, the Word of God, which alone can give true comfort to grief-stricken hearts, is not preached at funerals only, and surely no mourners can ever find true comfort and consolation by uniting with others in a public falsehood and securing a Christian burial for those who were no Christians.
But I hear someone else say, Is there really no way of getting around this matter? Just think of all the dissatisfaction and ill-feelings it causes when a minister refuses to officiate at a funeral! See how people get offended, leave the church, or become only more turned against it, while otherwise many might be gained as members! Could not this matter, then, be adjusted in such a manner as to satisfy everybody, while, at the same time, the minister would not act contrary to his duty and calling? Why could he not officiate at the funeral even of those who cannot be regarded as Christians? The easiest way out of the difficulty would be to ignore the dead altogether, not mention him, and speak only to the living in attendance. I answer, my friend: 1) As to the offense created by refusing a Christian burial, this is not offense given, but taken, and only the offended are responsible for it. 2) As to trying to get around this matter in the manner proposed, this would only be an additional act of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and where duty has clearly shown the way there cannot conscientiously be any diverging from it for the sake of pleasing others. And 3) as to not mentioning the dead and speaking only to the living, this is simply impossible, because everything spoken and done at a Christian burial has direct reference to the dead. For his sake the funeral is held; he is honored thereby as a Christian; over his body the words are spoken: “We commit this body to the grave in the certain hope of the resurrection unto life everlasting, through our Lord Jesus Christ; his body we commend into the hands of God the Father, who has created it, God the Son, who, together with its soul, has redeemed it, God the Holy Ghost, who by Baptism has sanctified it and made it to be His temple.”
Can such words be honestly spoken at the grave of one who lived and died without God, without Christ and His Word? Can there then, be any such thing as not mentioning the dead and thus getting around this matter in order to please others? Nay, even the attempt to do so would be a dishonest proceeding. For the very presence of a Christian minister at a funeral, in his official capacity as a minister of the Christian church, makes it a Christian burial, a public act, by which the dead one is publicly honored as a Christian, and I have shown you that such honor can be honestly and conscientiously bestowed upon Christians only.
But I hear one more objection. I hear some good-natured and kind-hearted person say: Should not the Christian church and her members in all instances be charitable and therefore give the benefit of the doubt even to the dead? If one or the other did not live as Christians who knows but they might nevertheless have died as Christians; and should those who in their last moments repented of their sins and took refuge to Christ, their Savior, be excluded from the honors of a Christian burial? I answer my friend: Jesus receives sinners that come unto Him and at any time when they come, even if they come only in their last hour. And as Jesus Himself, so is His Church and so are His ministers also minded. Though a person had evidently been no Christian all his lifetime, though he had lived a life of vice and shame, yet, if even in his last hours he repent of his sins and confess faith in Christ, his Savior, no Christian minister will turn away from him and refuse him a Christian burial. You certainly never heard of a case in which that was done. Nay, if there be a reasonable hope, as far as we can judge, that the sinner might yet have been a Christian, or by repentance and faith might still have become a Christian, he will always be dealt with according to charity, and he will be buried with all Christian honors in the certain hope that by the grace of God in Jesus Christ he was saved and has gone to heaven. But further than this even Christian charity is not permitted to go. If, as far as we were able to see and hear, a person has evidently passed from this life as an unbeliever; if he was taken away in his sins and wickedness; if he willfully despised and neglected God’s Word; if he did not even so much as call a Christian minister to his sick-and-deathbed to be shown the way unto salvation; in a word, if he died as he lived, without God, without Christ, without His Church, His Word, His sacraments, and showed not even a sign of repentance, then even Christian charity with its ever wide heart cannot help such a person. God in His holy Word judges him an unbeliever, and we must also so judge him, and when called upon to show to such a person the honors of a Christian burial we cannot but refuse the demand and to abide by the well-founded and only Scripturally correct principle: A CHRISTIAN BURIAL FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY!
(submitted by Pastor M.L. Natterer)