When all else fails: A Service of Death and Resurrection

June 20th, 2023

This article is the tenth article in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

In this installment, “you” are the pastor, called upon to preside at a funeral for someone quite prominent in the life of your congregation—a pillar of church and community. You sit at a desk, looking over the Service of Death and Resurrection, reflecting on the task of presiding at a funeral. 

Funerals are never easy for anyone, pastors and people alike. They can be emotionally, theologically, liturgically, and logistically unwieldy. Your seminary worship professor warned you, and, thankfully, helped to equip you to be, as the ordination prayer puts it, to be “a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise counselor.” 

And it is just because death is a time of stress and sorrow that many who will gather in a few days to remember the deceased hunger for the strength only brought by the Word proclaimed faithfully and skillfully in the face of death. They will be listening. Are you ready to speak? They will mourn. Are you ready to comfort? 

Maybe it’s good here, with about 48 hours before the service, to recall what a funeral is for. A proclamation of the gospel in death’s face? A time to celebrate the loved one? A chance to mourn publicly and corporately in a community of support? Is it the first step in what may be a long journey of closure for the bereaved? It is certainly all those things. 

And yet, there will be many voices, besides yours, ready with well-intended but careless, theologically confused words of “comfort” to be proffered in the receiving line: “Everything happens for a reason,” “It’s a blessing in disguise,” “The soul lives on and he/she’ll be hovering around, in your dreams, at the family picnic, at the favorite vacation spot,” “You’ll feel better soon,” “It was just God’s will.” Maybe a well-meaning family member presses into your hand a poem about death he found on the internet and urges you to “read it, it’ll comfort them.”  Meanwhile, a civic organization has its remembrances to offer in a special liturgy all their own. They would like time to offer it. Your prominent member’s civic profile was high, and the wider community wants to pay their respects.  Lots of voices. A barrage of messages. Many assumptions about what death and funerals are about, steeped in the murky waters of pop culture and sentimentality. Is all of this all we have to throw at death when it comes, as though to ward it off or make things better with third-rate poetry, pious platitudes, and amateurish eschatology?

As a pastor, you’ve sometimes been handed a “script” or “order of service” by a well-intended funeral director who understandably might have had experience with secular services or non-liturgical traditions in which the clergy’s part needs to be coordinated with the pianist, the soloist, the pallbearers, and so forth. Thankfully, the church of the ages has not left you bereft of resources at this crucial hour of pastoral care. Blessed are they who mourn. They shall be comforted.And you, dear pastor, are among those called to provide it. In your hands is scripture and tradition, the Bible and the Book of Worship, so that you can do just that. Wherever you will stand during the service, you will be at the mouth of the empty tomb, proclaiming the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Everything else said and done must square with that. If it doesn’t, don’t do it. What the church believes about those things and knows about them from her Lord is what calls the shots. Mawkish, sentimental music, syrupy poetry, pop cliches, and rites and ceremonies that narrate something else about the deceased than baptized child of God, sheep of God’s hand, need to be filtered out as much as possible. 

Easier said than done, though, right? You love your people and, at this of all times, don’t want to cause more stress. You know, pastor, you will need to “pick your battles.” Pray for the Spirit’s wisdom in gently but firmly guiding your mournful, confused sheep to greener pastures than the weeds they might choose. Guard well the faith, say no when needed, but leave aside what cannot be dealt with adequately in the moment. 

For now you sit, in your study, looking again at the Service of Death and Resurrection. Your eyes fall on the opening words:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
Christ will come again in glory.
As in baptism Name put on Christ,
so in Christ may Name be clothed with glory.
Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.
What we shall be has not yet been revealed;
but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
Those who have this hope purify themselves
as Christ is pure.

There is your hermeneutical key for the whole act of worship that is to follow. Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection links the deceased with a promise. That sets the tone, provides the foundation for all else that is said and done. A good rule of thumb might be to ask if the music selected, the prayers spoken, the readings proclaimed, the words of the so-called “eulogy” (more on that in a moment), square not with some idealized assessment of the deceased’s life, but with the gospel’s promise of life beyond life. As such, the theology of a good funeral should revolve around themes of baptism, promise, hope, the community of the church in and beyond time. Popular music sometimes piped into a funeral parlor might well express quite different understandings of death than the church’s teaching on the matter. Words spoken might sometimes authentically convey what the speaker is feeling in the moment; they are authentic, but incongruous with scripture’s promises, tradition’s witness, reason’s coordinates, and even experience’s deep resonances (“She’s just asleep for a while”).

You walk down the hall to check and see if the congregation’s funeral pall is where it should be kept, in the sacristy or “altar guild room,” off the chancel. It will drape over the coffin like a wedding garment, Christ enveloping the beloved, like the baptismal water that flowed over him long ago. 


Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,
and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,
and I hold the keys of hell and death.
Because I live, you shall live also.


Friends, we have gathered here to praise God
and to witness to our faith as we celebrate the life of Name.
We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss.
May God grant us grace, that in pain we may find comfort,
in sorrow hope, in death resurrection.

No other gospel than the one about God raising Jesus from the dead, and promising that resurrection to the one we gather for, determines what is said and done. By its very name, the Service of Death and Resurrection is a gathering around Christ, a summoning by the Risen One, and therefore an Easter service, before it is a mere tribute to the loved one, no matter how well the life was lived. If the service is first about Christ and his promises then, the beloved departed can be placed in light of those promises, together with the communion of saints to whom he or she belongs—still—in baptism. 

You read through the Proclamation and Response, selecting appropriate readings for the day and, in light of them, planning what you will say afterwards. 

The service offers a unique configuration following the readings. First comes the Sermon. And it should be just that: a sermon, an explication of the scripture just heard. This is not the time for funny stories about the deceased or a biographical sketch. Preach the gospel. Offer its hope and promise to the needy gathered. And, at the end, place the deceased’s life in its context. And then, sit down and let the silence of the moment sink in. No intrusive music in the background to “create a mood.” Just pure silence for a moment. 

Then, the service provides for two more words, Naming and Witness. In some places it is customary to read the obituary aloud. Or, perhaps, someone might come forward to offer a precis of the life lived. It should be brief and impactful, though not morose. And finally, Witness. Here one or two might rise to speak more informally of the beloved. Here is where laughter, a funny story well told, an enduring piece of wisdom, a virtue or kind deed done, should be remembered. 

Methodists have a tradition about this. The necrologies of conference reports have long celebrated the lives of lay leaders and clergy with reports of their ministries, meant to be treasured in thanksgiving and emulated. The church universal has done this with its saints and holy people of ages past. Here we have an opportunity to do so with the baptized one remembered here. If at all possible, speak with those who intend to speak beforehand. Have some idea of what they would like to say. Encourage them where it is wise to do so, caution and guide them where needed. Help them to see their speaking as a ministry to the bereaved.

As you further prepare, your eyes glance down to the intercessory prayer following the Witness. 

God of us all, your love never ends.
When all else fails, you still are God.
We pray to you for one another in our need,
and for all, anywhere, who mourn with us this day.
To those who doubt, give light;
to those who are weak, strength;
to all who have sinned, mercy;
to all who sorrow, your peace.
Keep true in us
the love with which we hold one another.
In all our ways we trust you.
And to you,
with your Church on earth and in heaven,
we offer honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

You are struck by how the prayer addresses so many sentiments people may bring with them to a funeral. Some face death with doubt, not necessarily while sitting at a funeral, but sitting in their car, driving on a long trip, with much time to think. Others feel weak-kneed in the face of tragedy and cannot imagine life without mourning. Yet others need a different kind of closure at a funeral, namely, forgiveness of their sins against the deceased and vice-versa. Perhaps the desire for reconciliation came too late. You think to yourself about several situations of which you, as pastor, are aware involving the one whose funeral you are preparing. And, for yourself, the line about all else failing makes you think again of the desperate attempts at solace provided by spiritual junk food at the time of death. Even if some of it slips by you, be willing to forgive yourself. God is still God. You think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, with its line about “accepting the things I cannot change.”

The Lord’s Supper will be celebrated. You think of how this particular celebration will feed those hungry for the Risen One’s presence. You note how the Great Thanksgiving for this liturgy calls attention to the communion of saints. This is not simply the death of an individual. It is a placement of them in that wider fellowship that binds earth and heaven.  

By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
one with each other, and one in communion with all your saints,
especially Name and all those most dear to us,
whom we now remember in the silence of our hearts.

A time of silence for remembrance.

Finally, by your grace, bring them and all of us to that table
where your saints feast for ever in your heavenly home.
Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church,
all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father (God ), now and for ever.

This is the feast of victory, the meal of resurrection. It always is. Why wouldn’t it be celebrated in the context of a service of Death and Resurrection? 

You write some preliminary sermon notes, ready to come back to them tomorrow. The next day will be long: a receiving line, the service, committal, a reception afterward. A big crowd is expected. You will be ready, dear pastor, strengthened in these fleeting quiet moments of preparation. There may be a moment or two something doesn’t go quite as planned. Or something got left out. Or someone presses a stupid poem into your hands at the last minute, expecting you to read it during the service. Just remember. When all else fails, God is God. That is enough. 

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