Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.
How do we choose suitable songs for funerals, and memorial services? These are precious, intimate occasions, and the choice of music must be handled with sensitivity.
First prize is to know what the departed loved-one would like to have sung. Some Christians plan their own funeral service well ahead of time. They would consider an “order of service” that includes a welcome, expression of condolences and prayers. A careful choice of the public Scripture reading is important, especially for the pastor who will be guided by this in preparing a relevant sermon.
The choice of funeral psalms, hymns and/or spiritual songs’ will be influenced by a variety of factors:
- a) The deceased’s own favourites
- b) The favourites of close family members
- c) songs that relate to the public Scripture reading
Whatever the words, it is important that the tune be well-known to the congregation, so they can sing with confidence. A funeral service is often attended by people who are unchurched, unfamiliar with churchy music. A service can be spoiled by wispy, uncertain, feeble attempts at singing! A good instrumental melody-lead, with a strong leader’s voice, will assist in building confidence.
God will bless and use a funeral service that is uniquely Christian, biblical in its content. Our Lord will not accept anything that smacks of a worldly, unbiblical attitude to death. Often such elements creep into funerals — even Christian funerals.
Avoid promising Heaven’s blessings to those who have not followed Jesus during their earthly lives. If we sing songs such as Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, ... Yes, we’ll gather at the river … that flows from the throne of God and The Lord’s my Shepherd, the song-leader should carefully place them in context. Explain that these truths, these blessings, are exclusive to those who have repented and have fixed their faith in Christ.
Likewise, in prayers, songs and tributes, a Christian should never communicate with the dead. That is a pagan custom, belonging to many traditional religions. Avoid talking like this: “I know where you are and I look forward to seeing you again. I thank you for the influence you have had in my life. Farewell, mother.” or singing words such as these: “Over there, on the banks of the Jordan, over there on those streets of gold, we’ll meet you again with rejoicing, believing the promises told.” Sing and talk about the loved-one – not to him or her.
A funeral or memorial service should demonstrate an honesty that is lovingly faithful to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If the deceased is known as an unbeliever, a person whose life has excluded the Lord Jesus Christ, be careful not to say things that are true only for Christ-followers.
On the other hand, there is no need to publicly announce the deceased’s lack of salvation, or to pre-judge him or her as one facing the flames of hell. We always remember the love of Jesus who assured the thief dying on the cross next to His that he would be with Him in paradise (Luke 23:43). Who knows whether there may have been a moment of repentance and faith as life ended?
That verdict belongs to God alone. He knows everything. “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those that are His’” — 2 Timothy 2:19). It’s not for us to pass the final judgement on anyone. But this does not mean we should be careless, assuming that God’s unconditional love means there are no conditions to salvation. That same verse 19 goes on to say to those still alive that “Everyone who calls themselves ‘Christian’ must turn away from wickedness”.
Compassion is an essential element in all that is said, sung and done at memorial services and funerals. Such compassion motivates us to speak lovingly to the family of the departed, and evangelically to the living in the congregation.