Review: Accompany Them with Singing – The Christian Funeral

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Starred Review. Long, a homiletics professor and well-regarded preacher, argues that funerals have become spiritually impoverished and need revitalization. Providing a comprehensive review of the history, traditions and theology of Christian funerals, Long notes that recent decades have seen both growing comfort with cremation and an increased preference for disembodied memorial services offering closure. In defiance of this trend, Long argues that just as bodies are present for baptism and weddings, they should be present for funerals. Long laments that eulogies celebrating individual lives often replace gospel preaching and advocates instead that liturgies emphasize a community’s conveyance of a beloved’s body to its final resting place, worshipping as they go. Delineating the purposes of a good funeral, Long urges clergy and congregations to embrace funerals as opportunities to act out one more time the great and hopeful drama of how the Christian life moves from death to life and from baptism to resurrection. This book promises to be a welcome theological resource and practical guide for pastors and others who care for the dying and officiate at Christian funerals.

Thomas Long has written the quintessential book on the theology of Christians funerals, if not a primer on the theology of Christian dealing with death. Starting with the premise that ‘Christians do not live and die in the abstract (p15)’ Long first examines background of Christian funnels and does so not as a seminarian, or a scientist, but as a liturgist, a pastor, and as a Christian. Throughout the book, the author with his flair for hymnody, tackles with great sensitivity, the issue of death and funerals for the Christians.

Often times railing against the Neoplatonism which has long endured in Christianity, the author draws a line in the sand against those who insist in seeing the body as nothing more than a shell. In doing so, he is forced to deal with the tension found in Scripture of waiting for the resurrection and immediately being with God upon death. His solution is rather unique and convincing.

He draws together Christian Tradition with the subject of death by connecting the death of a Saint with the baptism. He has a strong liturgical use for baptism and often times casts the death and the funeral of a passed Christian in this light, and does so without theological issues which surround baptism. Long sees the Funeral of a Christian as the story of the Gospel itself.

He acknowledges that for many Americans, death is like pornography in the way in which it is handled (p22), but Long takes it from the back room and brings it into full view in a manner consistent with his desire to see funerals treated as a vital part of the Christian liturgy. Spending time in developing the idea for a better theology of funerals and death, he doesn’t let the reader wonder if all of their loved ones were buried in a wrong manner, but simply beckons the Christian to change the styles for the future. He sees the funeral as ‘the enactment of an alternative narrative, one in which the living God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, speaks the last word.’ (p94) Long doesn’t want this last word muted or ignored, but lived and cherished for the word of hope which it is. For him, the Christian funeral ‘is not purely meditation; it is dramatic action.’ (p122)

The book is divided into two sections, Background and The Church’s Ministry in Death. In the former, Long lays out the case for a Christian funeral to be rather Christian while in the latter, the author discusses the actual funeral – from good marks to planning to deal with difficult ones. His section on planning is detailed and highly valuable for those without proper training – and with proper training – in such things. He is always a pastor in dealing with this material.

One should not be able to make it through this book – the stories contained therein, the words of Long – and not feel some sort of emotional connection to the material. The stories, quips, insights – the life which Long has provided in this work magnificently draws the reader in, and if the reader has hope, it is quickened immeasurably.

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