Quite a few new priests have never officiated a funeral. We have had many requests for a simple overview, and we reached out to Fr. Lee Nelson for such a post. We also include a funeral planning guide that can be used to work with individuals and families in planning. This post assumes the ability to hold a public funeral service, but it could be adapted for a private or recorded service.
If you don’t have a copy of the Anglican Church in North America’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer, you can access the entire BCP for free online here. You can also click here to download a Word Document that contains only the Burial service.
Practical notes on planning a burial in the Anglican tradition.
In 1549, Thomas Cranmer was faced with the difficult task of producing a reformed rite for the burial of the dead. The rite could not be a requiem mass, but it also could not be something like a modern memorial service. It would have to be a celebration of Holy Communion with a rite for burial. So, he provided simply, a collect, a psalm, an epistle reading, and a Gospel reading for the celebration of Holy Communion as well as an updated rite for burial. As B.D. Spinks notes: “Pastoral offices such as burial are areas of conservatism in liturgy, and in contrast with his reform of the baptismal rite, Cranmer in his funeral rite relied more heavily upon the Sarum Rite and the contemporary popular rite for the dead, the Dirige.”
The rite today begins much as it did in the Sarum Rite, with quotations from John 11 and Job 19, which preceded Cranmer’s rite. To these, Cranmer added a quotation from 1 Timothy 6:7: “For we brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we carry nothing out.” In more modern prayer books, Romans 14:7-9 has been added, and many more readings allowed, including readings from the Old Testament. In the 2019 BCP, it is directed that the Apostle’s Creed be confessed. A special set of prayers are included, as well as a special post-communion prayer. The rite ends with what is called the Commendation, in which the body is commended to God to the resurrection of the dead and the deceased person commended into the arms of God’s mercy.
What does this look like?
In essence, it looks like a celebration of the Eucharist, with a different entrance rite and a different recessional rite, with the Apostles’ Creed recited and the prayers specific to a burial. Through the years, many people have remarked to me how wonderful the Anglican burial rite is: how full of biblical hope, how full of Scripture, and how full of beauty. I have always remarked that it is particularly meaningful to me that the same rite is used whether the departed be a King or Queen, or one destitute and hungry. The first funeral I ever presided over was for an HIV patient. He was buried in a cemetery for the indigent of our county, and I will never forget it. “God shows no partiality,” and our burial rites provide a wonderful way to remind all people, especially those who might never otherwise attend a Christian liturgy in a year, of the unavoidable nature of death, but also the grace and mercy which is found in the Gospel.
Some helpful notes
First, there are very few options given in the Prayer Book aside from which readings to read, which hymns to sing (and though there are many, the parish Rector has veto power), and whether or not to have the Eucharist celebrated. For this purpose, I have attached a sample funeral planning form. I ask our people, especially during Lent, to fill this out and put it on file in the parish office. That way, we can simply pull out the form and plan the liturgy in accord with a person’s wishes.
Second, for the procession and recession, the body will go last. For funerals with cremated remains, I find it helpful to carry the remains, covered in a special cloth (a pall) made for the purpose, and then set those remains on a small table in front of the altar. For funerals with full remains in a casket, the casket is carried in “feet first” and carried out “feet first.” It is also appropriate that the procession be led by a person carrying the Paschal Candle into the church. For both processions, the celebrant simply read the words of scripture included, on page 249 for the procession and on 257 for the recession. While it is provided that other hymns may also be used, a strict read of the rubrics is that these scriptural anthems should be read, and any other music would therefore be additional.
Third, when it comes to whether or not the Eucharist should be celebrated, the default answer should be a resounding “YES!” while understanding that it is at least potentially the case that to do so would bring deep division to the family. It is important to follow the wishes of the departed and to know what those are. I once had to carry out the burial of a parishioner while, in another location, her sons held a non-prayerbook memorial service which they had planned. I remember her words to me quite well: “Don’t you dare let my sons plan my funeral! I want the prayer book service only!”
Fourth, the time provided in the BCP liturgy for greeting the family is the Peace. That brings up another item: that of whether or not there is room for eulogies or thoughts from the family. The strict answer, and the one I commend to you, is NO. This is a Christian liturgy, and although we love the Buddhist grandson of the departed, this is not a time for him to hold forth. A much better time for this is a wake or reception off-site.
Fifth, I will explore what the graveside rites look like in a later post. In this time of COVID-19 and global pandemic, it might very well be that this is all we’ll be able to do for some time.
Lastly, a word about appropriate content for the sermon is necessary. Now is not the time to muse about where the departed person is at this moment, or what they are doing. Now is not the time to canonize them as saints.
The gospel message for every funeral ought to be: Here lies a sinner, washed in the blood of the Lamb. And secondly, someday, this will be you! We preach Christ crucified, risen, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. There is no other ground for Christian hope than this, someday we will die, someday we will rise in the flesh, and we hope to live with Christ where He is.
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses. He is currently the Chair of the Committee for Catechesis of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism.