I’m not a Protestant Christian, but I’m going to a Protestant funeral. Now what?
Protestant Christianity, rather than having one specific tradition of faith, consists of many different branches called denominations. While these denominations agree on certain core beliefs, there are differences in theology that make each group distinctive in the way they live out their faith.
Some of the most well-known denominations include Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists and Pentecostals. While each denomination has its own distinctives as well as traditions and practices when it comes to funeral services, there are several common themes throughout most, if not all, Protestant churches in the United States.
Lead Pastor Paul Gilbert of Four Oaks Church Killearn, an independent evangelical church in Tallahassee, said funerals at their church, while somber, are a time of both reflection and celebration.
“We are highlighting God’s grace in their lives,” Gilbert said. “Celebrating good memories – with both laughing and crying.”
You do not need to be part of a Protestant church to attend a Protestant funeral, Gilbert said. “All are welcome to attend and share in remembering their loved one or friend.”
Protestant funeral services may vary based on the preferences of the denomination, the deceased and the family.
- The funeral is typically held at the church.
- Depending on the denomination and the wishes of the family, caskets can be open or shut.
- Attire should be respectful and should not draw undue attention to the wearer, but may vary in formality.
- Prayers can be offered and notes, cards, flowers and meals are typically given to the deceased’s family during their time of grief.
- The tone of the service can vary from somber to uplifting.
Services that are more uplifting may focus on celebrating the deceased’s life and the fact that they are now in heaven with God. This confidence is based in their trust in Jesus as God’s son and their savior. Some refer to these funerals as a “celebration of life” instead of a funeral.
Care of the Deceased
The pastor is typically called as soon after the death as possible, particularly if the family is a part of the church, both to help plan services and to comfort the family. Embalming is an accepted practice in most Protestant traditions.
Ceremonies and Rituals
Protestant churches generally leave some leeway in planning funeral services. The elements included may depend on the congregation, the traditions of the church and the family’s wishes. Family members and friends often have an opportunity to step forward and share their memories of the deceased.
Pastor Gilbert said that funerals at Four Oaks usually begin with a processional of family members. There is then a call to worship and prayer, congregational singing, a scripture reading, eulogy and remembrances of the deceased. The services often concludes with a homily (or short sermon) and a final benediction (blessing). These service elements are common among many Protestant churches.
The music used in the service may include traditional hymns, worship songs or other music, depending on the wishes of the deceased’s family. Pastor Gilbert brings in family members for their thoughts when selecting music and other elements of a funeral service. “This allows us to craft a service that is in line with what the family wants to honor their loved one,” he said.
Certain ceremonies and rituals may be specific to a Protestant denomination. For instance, the United Methodist Church’s Book of Worship calls for the coffin to be covered with pall, a white cloth that covers the casket, while the pastor says, “As in baptism (the deceased) put on Christ, so in Christ may (the deceased) be clothed with glory.” The church uses the same pall for all funerals in the congregation and shows that everyone is equal before the table of the Lord.
Methods of Disposition
Traditions regarding burial vary across different Protestant traditions. Some denominations are adamantly opposed to cremation, believing that it is an impediment to God’s ultimate plan for resurrection. Churches in other Protestant denominations believe that both burial and cremation are allowable, although burial is preferred for many.
Pastor Gilbert agrees. “Burial seems to be more in line with classic Christian teaching of the goodness of the body and that we will one day be resurrected with new bodies,” he said.
Graveside services usually take place immediately after the funeral and typically include just family and close friends. They are brief and more somber in tone and are a time to commit the body to the ground and to pray.
While customs differ from religion to religion, there are universal norms of funeral care that are practiced across all religions, including care of the deceased, a ceremony or ritual and a method of disposition. In a multipart series, Bevis Funeral Home talks to the local faith community about the funeral customs of various religions, including Buddhism; Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; and Unitarian Universalism.
For more information about the funeral traditions of various religious faiths, call Bevis Funeral Home at (850) 385-2193.