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Evils in the Churches No. 6—Services at the Burial of the Dead.


Evils in the Churches No. 6—Services at the Burial of the Dead.

James Dodson

[Covenanter Magazine (Ireland), February, 1859]

There is an evident tendency in our day to render the rites of religious worship, in various sections of the Protestant Church, imposing and impressive to the outward senses, and to conduct them so as to please the superstitious views and humour the prejudices of the masses of the people, especially of those who are styled respectable. Hence, choirs are introduced in conducting the public singing of praise in Presbyterian congregations; hence, too, the employment of hymns instead of the inspired Psalms, and of light and unsuitable tunes in public worship; and hence the plea that has been of late strenuously urged by numbers in different parts of the Presbyterian Church, that instrumental music should be used, as an appropriate accompaniment of Zion’s service of song. To some of the innovations, we may direct particular attention upon some future occasion. Meanwhile, we purpose to notice a practice, which, during the last twenty or thirty years, has become extensively prevalent in the larger sections of the Presbyterian Church in these countries, which we cannot but regard as fraught with several serious evils, and as contrary to the express enactments of the standards and ecclesiastical authorities of the Presbyterian Church, and opposed to the spirit of genuine Presbyterianism. This is the BURIAL SERVICE, as performed by Presbyterian ministers at the internment of their people—with the funeral sermons, that are frequently preached upon the same occasions. This practice has become so general, of late, throughout the large Presbyterian body, that, in towns especially, and among the more respectable members of the Church, it is constantly looked for, and it would be considered quite wrong to omit it in any instance. On the day of internment, not only is social worship conducted by the minister in the house of the deceased, but at the grave, or in the house of worship, portions of the Scripture are read, prayer offered, and an address is not unfrequently delivered. These services are generally conducted so as to flatter the relatives of the deceased—to make the impression that the person removed by death has certainly gone to heaven, and that the friends, whatever may be their moral character, may entertain the hope that they shall hereafter meet him in glory. The Scripture read—almost always a part of the 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians, which speaks exclusively of the glorious resurrection of the righteous—is brought forward, even when the individual has lived ungodly, and given no evidence of repentance in death. The expressions uttered in prayer generally imply that the person has died in peace with God, and is gone to heaven, and often this is directly and fully declared, when addressing the Divine throne. And if an address to the people is delivered at the grave, it seems to be considered altogether necessary that it should contain sentiments expressive of the full confidence that the deceased has died happy. Ministers officiating in these services, appear as if they knew of no other way to console the bereaved, than by conveying to them assurances of the certain felicity of their departed relatives. In order to do this, they misapply and pervert the words of sacred Scripture—pronounce most presumptuously upon the final state of the dead—and delude the living with the thought that they are safe, while forgetting God, and following the example of those who were mere worldlings, or who lived and died neglecting religion. There are few courses of conduct on the part of ministers of religion more criminal than this. The plainest and most solemn declarations of the word concerning the indispensable necessity of the new birth and holiness of life, as preparation for heavenly felicity, are, in effect, palpably denied; the conscience is defiled for the sake of becoming men-pleasers; and over the open grave, and in the immediate view of the eternal world, men are taught that they may serve God and mammon—that they may live without God, and yet die in hope!

Without dwelling on the unfaithfulness of ministers in countenancing and lending themselves to be parties to such practice, or the manifold and enormous evils that result from it, we may advert to some historical views of the burial services, and then show how plainly they are opposed to the standards and spirit of Presbyterianism.

The whole history of the Church clearly shows that the funeral services have always been connected with corruption in doctrine, and the influx of superstition in practice. The mind of man has, in all ages, and among all people, been ever prone to superstition.[1] The late venerable Dr. M’Crie [2] has sagaciously observed:—

"Vain speculation as to the state of the dead has been one of the most fruitful sources of superstitious hopes and fears; and nothing has tended more to beget and to nourish these, than the religious rites and ceremonies performed at death and at sepulture. False religion, in the various shapes which it has assumed among mankind, has invariably increased this moral malady; it is one great and salutary object of true religion to correct, and to prevent its recurrence."

Under the Old Testament economy, we have no mention made of funeral services, till, in the latter days of the Hebrew Commonwealth, the superstitions and other corruptions of heathen idolatry were extensively adopted. The same distinguished writer justly observes:—

"In the Jewish religion there were no sacred rites appointed for the dead, or performed at sepulture. Although the Jews were placed under a dispensation highly ceremonial—although the external observances of their worship reached to every department of society, and mingled with almost every duty and every event of their life—it is deserving of particular notice that their divine ritual prescribed nothing to be done at the moment of death, or in the act of internment. They had no burial service. He who provided that Moses should be interred secretly, so that ‘no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day,’[3] lest the Jews should have abused it to idolatry, wisely and graciously guarded against a practice which He foresaw would easily degenerate into superstition. When they began to lose the purity of their religion, one way in which they corrupted themselves, was by joining in the funeral services and commemorations of the heathen by ‘eating the sacrifices of the dead,’[4] and ‘weeping for Tammuz.’"[5]

"There was no funeral service among the primitive Christians. When our Saviour died, Joseph of Arimathea, a counselor, and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, obtained permission to inter him, and they performed this office with all due reverence and honour. ‘they brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight, and took the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes, with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.’ But they performed no religious service over Him. And when the women came to his sepulchre, early on the first day of the week, it was not to pray, or read, or sing over it, but ‘to anoint His body with the spices they and prepared.’ In the case of the first person who was honoured to fall a martyr to Christianity, we are informed that ‘devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.’ But devout as they were, and deeply as they lamented his loss, we do not read of their performing a single religious act or rite over his grave. Nor is there the slightest vestige in the New Testament of any such practice among the primitive Christians.’"

Among the corruptions that entered the Christian Church, soon after the Apostolic age, various superstitious rites in worship were introduced, which ministered to the gross taste of the multitude, and served to augment the power of the priesthood. Among these the rites of sepulture, borrowed not from the Jews, but from the heathens, occupied a conspicuous place. Mosheim, in giving an account of the corruptions of the Church in the second and third centuries, points out clearly the progress of superstition. From undue veneration for the martyrs, their funeral obsequies were performed with great solemnity. Their tombs were visited—assemblies for worship were held at them—and the anniversary of their martyrdom was religiously observed. These commemorations, which came to be extended to others who died in the faith, were made at first by offering thanksgiving for the life and glorification of the deceased, and by prayers, that others might be induced to follow their example. The downward progress of uncommanded and superstitious rites is always rapid. Prayers over the dead were soon succeeded by prayers for the dead—and in due time, there sprung from these practices, purgatory, the merit of masses, saints’ days, the worshipping of relics, pretended miracles, and other extravagant superstitions of Popery. At the era of the Reformation, the superstitious rites which had accumulated under the Papacy, as well as its unscriptural doctrines, were rejected. Several of the Reformed Churches, such as those of Holland and France, by express enactment, prohibited religious services at funerals, and disallowed the preaching of funeral sermons. Thus, in the "Discipline of the Reformed Churches of France," one of the Canons enjoins:—

"At funerals, there shall be neither prayers nor sermons, nor any dole of public alms; that so all superstitions and other inconveniences may be avoided, and those who attend the dead corpse unto its sepulchre, shall be exhorted to behave themselves modestly while they follow it, meditating according to the object presented to them, and the hope of one more happy in the world to come."[6]

The Dutch Church, in their form of worship, expressly excluded the burial of the dead, as not being at all connected with Divine service. Funeral sermons were likewise pointedly condemned by various acts of their synods. In a national synod, held at Dort, in 1578, while speaking of the use of funeral sermons as dangerous, they explicitly enjoin that if any exhortations are uttered at the time of interment, the praise of the person deceased shall form no part of them. The use of bells in the article of death, and at the time of interment, is also disallowed, as being a ceremony of Popery. The famous Synod of Dort, held in 1618, renews the same prohibitions, and employs similar language on this subject. The Reformed Churches of Hungary, Transylvania, Bohemia, and Moravia, displayed the same jealous concern to guard against all superstition and other abuses at funerals. The Church of Scotland, from the earliest period of the Reformation, was strongly opposed to all unscriptural and superstitious usages. In settling the order of worship, the celebration of funerals, by religious services, was therefore expressly condemned and prohibited. The First Book of Discipline pronounces "prayers over," as well as for, the dead "superstitious and vain." In respect of burials, it is enacted:—

"That the dead be conveyed to the place of burial with some honest company of the kirk, without either singing or reading; yea; without all kind of ceremony heretofore used, other than "that the dead be committed to the grave with such gravity and sobriety, as that those who be present may seem to fear the judgements of God, and to hate sin, which is the cause of death."

In respect of funeral sermons, the following injunction is given:—

"As some require a sermon at the burial, or else some place of Scripture to be read, to put the living in mind that they are mortal, and that likewise they must die—‘But let these men understand, that the sermons which be daily made serve for that use; which, if men despise, the funeral sermons shall rather nourish superstition and a false opinion, as before said, than that they shall bring such persons to a godly consideration of their own state.’ It is pointedly added—as if anticipating our day—‘Either shall the ministers, for the most part, be occupied in funeral sermons, or else they shall have respect of persons, preaching at the burials of the rich and honourable, but keeping silence when the poor and despised departeth; and this with safe conscience cannot the minister do. For seeing that before God there is no respect of persons, and that their ministry appertaineth to all alike, whatsoever they do to the rich, in respect of their ministry, the same they are bound to do to the poorest under their charge."

During the prevalence of the Prelatical innovations, under the Perth Articles, in some instances, funeral sermons were introduced, but no other burial service was practised. In the Commencement of the second Reformation, even this innovation was condemned and rejected. The famous General Assembly of 1638, discharged all "funeral sermons, as savouring of superstition." In the Westminster Directory [for the Publick Worship of God],[7] adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 1645, it is ordained—"That on the day of burial, let the dead body be devoutly attended from the house to the place of public burial, and there immediately interred, without any ceremony." And again—"For that praying, reading, and singing, both in going to and at the grave, have been grossly abused, and no way beneficial to the dead, and have proved many ways hurtful to the living; therefore let all things be laid aside." The practice of the Church of Scotland has been generally in accordance with these enactments; the only exceptions have been in late years, when a disposition has been manifested, in various quarters, to show undue respect to persons of the higher classes, by some special services at funerals, and to please the fancy of some by conforming in some measure to the gorgeous rites of the English Prelatic Establishment. The whole spirit and genius of the Presbyterian system is plainly opposed to such rites as are not commanded in Scripture, and that tend to superstition. It justly lays the chief stress in the matter and manner of religious worship on Divine institution and appointment. It properly rejects whatever is destitute of a Scriptural warrant, and disallows what is showy and meretricious in worship, as "calculated to withdraw the mind from the contemplation of Him who is a Spirit, and to substitute a mechanical devotion in the place of that which is rational and spiritual."

2. The Burial Service of the Church of England—though often praised for its simplicity and solemnity by persons attached to Prelacy, is on many accounts highly objectionable. It was adopted at first, on a principle that marred many parts of the English Reformation—that of retaining the principal rites and forms of the Popish Church, in order to give as little offence as possible to those who were attached to the ancient superstition, and of gaining them over the more easily to her communion. It was in this way that corruption spread extensively in the Primitive Church; and we need not therefore wonder that various gross abuses should have followed from the Burial Service of the Church of England. The practice of reading and praying over the dead tends to foster the idea that the service is some way or other beneficial to the dead. This idea is fostered by the phrase, which has become common, in reference to the employment of the funeral service—giving the person "Christian Burial." The pompous and showy manner in which the burial of the dead is conducted, according to Prelatic usage—the minister and clerks, sometimes dressed in full canonicals, meeting the corpse at the entrance of the church-yard, repeating sentences of Scripture and responses at the grave, and formally committing the body to the ground, followed by prayers and the benediction—are designed to produce an imposing effect on the spectators. Then the passages of Scripture read, and the words spoken by the minister as they are applied, are highly objectionable. Many of the passages of the word, refer exclusively to the death of saints. The ministers of the English Church, in a solemn address to God, express their hope that every person whom they bury rests in Christ. It matters not how wickedly persons have lived and died, the same hopes and assurances of a blissful resurrection are declared, the only exceptions being those who have "died unbaptized, or excommunicate," or committed suicide. In the burial service, the officiating minister is made to say—"Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God, in his great mercy, to take unto Himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life." It has been justly observed, that, from the frequent observance of such a rite at the burial of persons of all sorts of character, one of two things may be surely expected to follow—"either some persons will despise the whole as an unmeaning form, or a religious farce, or they will be hardened in sin by the hopes of obtaining absolution at death."[Dr. M’Crie.]

3. Presbyterians very generally condemn the Prelatic Burial Service; and to a person who brings everything to the Word of God, there is certainly little to recommend it for imitation. It deserves serious consideration however, whether the practice which has grown up so much of late among Presbyterian ministers, of having religious services in houses of worship, or at the graves of their people, is not essentially of the same nature, and leads frequently to similar abuses. With Presbyterian ministers—in many cases, the poor are suffered to be interred without any religious service—while, at the interment of the rich and respectable, a special service is hardly ever omitted. Then, though it is not declared in express words, as in the Prelatical Burial Service, that the deceased rests in Christ, and that his body is committed to the dust in certain hope of a blessed resurrection, the same thing is generally done in another way. The passages of Scripture read—such as 1 Thessalonians 4., and 1 Corinthians 15., refer alone to the death and resurrection of the righteous—and yet these are brought forward at the grave of those who have lived and died ungodly. The prayers offered, too, not unfrequently contain expressions that declare the future happiness of the deceased. If addresses are delivered at the grave, or funeral sermons preached afterwards, the character of the departed is set forth in the most flattering colours, and relatives are consoled with assurances of the present happiness of those who have been removed from them by death, and of their re-union with them in heaven. We are acquainted with instances, not a few, in which this was done, when there was no evidence whatever of piety in life of the deceased; and the only thing that could be properly said of them was, that they occupied a respectable station in society, and that they were successful in worldly business.

This practice, which we have shown is clearly opposed to the express enactments of our Presbyterian standards, and repugnant to the spirit of Presbyterianism, has arisen and spread, partly from the disposition to please persons by flattering them into a good opinion of themselves and of their departed friends, and partly from the carnal policy of conforming as much as possible to the fashionable rites of the National Establishment, and thus preventing persons of the higher classes from leaving the Presbyterian Church, and joining the ranks of Prelacy. The practice is however unscriptural and anti-Presbyterian; and the effects, we have no hesitation in affirming, are, in all cases, injurious. It tends to foster superstition—ministers are tempted to abuse and misapply the Word of God. The state of the dead is expressly declared, or referred to by implication, as a matter to be believed. Those who have lived in the neglect or religious duties, or in immorality, are spoken of as if their happiness after death were certain. The living are thus exposed to delusion and self-deception, and the warnings, as well as the precepts and solemn invitations of the Bible lose their power. It is certainly high time that a practice so deleterious as burial services among Presbyterians were abandoned. While leading ministers of the body are boasting of their Gospel liberty and freedom from Prelatical rites, it were befitting that they should set themselves in earnest to discountenance all superstition among their people, and to return to the simple Scriptural practice of Primitive-Christianity, and of Presbyterianism in its purest times.


[1] Innovations and devices without or beside Scriptural warrant; viz: the express command of God, approven biblical example, or deduced therefrom by good and necessary inference [Ed.]

[2] M’Crie’s Miscellaneous Writings, pp. 570, 571.

[3] Deut. 34:6.

[4] Ps. 106:28.

[5] Ezek. 8:14.

[6] Quick’s Synodicon. Vol. 1, p. 44.

[7] Adopted as part of the covenanted uniformity betwixt the Churches of England, Ireland and Scotland [Ed.]