Fear of death affects us all, and so pastors have significant hurdles to overcome. What Christians need today is a renewed vision of the traditional Christian funeral liturgy. In Funerals: For the Care of Souls, Tim Perry recovers the rich theology inherent to the Christian funeral: communion with the saints in death, peace in forgiveness, hope in the resurrection, and joy in life eternal. In this interview with Perry, we discuss his book and the need to recover the specifically Christian language of death and resurrection.
Lexham Press: What kind of reader did you have in mind as you were writing this book?
Tim Perry: This book is primarily written for pastors, chaplains, and anyone involved in the care of the dying and their families. When I tell people the title, ironically, they often think that it is a book about the experience and management of grief. Grief, of course, is a reality that is rightly associated with death. But, apart from some of the resources suggested at its end, this isn’t a book about grief. It is about the need especially for pastors to speak forthrightly to the souls in their care about death—its inevitability, its ubiquity, and the need to prepare for it. It is about the need to recover the specifically Christian language of death and resurrection and its impact on the spiritual and Christian formation of those who are dying—which is to say, everyone.
“This isn’t a book about grief. It is about the need especially for pastors to speak forthrightly to the souls in their care about death.”
LP: What is your own personal experience with conducting funerals?
Perry: When I entered parish ministry, I was green. I had been to many funerals, but I hadn’t conducted any. My archdeacon (area pastor) was very kind to connect me to the local funeral director. He and his brother, in turn, sent me many funerals in my first year of ministry. They covered almost every possible eventuality. Churched, unchurched, dechurched; in the church, in the chapel, at the graveside; young and old—just about every eventuality was touched on. I will always be grateful for that “sink or swim” first year. In fact, I dedicated this book to them. After that, my experience slowed to a pretty typical pace for a working pastor with the demographics of a mainline church. In 2016, I left parish ministry and returned to my hometown to help care for my father, who was by then in the final stages of metastatic colon cancer. In the midst of an “irregular” employment situation, working as on-call clergy at another funeral home, I continued to have up to four funerals per month. Since 2018, the pace has slowed, but I am still active in funeral preparation and care.
LP: This is far more than a practical “how-to” book on conducting funerals. Would you explain your vision for the book and why it may differ from what people may expect?
Perry: I spent the first decade of my professional life as a theologian, teaching and forming Christian undergraduates and seminarians. One thing I noticed—with increasing alarm—was the dis-integration of theology and practice. Stanley Hauerwas often asks whether we’d entrust our health care to a doctor who forsook anatomy and immunology for courses in advanced bedside manner. Why then do we entrust our souls to pastors who haven’t cracked a theology book since they left seminary? Worse, why do our seminaries employ theologians to teach ordinands who’ve never actually preached a sermon, visited a home, or buried a parishioner? The fact is, the Christian theological tradition has deep-welled-wisdom when it comes to death and dying, which are, at their core, intensely practical and pastoral. Pastors who remain ignorant of this vast soul-medicine chest will shortchange both themselves and those they care for. So, in the last third of my career, I’ve taken it as my vocation to do what little I can to re-integrate these disciplines, in my own head and heart if nowhere else. This book is the first public result.
LP: You begin by describing the drastic changes in our culture. Would you briefly explain the significance of this for Christian funerals in particular?
Perry: Like all the rites of passage, funerals have fallen victim to ubiquitous consumerization. Whereas once baptism, marriage, and funerals shaped us by initiating us into communities of life, faith, and practice, now they are merely options in the shopping mall of life choices that can be purchased or not. I am regularly saddened and even stunned by the way this shift is simply shrugged off or greeted as the good news of “getting rid of Christendom” by Christian leaders. When we treat funerals as a service for which we clergy are but the providers, we not only neglect our own resources, but we fail the people who have come to us for care. We do, in fact, have something to offer—the gift of the gospel! The vocabulary that describes death as the final enemy that has been defeated by the victorious Lord Jesus on the cross is not a commodity for sale. It’s the truth. And as true, it is wonderfully good news! But it’s good news that is lost in the way we assemble funerals. In the book I return a few times to the image of a retirement roast in which the honoree is strangely absent. That is what many funerals—even Christian funerals—have become in the demise of Christendom. Post-Christendom is our pastoral reality. But it is not something to be celebrated. It is, rather, an invitation to relearn what makes us as believers in Jesus different and to celebrate that.
“Like all the rites of passage, funerals have fallen victim to ubiquitous consumerization.”
LP: If you could lay to rest one common practice in funerals (Christian or otherwise), what would it be?
Perry: The practice of shrouding our vocabulary around death, dying, and the funeral. She “passed.” It sounds like she just took a test and did well. He’s “gone on.” To where? A new retirement home? There is, of course, no justification for being tactless and uncaring when caring for grieving people, and I do not for a moment take that situation lightly. Indeed, it is the gravity of the situation that requires pastors to speak honestly. Our loved ones die; after they die, they are dead. Someday, the same thing will happen to us. A funeral is not a celebration of life or a homegoing. It’s a funeral. It is a ritual movement of a body from the community of the living to the community of the dead. There is a perfectly good word for that. Let’s use it. There may well be some celebrating that happens at the funeral and afterwards—and there should be, if the deceased died in the hope of the resurrection. But celebrating is not the point. The gospel of a Lord who has defeated sin, death, and the devil—such that our final fall into death is not a fall into nothingness, but a fall into greater union with him—is not served by euphemisms.
LP: What makes for a distinctively Christian funeral?
Perry: The worship of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in the midst of our grief. That’s the short answer. The longer answer, which is the second part of the book, is the maintenance of the Christ risen in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father as the center of our grief-soaked praise.
LP: What are your favorite funeral hymns?
Perry: In no particular order:
- Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah
- The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended
- Rejoice! The Lord is King.
- Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending
- I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
- Abide With Me
- Lead Kindly Light
- Praise My Soul the King of Heaven
- My Jesus, I Love Thee
- And Can It Be That I Should Gain
For funeral canticles, here is an excellent resource. Of those found there, the Nunc and the Song of St. Anselm are my favorites.