Theresa Weber was 74 when she died, almost nine years after first being diagnosed with cancer. A divorced mother of modest means, Theresa desired her funeral to mirror her life-simple. She explained to her children, "After this much time, I've had plenty of time to prepare and I know what I want." Only eight months before her death, she had met with the funeral director to create her funeral plans.
A lifelong Southern Baptist, Theresa shared many beliefs and customs with other Christian Evangelicals. "Evangelical" is a term sociologists and historians generally apply to a wide range of Protestant churches, movements and denominations whose faith heritage grows out of the 18th century Great Awakening in Europe and North America. Generally, Evangelicals stress the necessity of a personal conversion experience and a high regard for the Bible as God's Word. While there are some Evangelicals in virtually every Christian denomination, the Brethren Church, Baptists, Church of the Nazarene, Evangelical Free Church, and most non-denominational Christian churches are Evangelical in their focus.
While not traditionally common among Christian evangelicals, Theresa had always wanted to be cremated when she died. However, she also understood her daughter's desire to say goodbye after her death. She had created a funeral plan including an evening visitation at the funeral home and a simple funeral in the funeral home chapel, with the plan that her body be cremated after the funeral.
Typical of Evangelical pastors, her clergyman had said he would support whatever she wanted to do and encouraged her desire to make plans in advance. Though individual congregations may be part of large denominations, Evangelicals generally do not have church-prescribed funeral rituals, unlike many faith communities.
Theresa even selected the songs she wanted sung and the scripture she wanted read at her funeral service. Theresa's daughter, Dorianne, quipped to her mother, "Well of course you'd want all that set; after all, you do have to always have the last word!"
Theresa was active in her church. Until her health deteriorated, she had served many years as a Sunday school teacher for children. A florist by trade, Theresa assured that her church was arrayed with fresh flowers every Sunday. The funeral director even remarked that in 30 years of funeral service, he had never seen so many flower arrangements at a funeral as people seemed intuitively to know that flowers would be the most fitting tribute.
The family received visitors at the funeral home on Thursday evening, two days after Theresa's death. Throughout the evening, people stopped by to express to Dorianne and her children how their mom and grandma had been special in their lives. Some even expressed surprise that Theresa had died since they had seen her at church or in the supermarket only weeks earlier.
The funeral service was held on Friday morning in the funeral home chapel. After Bertha Davis, a friend sang three of Theresa's favorite hymns, Theresa's oldest granddaughter, Meagan, read a poem she had written for the day. In his brief funeral sermon, Pastor Mike Smith reminded family and friends of Theresa's warm smile and her "can-do" attitude, especially throughout her cancer treatment.
In his sermon, the pastor reminded the people of a story they had heard from Theresa many times. "Attending youth camp when she was only 14," Pastor Smith told the gathered mourners, "Theresa prayed and asked Jesus to come into her life, forgive her of her sin, and declared her intention to follow him for the rest of her life. That decision," Pastor Smith concluded, "was the central act of her life that gives us hope today. We don't need to wonder where Theresa is spending eternity," he declared. The simple funeral service was finished in about 25 minutes. Theresa's family visited for a few minutes with friends in attendance before returning to her home for a luncheon together.
Theresa's daughter, grandchildren and other family members were present in the church's worship service on Sunday. Pastor Smith acknowledged their presence and pointed out that several of the flower arrangements from Theresa's funeral had been brought over by the funeral home and adorned the church that morning-a fitting memorial, he said, to the lady who always made sure to have beautiful flowers in the church. Pastor Smith called on the church members sitting near the Weber family to reach out and put a hand on their shoulder while he led the congregation in a prayer for continued comfort and healing. During his sermon that morning, Pastor Smith again acknowledged Theresa's active role in the church since his sermon was entitled, "Never Failing Faithfulness."
When the funeral home phoned a few days later to say Theresa's cremated remains were ready, her family was unsure what to do next. Pastor Smith was inexperienced with such matters; in fact, in almost 20 years of pastoral ministry, this was the first time he recalled having had a family choose cremation. When he telephoned the funeral director about advice on how to help the family, he even told his colleague, "We never talked about this in seminary."
After a great deal of discussion, Theresa's family decided that the best option was to place their mother's cremated remains in a columbarium niche at a nearby cemetery. Three weeks after her death, Theresa's family gathered with Pastor Smith again as he read a brief scripture, led them in a prayer, and together, they said their final farewell.
While the Weber family represents common themes among Christian Evangelicals, their story is by no means the only way death, grief and funerals are experienced. The following resources will be helpful in learning about these customs.
- Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals
- Moll, R. (2010). The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Packer, J.I. & Baxter, R. (2002). A Grief Sanctified: Through Sorrow to Eternal Hope. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
- Randall, I. (2010). Recovering Evangelical Spirituality. European Journal of Theology, 19 (1), 33-44.
- Sittser, J. (2004). A Grace Disguised (How the Soul Grows Through Loss). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.