Christian Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs
Due to the number of denominations, Christian funerals often vary since there aren’t any absolute requirements (like you would see at a traditional Catholic funeral, for instance). While Christian funerals can differ, there is a general guide for how services should take place and the order with which things are often performed.
Preparing the body (before the services)
Christian funerals allow for both cremation and burial of the body, but in both cases, it’s Christian tradition to wash the body before either process. Washing the body serves to cleanse it before it enters into the kingdom of heaven. After the body is washed, other standard preparation of the body can take place.
Many Christian funerals include a wake that takes place beforehand, typically a few days before the funeral. Wakes generally take place at the funeral home, but can take place in the church if the wake is occurring on the same day as the funeral. Wakes gives those gathered an opportunity to see the body or accept the reality that the deceased is gone. Wakes are similar to viewings and the terms are often used interchangeably.
Below are the types of services to expect at a Christian funeral.
If the funeral service is held at the church, the priest leading the service will typically enter the church first followed by the pallbearers holding the casket, and the family. This procession will leave in the same order that they came in at the end of the services.
At this point, an opening prayer can be given and selected songs or hymns will be sung. The family has control over what readings, songs, and hymns they’d like played during the service. The priest can lead those gathered in prayer, but family and friends are more than welcome to do readings at the request of the family.
Readings and passages generally center around eternal life and resurrection, while also acknowledging the loss experienced by those gathered. These passages are often taken from the Bible (both New and Old Testament).
The pastor will typically lead those gathered in a sermon or homily, that typically centers around reminding them what death means in the Christian religion. Christians believe that after death, the faithful will have a place in heaven and will have an eternal life.
Eulogy or hominy
At this point in the service, the family can ask others to share readings or remembrances, or can read a eulogy written for the deceased. Eulogies are not allowed at Catholic funerals, but are allowed at Christian funerals.
The minister will lead the community in a closing prayer, indicating that the services are coming to a close. The minister will then lead those gathered in a procession to the burial site, leaving in the same order they arrived.
Christian burials often have an additional prayer or gathering at the burial site, also known as a graveside service. This is when the body is placed in the grave (or interred) and those gathered are able to say their final goodbyes and well wishes to the deceased. It is not uncommon for people to be able to place a flower on the casket or to place a small amount of dirt onto the casket during this time. Graveside services at Christian burials usually last about 20 to 30 minutes in total.
After the burial services are complete, many families choose to host a reception either at their home or at another venue. The family typically provides refreshments during this period and a space for mourners to offer their respects and condolences to the family. Attendees can join together in community to mourn the loss of a loved one and to support the family in their time of need.
Common questions regarding Christian funeral traditions
If you’ve never attended a Christian funeral, you might have some lingering questions that aren’t specifically related to how the services proceed. Knowing as much as you can beforehand will help you be able to focus on supporting the family during their time of need.
Are Christian funerals open casket?
Christian funerals can be open or closed casket; this depends entirely on the family’s decision. If it’s an open casket, the body has been embalmed and prepared for viewing. Viewing the body at an open casket funeral can help many mourners deal with the reality and finality of death.
Can Christians be cremated?
Christians can be cremated, there is no rule against cremation for Christians. Protestants can also have their ashes scattered or stored in urns in places that may not be considered “holy” (such as at home), unlike Catholics.
How long does a Christian funeral last?
A Christian funeral will generally last about 45 minutes to an hour depending on whether or not there’s a graveside service included and the length of the readings. They are generally not very lengthy affairs.
What kind of songs are played at a Christian funeral?
Christian funerals can choose from a variety of music, but many families stick to Christian funeral hymns and songs related to Christianity that celebrate eternal life and resurrection.
Are there flowers at a Christian funeral?
There are usually flowers at Christian funerals, and it is appropriate to send flowers either to the family home, funeral home, or to the church. If you don't want to send flowers, consider making a donation in honor of the person who passed away or helping the family with their affairs in another way.
What is the dress code for a Christian funeral?
Christian funerals generally follow a traditional dress code of black attire. Men should generally wear suits and women should wear either a black dress, skirt, or pantsuit. If there is a graveside service, women should be mindful of the kind of shoes they wear to the service.
Due to the number of denominations under Christianity, each funeral has the potential to be slightly unique from the rest. Attending a Protestant funeral generally has fewer rules and “sections” than a Catholic funeral. If you’re in charge of planning a Christian funeral and are looking for a way to easily notify friends & family of the details, setting up a memorial website is a great idea.