Whitney Houston’s sudden death wasn’t necessarily the reason family, friends and the Hollywood elite gathered at the New Jersey Baptist Church of her childhood for a four-and-a-half-hour, invitation-only funeral.
Rather, it was her life — the accomplishments, the memories, her angelic voice and boundless talent — that was given tribute on that chilly, overcast afternoon.
While Houston’s once bright life had spiraled into the abyss of addiction in recent years, her memorial service on Feb. 18 did not serve as yet another cautionary tale of success and destruction.
There was no mention of her failures or shortcomings. Choirs sang gospel hymns. Pop stars including Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys performed. Celebrities including Kevin Costner and Tyler Perry shared stories.
Only the Rev. Al Sharpton broached the subject that was undoubtedly on the minds of those in attendance when he called Houston’s death “a wakeup call.”
Such an intentionally uplifting memorial service is not an uncommon occurrence among Christian funerals.
Over recent generations, funerals have undergone a startling change, explained Lucy Bregman, author of “Preaching Death: The Transformation of Christian Funeral Sermons.”
“Christians have been fascinated with death, with imagery and ideas surrounding it since the time when Jesus taught, suffered and died,” Bregman writes. “The enigmatic pairing of resurrection and life, with death and its opposition to death has been intrinsic to Christian faith from the beginning.”
Death was the enemy
Woodfin Grove, pastor emeritus at Anniston First United Methodist Church, conducted his first funeral in 1936, when he was a junior in high school and working as a youth minister for the First United Methodist Church in Ensley.
The full-time pastor was out of town when Brother Stovall, “one of the real saints of the church,” passed away unexpectedly.
The 17-year-old Grove was asked by the family to lead the service.
When it came time to share a favorite memory of this pillar of congregation, Grove talked about how Brother Stovall was always asked to lead the final prayer of the Wednesday night worship service. He would kneel down beside his chair and end the prayer with, “Lord, if there are those about us who die without knowing thy Son, do not let his blood be on my apron.”
Even though there were smiles during that funeral, Grove had a much different view growing up.
“When I was a young man, death was regarded as our enemy. It was the ultimate tragedy, and it’s still that way in some cases. Even mature Christians don’t see it as the next step in an orderly process. … Death is not the end. It’s a transition,” he said.
“Frankly, I’m glad to see that a sense of joy pervades a funeral today more so than when I was a child. Back then, you came away from a funeral dejected, burdened. Today, we often come away with a sense of hope and a sense of confidence. It’s healthier — spiritually and mentally.”
How science changed funerals
Christians have always had a lot to say about death’s meaning, and it was repeated often in funerals — in songs, poems and sermons.
While fear and discontent may have seethed under the surface, funerals in 1899 weren’t exercises in silence and denial. Neither were the funerals of the 1920s.
But as the decades of the 20th century passed, certain things changed. One-third of humanity no longer died in infancy. Post-World War I catastrophes linked Americans to the inevitability of death on a global scale. With the advent of television, the horrors of war and genocide were piped into Americans’ consciousness while they sat on the living room couch.
Science and technology also removed some of the mystery from death. Before the Civil War, embalming was viewed as a gruesome mutilation of the body. Only dead soldiers were embalmed in order to preserve the bodies for shipping back home.
President Abraham Lincoln was the first fully embalmed person put on display in American history, and his traveling funeral train provided a public viewing of death for thousands of people.
A captive audience
The purpose of a Christian funeral sermon has long been to lay out, explicitly and publicly, the Christian doctrines of salvation, eternal life and divine judgment.
It’s also an opportunity to remind those present (whom Bregman refers to as the “future dead”) that they, too, will die — and that they’d better work out their salvation.
With such a captive audience, it can be an opportunity to evangelize, said Andy Lambert, who is both an ordained minister with Zion Church of God in Wedowee and a funeral director for K.L. Brown Funeral Home.
“I always take the opportunity to plant a seed,” Lambert said, clarifying that this doesn’t happen during his role as funeral director. “If a person’s saved, it gives them the opportunity to think. If they’re not saved, it’s an opportunity to make them consider putting things right in their lives. But no matter where they are in terms of their faith, death is something everyone’s going to face. It’s a time when everyone’s thinking, ‘What’s next?’”
What people who remember “traditional” funerals notice is that today’s are less likely to be uniform, one-size-fits-all events. Relatives, friends, even co-workers contribute speeches or read poetry. The music will often veer from Gospel hymns to contemporary Christian or even pop songs. Even the pastor will forgo traditional biblical preaching to share funny stories about the dead.
“Death can be a time to rejoice,” Lambert said. “I believe if the person was saved, we know where they are. They’re where we as Christians are longing to be. I don’t focus on the sorrow but try and remain upbeat.”
No matter the tone of the memorial, its primary purpose is to worship God, said Carlton Weathers, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Anniston.
“The funeral service has traditionally been used to glorify Jesus Christ and thank him for the life of the loved one who has passed away,” he said. “A second purpose of the Christian service is to proclaim the truth that in the future, God will raise the dead to a new life in the eternal kingdom.”
Few comprehend this dueling message more vividly than Weathers, who in 2008, preached the sermon at the funeral of his own child.
‘Joy is not the same as happy’
Sophie Ann Weathers was born on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008, at 8:46 p.m., weighing 3 pounds, 15 ounces. She was 21 inches long.
She would live for only nine minutes.
Sophie Ann was diagnosed in utero with a rare chromosomal anomaly called Trisomy 13. One in 10,000 babies are born with this condition; 80 percent die within the first month.
Her mother, Aimee Weathers, carried Sophie Ann to term knowing her baby would die. When she did, it was while lying on her mother’s chest in the hospital delivery room.
Long enough for her father to recite the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.”
While Carlton delivered the sermon for his daughter’s funeral, Aimee chose the music for the memorial, including the hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.” The memories from that day are “seared” into their minds. But for all the sadness, there was hope.
“Aimee and I worked hard to have a service that clearly presented the Gospel, reflected our hope in Christ for the future resurrection of our daughter and expressed our feeling of joyful sorrow,” Weathers said.
“Joy is not the same as happy. I do not think it is helpful for us to try to hide the fact that when a loved one dies we are grieved. The fact is that death is unnatural, and all of us, no matter our faith, feel the pain of loss when someone dies.
“But the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is the hope we have in Jesus Christ. We want to show the world that we grieve, but that our grief is filled with hope in Christ.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org