Religion is an important source of strength for many of our members, so we’re asking clergy from different religious traditions to share how their members mark the end of a life. The Reverend Dr. Leanna Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is a member of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination.
What does Christianity teach about what happens to people when their lives end?
First, it’s important to recognize that Christianity is a very broad tradition that includes quite a bit of variation in belief and practice around particular topics such as death and dying. However, I think it’s fair to say that Christians typically affirm that when we die, we enter fully into God’s presence, and that we are held eternally in God’s love and care. Often people talk about this in terms of “heaven,” though individual Christians or streams of the tradition may differ on what exactly heaven will be like. Still, most all Christians would agree that when our earthly bodies die, we go to be with God.
How do clergy comfort the dying? How do lay people comfort the dying?
Within the Protestant tradition, the ways that clergy and lay people comfort the dying are, for the most part, quite similar, as we believe pastoral care is work to which all the people of God are called (not only the ordained). Both clergy and lay people might comfort the dying by sharing passages of Scripture with them, praying with and for them and their families, offering practical assistance (such as cooking meals) to families who are caring for dying persons, and simply assuring the dying person that he or she is held by the love of God and that God is present with him or her at every step of the dying process.
How do members of the community traditionally respond to the death of one of their members?
Many Christian communities respond to the death of their members by having a time of visitation with the family very soon after the death (either at the funeral home, at the church, or at the family’s residence); a funeral or memorial service within the days or weeks following the death; and then follow-up care farther into the future, including calling or sending cards to the bereaved family members, visiting the bereaved and offering food or other practical assistance to them, and occasionally having formal times of remembrance for members who have died within the context of the community’s regular worship services.
Is there a service to memorialize the dead? What is it like?
Christian communities vary in the particular ways in which they memorialize the dead, but most have some type of funeral or memorial service that they offer in the days or weeks following someone’s passing. Depending on the community’s particular tradition, these services will include some or all of the following: Scripture readings, prayers, music, a short homily (sermon), one or more eulogies (remembrances of the deceased shared either by the presiding minister and/or by the deceased’s loved ones), and rituals surrounding the committal of the body or ashes.
What rituals of mourning are there in your faith?
The primary ritual of mourning in most Christian communities is the funeral or memorial service. Beyond that, other rituals of mourning might include a time each year when all members of the congregation who have died in the previous 12 months are remembered in a special way during worship (many congregations do this at All Saints’ Day), or in some traditions it is customary for bereaved family members to wear particular kinds of clothing (only black and white, for example) for a set period of time after their loved one’s death.
Is there a particular amount of time allocated for grieving?
The tradition itself doesn’t set a particular amount of time for grieving. Unfortunately, the broader culture in the United States seems to be quite impatient with the grieving process and expects people to be “done” with it in a very short time (for instance, most employers only offer 3 days for bereavement leave, no matter what type of loss it is.) So, many Christian communities may have inadvertently absorbed this attitude and may feel anxious for bereaved members in their midst to stop grieving and “move on,” when, in fact, most contemporary research on grief suggests that grief never really ends. Instead, it usually changes in intensity over time, but the person who has suffered the loss will probably never be quite the same again, and will have to learn how to create a “new normal” for him- or herself.
What text or passage would you suggest to a member of your faith community who is grieving?
What words would you share to comfort members of our community who may be mourning?
As a pastoral caregiver, I am aware that no words, no matter how eloquent or powerful, can take away another’s pain. However, I do think that assuring people of God’s presence with and love for them can be extremely comforting in times of grief. I also try to find ways to share my commitment to be present with the bereaved – to assure them that I will be there for them if they need someone to listen or to sit with them in their pain. As I often tell my students, “Most people won’t remember what you said to them; but they’ll remember that you were there.”
Is there a tradition from your faith that might be comforting for people of other faiths?
I can’t really think of anything specific – other than having the community of the faithful gather around the bereaved and hold them up with love, prayers, and other signs of support. I imagine that most people of other faiths already do this in some way, but I’m reminded that very often, bereaved people have told me that it was the love and support of their faith communities that helped them to get through the most intense moments of their grief.
The Rev. Dr. Leanna Fuller is a graduate of Vanderbilt University (Ph.D.), Vanderbilt Divinity School (M.Div.), and Furman University (B.A.). Her dissertation is titled “When Christ’s Body is Broken: Anxiety, Identity, and Conflict in Congregations.” Fuller has earned numerous fellowships, awards, and honors. She received the Louisville Institute Dissertation Fellowship in 2010-2011 and multiple graduate teaching fellowships from Vanderbilt. Fuller’s most recent conference paper, “Anxiety, Emotions, and Encounters with Difference” was presented at the Academy of Religious Leadership Annual Meeting. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. Fuller also worked as chaplain resident at Riverside Regional Medical Center, in Newport News, Va., providing pastoral care for patients. Fuller’s family includes her spouse, the Rev. Scott Fuller, a UCC minister and chaplain; and their 3-year-old son, Simon.