The practice of bringing the body of a deceased person into a church before burial is an old tradition in many Christian denominations. However, there is debate among modern Christians as to whether this practice should continue today. In this post, we will examine the biblical basis for bringing dead bodies into church, discuss the historical tradition behind the practice, highlight the reasons why some Christians argue for and against it, and provide some guidance for church leaders weighing this decision.
For Christians, death is not the end. We believe that the deceased’s soul lives on and that one day their bodies will be resurrected when Christ returns (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This firm hope in the resurrection shapes our response to death. It impacts how we grieve, how we remember our loved ones, and how we handle their earthly remains.
The historic tradition of bringing the body into the church before burial has significance. It points to our belief that the church is the home of all believers, both the living and those who have passed into glory. When a member of the church body dies, it is fitting that they return one last time to their spiritual home.
However, this tradition does pose logistical challenges for local congregations today. Some churches may not easily accommodate bringing bodies on site. The practice raises concerns about disease control and funeral costs as well. Church leaders need wisdom to discern if holding a body on site continues to make sense in a modern context. They also need sensitivity as they develop policies, avoiding rigid regulations. Circumstances differ with each passing, and families should be free to make meaningful choices.
Below we will explore in depth the history of the tradition and the biblical support behind it. We will look at potential health concerns. And we will examine the arguments for and against continuing the practice today before concluding with some guidance for church leaders thinking through this decision.
A Biblical and Historic Practice
Bringing the dead into places of worship for mourning rites has roots deep in human history. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the custom dating back to prehistoric times. Ancient Jewish communities engaged in mourning rituals that included gathering together in synagogues to grieve and show honor to the dead.
This Jewish mourning tradition carries over into the accounts we have of the early Christian church. Two key stories in the New Testament give us a glimpse of first-century Christians bringing dead bodies into their meeting places. Both give weight to the practice as biblical and historically rooted.
Peter Raises Tabitha from the Dead: Acts 9:36-43
One of the most moving stories affirms this tradition of gathering with the dead in the place of worship. In Acts 9 we read of a much-loved disciple named Tabitha (Dorcas) who fell ill and died. The other believers prepared her body for burial according to their customs. But instead of taking her body immediately to a burial site, they laid her in an upper room of the home where the church regularly gathered (v. 37). When Peter arrived he was taken to the upper room where the widow’s body was laid. He raised her from the dead, presented her alive to the saints and widows gathered there, and the news spread rapidly throughout the region.
Bringing Tabitha’s body into their gathering place allowed the community to grieve together. It created space for Peter to minister to them through this miraculous resurrection. Though this was an unusual circumstance, it shows the early church’s practice of keeping the deceased’s body on site for mourning.
Eutychus Raised from the Dead: Acts 20:7-12
We find another example in Acts 20. Here the believers met together in an upstairs room. Paul preached late into the night when a young man, Eutychus, fell asleep by the window, toppled out and died from the fall. They brought his body back up into the room to mourn him, creating the opportunity for Paul to embrace him and restore him to life (v. 10-12).
Again, the early Christians responded to death by gathering in their place of worship with the deceased’s body present. Paul and the community interceded before God, resulting in resurrection life.
Old Testament Accounts
“Saul died together with his three sons, and all his house died together. So the Philistines fought against Israel…They mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son…” (2 Samuel 1:2, 6, 12)
David and his men mourned, wept and fasted with Saul’s body once they retrieved it. The natural place to gather was within their community’s place of worship.
We see another example when Jacob died in Egypt at the end of Genesis. Joseph had Jacob embalmed then laid in a coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:1-3). But it was critically important that his body be carried back to his homeland. Genesis records a dramatic scene as Joseph and all Pharaoh’s officials, the elders of Israel and all Jacob’s family journeyed back to Canaan for a period of mourning before laying him to rest (Genesis 50:4-13). For God’s people, bringing Jacob’s body into the gathering of his kin for communal grieving was essential.
Why Some Argue For Continuing the Practice
In light of these scriptural examples and centuries of tradition, many Christians argue strongly in favor of allowing bodies to be brought into the church building before burial. Here are some of their reasons:
- Affirms the Value of the Physical Body: Some believers feel that bringing the physical body to the church affirms the goodness of the material world God created. Our bodies are not something to dispose of, but blessed vessels for Spirit. As temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), our earthly bodies deserve honor. Gathering with the body in the place of worship pays tribute to the life once housed within.
- Recalls Church’s Mission to the Dead: The church exists to proclaim salvation to all, both the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:6). When a deceased member comes into the sanctuary, it underscores the church’s mission to pray for their soul and for the resurrection of their body when Christ returns. Surrounding the body with prayer commends them into God’s hands.
- Provides Closure for Grieving Families: Gathering with the body can bring consolation to families mourning the loss of a loved one. Funerals give space for processing grief and for spiritual reflection. The physical presence of their loved one and collective acts of memorial bring closure. Keeping bodies off site erodes this opportunity for grieving within their spiritual family.
- Upholds Early Church Traditions: As evidenced in the early church accounts, gathering with the dead is a biblical practice. The historic church saw value in keeping the body present for mourning. Upsetting this time-honored custom could show disrespect towards early believers.
- Models Christ-like Compassion: When God took on flesh, Jesus ushered in a faith that hallows the physical realm. His ministry showed deep compassion for the grieving by raising the dead. Bringing bodies into a sacred space to pray and mourn emulates Christ. Excluding bodies seems cold and sterile by comparison.
Why Some Argue Against Continuing the Practice
Other Christians today take issue with allowing the dead to be brought into the church building. They raise concerns such as:
- Practical Constraints: Some church buildings lack the facilities or space to accommodate bodies on site. Narrow aisles and stairwells may pose barriers. Smaller congregations may not have adequate manpower to host vigils and funeral services. Holding bodies elsewhere just makes practical sense for many churches today.
- Focus Shifts from Spiritual to Physical: A risk in concentrating too much on the physical body is that focus shifts away from the soul and resurrection hope. The Christian’s glorious destiny is not in this flesh but in transformed bodies immune to decay. Dwelling on mortal remains can serve as unhealthy distraction.
- Funeral Directors Often Take Role of Caring for Body: Modern customs place care of the body almost solely in the funeral director’s hands. They prepare the bodies, set up viewings, and oversee the burial plans. Keeping bodies off church premises enables them to undertake their duties efficiently. Their skills guide families well through the logistics.
- Risk of Unhealthy Mystique: Throughout history some groups have erred towards seeing dead bodies as sacred fetishes or embuing relics with magical powers. Bringing coffins into a church could promote an unhealthy mystique around corpses open to such abuses. Prudent practice keeps respectful distance.
- Concerns about Disease Transmission: Though medical experts consider the risks minimal, public health concerns are occasionally raised about disease transmission if the person died of an acute infection. Restricting bodies from sites of public gathering errs on the side of caution.
Guidance for Church Leaders
In light of this range of perspectives, what guidance might assist church leaders wrestling with whether to continue hosting bodies on site before burial? Here are a few concluding pastoral recommendations:
- Pray through the question, seeking the Holy Spirit’s wisdom. Approach the decision aiming first and foremost to honor God and show grace towards those mourning.
- Consider the needs of your specific congregation. Issues to weigh include your facilities, church polity and burial customs of members’ cultural backgrounds.
- Examine your motives and heart behind the choice. Guard against judgments about traditions different from your own.
- Move cautiously if considering a shift away from established practice. Changes risk being insensitive towards the recently bereaved.
- Develop policies sensitive to individual circumstances. They should account for a range of factors like the family’s wishes, cause of death, and condition of the body.
- Communicate delicately around any changes. Instruct with compassion, not judgment. Share biblical reasoning sensitively.
- Consider alternatives that still involve the church facility. For example, using the parish hall for post-funeral receptions or for overnight vigils.
- Emphasize continuity of spiritual care. Assure grieving families of ongoing church support through their loss, however customs adjust.
The decision whether or not to host the body of a deceased member on site defies dogmatism. Biblical precedent and church history make space for either policy. What matters most is that leaders approach the determination with prayer, wisdom and empathy. Their aim must be serving families with grace during a difficult season of grief. With God’s guidance, they can arrive at a policy that retains reverence for the dead yet makes practical sense for their community.
- Bringing dead bodies into places of worship has roots deep in history, including biblical accounts of the early church gathering with the dead.
- Valid reasons to continue the practice include showing honor for the physical body, recalling the church’s mission to the dead, and providing mourning space for grieving families.
- Reasons to avoid the practice include facility constraints, concerns of focus shifting from spiritual to physical, modern customs relying on funeral directors, and health precautions.
- Leaders weigh factors like facilities, culture, motives and sensitivity to the bereaved when shaping policies on handling bodies on site.
- With prayer and wisdom, leaders can determine respectful policies that both honor the dead and make practical sense for their community.