A Conversation Between Heinrich And Wilhelm About Christian Burial

The following dialogue was the lead article for the May 9, 1905 issue of Der Lutheraner (The Lutheran), which was the German predecessor to the Lutheran Witness.  Fictional conversations such as this were often used in Der Lutheraner as tools for teaching the laity.  They were lively, engaging, and effective.

Of special note in this conversation is how high respect for the pastoral office is encouraged.  Synodical publications in our own day are often good at encouraging churchgoers to support their pastors, but this piece goes beyond general encouragement.  Here folks are encouraged to support their pastor precisely where his decisions are unpopular, here in the case of a funeral for a delinquent member.

One note on the translation.  Often the German word Seelsorger is used.  Literally, it means “caretaker of souls.”  It is not so smooth in the English as it is in the German.  The old German Lutherans often called their pastor their Seelsorger, and it is a very fitting term for a pastor’s true work.  We would do well to revive the term in our day, even still using the German word for simplicity’s sake.  Where the word occurs in this dialogue, it is translated as “pastor,” and yet I will add the German word after in parentheses.

This article is an excellent example of what Lutherans were reading in official synodical publications over a century ago.  It is solid, pointed teaching.  What’s also fascinating is that we hear the characters speaking as if their congregation were our own even in the 21st century.  I hope you enjoy this conversation between Heinrich and Wilhelm as much as I did.  – Pastor Loeslie

 

“Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead!”

Matthew 8:22

Heinrich: “Good evening, Wilhelm.  Well, there’s another fine uproar going to happen in the congregation!  It appears as if our congregation will never be able to move forward.  Whenever one thinks that we finally have peace, then it happens again.  I’ve about had enough!”

Wilhelm: “What’s going on?  What part of the church is burning now?”

Heinrich: “I thought you would have known already.  Yesterday the wealthy Mr. Schmidt died.  He had long been sick with tuberculosis.  The family asked our pastor if he would bury him, but I heard that he refused to do them this favor.  Naturally, it has made some awfully bad blood.  You know of course how Mr. Schmidt’s whole family and all his many relatives belong to our congregation.  They are so insulted by our pastor’s handling of this situation, that people say they are going to leave and join the union congregation.  I have told you before that our congregation will not go anywhere, as long as our pastor handles these matters so stubbornly.  Instead of bringing people into our congregation, he drives them all away.  That’s a fine way to do missions!”

Wilhelm: “Settle down, Heinrich!  Don’t be so quick to judge.  Do you really think that our pastor should have officiated the funeral?”

Heinrich: “Of course I think so.  And many others in our congregation are of the same opinion as me.”

Wilhelm: “Why should the pastor do as you think?”

Heinrich: “For one, out of love for the family, who are all his spiritual children.  Two, out of consideration for our congregation.”

Wilhelm: “I see!  But I was always under the impression that a Lutheran pastor should have consideration for the Word of God before all things.  In fact, he is expressly duty-bound to do so by virtue of our call to him.  In the administration of his office, he is to carry himself in strict accordance with God’s Word.  Of this consideration, you do not say a word.  And still more.  You are of the opinion that the pastor has handled unjustly in this situation.  Among us Lutherans, that can only mean one thing: he has handled contrary to God’s Word, to which he is duty-bound.  Now say to me, which Word of God has he violated since he refused to officiate Mr. Schmidt’s funeral?”

Heinrich: “Yeah, at the moment I can’t say.  But my feeling tells me that this was not very nice, and the family should complain.”

Wilhelm: “But Heinrich, that is a very dangerous thing, to accuse a pastor of wrongdoing simply because you have a feeling!  To put it bluntly, that’s a serious sin.  And so also it is a sin, if Mr. Schmidt’s family received the pastor’s handling of the situation as an insult.  The pastor has in this situation certainly acted in accordance with God’s Word.  And you all should thankfully recognize that and thank God that he has given us such a faithful pastor (Seelsorger).  Had the pastor acted differently, he would have been unfaithful to the vows of his office.  And if now Mr. Schmidt’s whole family leaves the congregation, that doesn’t change a thing.  For no pastor may handle contrary to God’s Word in order to win members for the congregation.  If people are brought into the congregation through denial of the truth, these people are no blessing for the congregation, but much more a curse.  For they will not from that point submit themselves under God’s Word, and therefore they will not cease to cause trouble for the pastor and the congregation.  Whoever sows the wind, he will reap the storm.”

Heinrich: “So you claim that if the pastor had fulfilled the wishes of the family, he would have sinned?  Ok, I am curious now to hear how you desire to prove such a claim.”

Wilhelm: “The matter is so simple and clear, that a child can understand it.  And I am amazed that you can have such a distorted understanding about this.  Listen carefully and then judge for yourself.  When you see a Jewish rabbi officiating a funeral, you immediately conclude that a Jew is being buried.  When you see a Christian preacher singing and praying at a grave, you can rightly conclude that the deceased was a Christian, at least as far as men may judge.  There was once a time that we could make such conclusions without being incorrect.  But how times have changed!  We have lost all perception of reality when it comes to burials.  Sectarian preachers especially have been working feverishly to blur any distinction between Christians and non-Christians, believers and unbelievers.  This spirit has lost all touch with reality, and it is threatening all the more to rip into our congregations.  The case before us here with Mr. Schmidt is clear proof.  That which our fathers would have found disgusting, people are beginning to find ‘nice,’ even ‘beautiful.’  This is the sad consequence when pastors set bad examples.”

“One would also then demand of our pastor, that he preside over a Christian burial for Mr. Schmidt.  A Christian burial consists of this, that Christians bury a Christian with Christian rites.  In other words, a Christian congregation with its pastor lays the body in the grave with God’s Word and prayer.  Here the congregation confesses: this man was one of us; he was a Christian and as a Christian has fallen asleep in the confession of Christ.  The congregation sings: ‘He has borne the yoke of Christ.’  He has died in the Lord, and therefore we have the hope of all Christians.  He is saved, and we will see him again in heaven.  The congregation calls out to all the world: only that man dies a saved man, who dies like our brother.  Namely, he dies in the faith and in the confession of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As a Christian death is the most glorious death a man can experience, so is the Christian burial one of the most noble, most festive ceremonies which the Christian church has.  It is comparable to a victory parade, where Jesus Christ, who has won a glorious victory, carries one of his valiant brothers in arms to his eternal rest.”

“So you see how it is the most shameful lie, even blasphemy, when it is permitted for a non-Christian to have a Christian burial.  And our pastor would have been guilty of this loathsome sin, if he had agreed to officiate at Mr. Schmidt’s funeral.  You cannot claim that Mr. Schmidt was a Christian, or that he even wanted to be a Christian.  He has despised God’s Word and Sacrament since his Confirmation.  He has never entered God’s house since then, not even at his daughter’s Confirmation.  And although he laid a long time upon his deathbed, he never showed the desire to receive the comfort of God’s Word.  I myself and others repeatedly asked him, whether he would like to speak with the pastor.  But he always cut us off with a short, ‘No!’”

“And just think, the pastor would have placed himself at the grave of this man, and he would have said these words, as is usual among us Lutherans: ‘We are all gathered here to render final service unto our deceased brother, as a saved member of Christ’s holy body.’  So also the prayer would have been spoken: ‘We thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, that you have snatched our brother out of anxiety and delivered him into eternal rest.’  Would that not have been a shameful lie, a loathsome blasphemy?”

Heinrich: “The pastor would not have needed to do that.  He only would have had to do what many other pastors do.  In such cases, they do not mention the deceased at all.  The main thing is that the survivors are comforted.”

Wilhelm: “That would be even worse!  In that case, the pastor would be guilty not only of a lie, but the most miserable hypocrisy.  If he doesn’t dare to name the deceased even once, in so doing he confesses that this man was not fit for a Christian burial.  And still, he officiates, the minister of a Christian congregation, at his grave.  Is not the Christian church here exposed for mockery before all the world?  Is not here the confession of Christians denied?  Is not the witness of Christians against unbelief rendered jaded and ineffective?  The unbelievers must come to the conclusion: the pastor doesn’t himself believe what he preaches.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t officiate at the grave of this man.  For we know well that this man did not want to know anything of the Bible and the church.”

“So you also mean to say that the pastor should officiate anyway, so that the family is comforted?  Is that really a comfort, if the pastor does not dare to mention the deceased?  Or should he speak the truth about the deceased?  Should he say that this man was an unbeliever and is therefore eternally lost?  The family certainly would not tolerate that.  Still, a Christian pastor (Seelsorger) will comfort the survivors when they are his spiritual children.  But he will do that at home in the presence of the family.  He will not do it by officially pretending and lying by God’s holy name at the grave.”

Heinrich: “I must say, you are right.  A Christian burial is fitting only for a Christian.  I have never thought of it that way before.  Still, I have a misgiving.  Is it the pastor’s job to judge whether a man was a Christian or not?  Certainly, he cannot see the heart.  The Scripture says clearly, that only the Lord knows his own.  Is this not akin to judging a man’s conscience?”

Wilhelm: “Certainly, no man can say with certainty whether this or that man is a true Christian.  God alone knows that.  But we can certainly know if a man was no Christian.  Whoever persistently and willfully despises the Means of Grace until his end, he is certainly no Christian.  This is not human imagination, but it is a clear teaching of Scripture.  The Scripture says, ‘Whoever is from God, he hears God’s words’ (John 8:47).  ‘You reject God’s Word.  Therefore I also reject you’ (1 Samuel 15:26).  ‘He who despises you, he despises me’ (Luke 10:16).  The Christian church correctly refuses such a man Christian burial.  And the church must stand firm, lest she becomes a denier of the truth.  I know well, this doesn’t make us any friends with the world and the sects.  But we do not judge ourselves according to their standard.  We must simply remain true to God’s Word and leave it to the Lord to grant success.  We know that he will bless such a faithful witness.  Through this faithful witness, he will bring folks to the light, one at a time.”

“My dear friend, let us remain faithful to the truth in this latter evil time, where religious indifference is breaking into Christendom like a flood.  Let us give our witness not only with words, but with our deeds: saved are only those, who die in the Lord.  How do they affect us, who are on the outside?  Let the dead bury their own dead.  We only give the honor of a Christian burial to those whom we may receive in love as Christians, who as Christians have fallen asleep in faith in our Lord Jesus.  If anyone deceives us through hypocrisy, the fault is not ours.  They will have to answer before God’s judgment seat.  We can and should only judge according to what stands before our eyes.  And here it is true: whoever did not desire God’s Word in life, it is not granted to him at the grave.”

Heinrich: “Wilhelm, you are right.  God willing, that’s how it will remain with us.  I thank you for your friendly instruction.  I am sorry that I judged our pastor so carelessly.  How easy it is to follow wrong paths!”

Wilhelm: “One more thing.  If someone brings up the matter at the next voters meeting, then we will both boldly stand up for the truth and defend our beloved pastor (Seelsorger), right?

Heinrich: “You can count on it!”

About Pastor Ryan Loeslie

Rev. Ryan Loeslie is pastor of the Immanuel Lutheran Church of Dimock, South Dakota. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Concordia Theological Seminary - Fort Wayne, having also studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Oberursel, Germany. From 2009 to 2017, he served as pastor of the Immanuel Lutheran Church of Merna, Nebraska. He enjoys his family, rural ministry, the Psalms, catechesis, Lutheran hymnody, and South Dakota pheasants. He and his wife Valerie live in Immanuel's beautiful country parsonage and are blessed to be raising three children.

Comments

A Conversation Between Heinrich And Wilhelm About Christian Burial — 7 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article. The only thing missing was a discussion of the pop culture’s co-opting of the Christian funeral i.e. a “celebration of _____’s life”.

  2. This is a good prelude to the case for Lutheran cemeteries that should be developed. So many people are accepting cremation in lieu of burial or the crypt. Those that are buried are often in public cemeteries with no distinction between Christian and pagan or heretics. A walk through a proper Lutheran cemetery should be a testament to the belief of the dear departed entombed therein.

  3. @David McElroy #5

    Well, in theory that’s true; but what about the wife and husband who want to purchase adjoining plots in a Lutheran cemetery. The wife is a faithful Lutheran but the husband is a Methodist or Baptist (and is a Mason to boot!). (And yes, it happens that faithful Lutheran men and women can be in very mixed marriages, religiously speaking.) Does the cemetery refuse to sell them joint plots?

    What about ELCA Lutherans? Should the female Lutheran pastor and her “wife” be buried there? After all, they’re “Lutherans”.

    There’s also the problem of declining numbers of any kind of Lutherans. That’s why many cemeteries that started out as nominally Lutheran (e.g. Glen Eden, Detroit area, where my parents are buried) are now open to anyone.

    Lutheran cemeteries which are testimonies to the belief of the dear departed entombed within have been tried but they are increasingly problematic.

  4. I agree with you, Mr. McElroy. I’ve seen both sides of the fence, both as a family member and a pastor. A sterile public cemetery can never compare to a Lutheran cemetery which has been sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. They are treasures which are worth all the sacrifice and effort to maintain.

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