“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” These iconic words, which have thoroughly permeated Christian and Jewish funeral rituals in the real world and pop culture alike, come from the Bible's 23rd psalm. A psalm of David, this text has also become a fixture of spiritual music and a common element of many sermons. The psalm owes its prominent place in funeral tradition to a mixture of history and thematic applicability.

History

Although some clergy adopted the practice earlier, the Christian use of Psalm 23 at funerals derives mostly from the distribution of various volumes of the Book of Common Prayer. In America, the Episcopal Church introduced this psalm to its edition of the book in the early 1900s, specifically recommending it as a recitation for the burial of a child. From its place in these books, the prayer slowly gained traction until it became a staple of Christian funeral services.

While the reason for its popularity with the Jewish community cannot be pinpointed as accurately, the psalm has become a staple at Jewish funerals and is often used as a personal prayer in times of sickness or distress.

Themes

Psalm 23's lines, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” gives mourners a sense of hope in times of darkness and loss. This sense of hope prevails across faiths; the text in the Complete Jewish Bible contains words of comfort such as "I lack nothing...he restores my inner person."

Tim Neufeld of Fresno Pacific University notes that the text helps personalize the listener's relationship with God and paints God as a comforting, nurturing force -- “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” the psalm promises.

For Christians, the iconic words “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" also allude to the consoling concept of immortal life after death.

Another Perspective

Despite its deep roots, Psalm 23 has its detractors, as far as it use in memorial services is concerned. While Christian Evangelist Luis Palau agrees that the text offers personal reassurance, he contends that the psalm is better suited to dealing with present, worldly matters than with death. Palau interprets the phrase “the valley of the shadow of death" as a the gloom of fear and distress cast over life.

Like Palau, the Jewish faithful often view the psalm as a reaffirmation of God's presence in day-to-day life, even -- or especially -- during times of turmoil. Maurice Lamm, author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," focuses on the of image of God as a shepherd, noting that this image reaffirms God's constantly watchful presence and his concern with the goodwill of his followers

Other Funeral Texts

Psalm 23 is not the only biblical text that lends itself to memorial services. Modern editions of the Book of Common Prayer recommend Lamentations and John 6 alongside Psalm 23. Similarly, some churches point clergy to the recitation of parts of John 11, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians and Psalms 39 and 90 during times of loss and grieving.

Jewish funerals often include Psalms 15, 24, 90 or 103, and for a woman, Eishet Chayil, also known as Proverbs 31.