Funerals serve both an emotional or pastoral as well as a theological purpose. The manifestations of these purposes vary somewhat from person to person as well as from denomination to denomination. However, within these variations, the final hymn of the funeral service that many refer to as the recessional hymn does take on a common meaning.
Song of Farewell
Like any liturgy's recessional hymn, the hymn at the end of the funeral marks the end of that particular liturgy. As the liturgy ends, the people go their own way entering into the world as servants sent by God. In the case of a funeral and depending on the choice of hymn, the mourners singing the hymn also reinforce their saying good bye to the deceased. If this is the case, the hymn usually is not only the mourner's way of saying farewell but also extends the hope that the mourners will see the deceased again -- just not in this life.
The funeral recessional hymn follows the Commendation of the Deceased. During the hymn, it is traditional for the member of the clergy to lead the casket out of the church, usually with the family following. This movement of the deceased's body reinforces the idea that the soul of the deceased has been commended to God. With the commendation of the deceased's soul, the body is able to leave its place in the sanctuary and head out into the world.
Christian practices at the end of life are influenced by Jewish practices. However, Christian practices were also influenced by second-century Roman practices. Romans practiced a procession to the grave in which the mourners were dressed in black. While duplicating these ancient practices may not be the motivation of modern mourners, these ancient roots do provide meaning for the closing hymn at the end of modern Christian funerals. This hymn provides for the opportunity for the mourning family to leave with the coffin and form the procession to the grave. In doing so, others will see the procession (now by car but with black still predominating) and be reminded of their mortality and the grief of the mourners.
While the above meanings are all valid, the primary meaning of the recessional can be seen by seeing it as a processional. What is the end of the funeral rite is actually the beginning of the rite that will take place at the place of committal. As the casket leaves the sanctuary, the casket's processional is moving the body to its final resting place. This movement towards the final resting place allows the bereaved to take an important step in their grief process moving to a new level of acceptance of the death.
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