“My wife and I had talked about the funeral,” he begins. “We bought the gravesite and the funeral, we paid for everything. I thought that — when she passed away — everything was paid.”
Then, two days after her funeral last fall, the grieving man got a bill for $1,300, including a list of expenses from the Christian Reformed Church he attends.
The man, whose name and church we are protecting with anonymity, has been a member of this congregation for 64 years. He served multiple terms on Consistory, during which time, he says, the church never charged its members for funerals. That’s why the bill, presented through a local funeral home and not by the church, took him by surprise.
And the breakdown of costs shocked him further: $25 for an Admin fee; $80 for the caretaker; $100 for the organist; $225 for the Pastor’s honorarium and $400 for the luncheon. The widower only noted the specifics because he had prepaid, or thought he had, all other funeral expenses.
In fact, that particular church asks all its members to pay a set amount for funerals. And among Christian Reformed churches that have a fee, the cost is comparable. But because this man didn’t realize that beforehand, the unexpected bill made the months after his wife’s death more difficult.
“People tell me to let it go, it’s gonna shorten my life,” he says. “But I’m not that type. I fight for my rights.”
Which begs the question — what are those rights? What’s the role of a local church in a culture that has turned death into a business? Do you know what services your church provides, and whether honorariums are expected? Whom do we assume will volunteer and who’s just doing his or her job as a member of staff when a church holds a funeral?
“The role of pastor, priest, minister and congregation, indeed the raison d’être of the Christian community, is to uphold and embolden believers, shaken in their bereavement, with the promise of the gospel,” Thomas Lynch, undertaker and writer, says. “This is how the faithful bear both death in the abstract and the dead in the flesh. It is by bearing our dead from one station to another — deathbed to parlour, parlour to altar, altar to the edge of eternal life — that we learn to bear death itself. By going the distance with them we learn to walk upright in the faith that God will take care of God’s own, living and dead” (“Holy Fire” 2010).
Every congregation has its own policies for how to ‘uphold and embolden’ bereaved believers; there’s a wide range of standards for this tough task, as research for this article shows. The problem arises when congregants don’t know their own church’s guidelines, especially if those have changed over time. Churches need to publicize their policies for providing funeral services, and review them annually. That would help to prevent the kind of heartache this man describes and would enable the gospel, not gossip, to prevail.
There’s no question that the death care industry is big business these days. And as the boomers age, it’s only going to get bigger.
“Funerals are often the third largest purchase most Canadians will make,” a consumers’ report says. “They are notoriously expensive.”
Depending on where you live, the average memorial service and burial costs between five and 15 thousand dollars. Cremation expenses — at an average of $1,200 — are noticeably less, which could account for its increased popularity: roughly 65 percent of Canadians now choose cremation. A memorial service, either before or after the gravesite, is still the norm. But as technology changes and our home lives get busier, the task of hosting a funeral service in church has gotten more complicated. It requires a growing number of church staff, including volunteers, to clean, prepare music and occasionally create “celebration of life” videos. Do we need a set fee schedule to regulate this? Or is it part of a church’s ministry — to care for its congregation from cradle to grave? One cynical (and anonymous) quip on a pastor’s blog — after the pastor had raised this dilemma — was “What’s the going rate for baptism?”
But maybe, as one minister pointed out to me, the great variety of practice is a good thing. The Christian Reformed Church Order specifically says that funerals are not an ecclesiastical matter; therefore, each church has the right to decide for itself how to handle them.
Given that background, Christian Courier decided to gather some data on Christian Reformed Churches and funerals today. Our research revealed a wide range of policies. Without a doubt, pastors and lay people put long hours into memorial services for very little earthly reward. With that in mind, we investigated three main questions: Does your church charge for the use of its facilities? Does your pastor receive an honorarium, and if so how much? And is any other staff member remunerated? It quickly became clear that no Christian Reformed church is making a profit from funerals.
Bearing with Each Other
Out of the 26 churches across Canada and the U.S. that participated in Christian Courier’s online survey, 82 percent do not charge their members anything for providing a memorial service (some will accept voluntary donations). The remaining 18 percent require some rent for using the building. In some cases, this goes to the janitor, depending on his or her contract and whether funerals are considered extra; some churches had a fee for both.
When it comes to paying the pastor, opinions diverge greatly. Many ministers told us that they regularly say, “You don’t need to pay me, I’m an employee of the congregation.” In keeping with that mentality, 30 percent of survey respondents said that their church did not call for an honorarium for the pastor after funerals. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that funerals are a lot of work for ministers — from visiting the family to preparing the liturgy and the meditation. We found out that it’s not unusual for a pastor to spend 20 hours on one funeral, although the average survey answer was between 11 and 15 hours. That puts the honorarium, varying from $100 to $250, which 70 percent of CRC churches require, in context.
“The math is easy but the meaning proceeds not from what we buy but from what we do,” Lynch points out. “It is the deeply human business of witness, of watching and waiting and keeping track” (“Endpaper” 2000).
And no donation can truly repay the pastors who keep those difficult vigils with the dead, the dying and the bereaved.
Sometimes all that can be done
Is to salvage one sadness from the mass of sadnesses,
To bear one body home, to lay the dead out
among their people, organize the flowers
and casseroles, write the obits, meet the mourners at the door, […]
They serve the living tending to the dead (“Local Heroes” 2005).
I keep leaning on Lynch, whose lyricism and insight into our lives in the moments we face death are unmatched. He knows better than anyone the patterns of the people who step up to help “serve the living tending to the dead.”
At most Christian Reformed churches, those tasks are voluntary. Those who work the sound and media; those who perform music, serve lunch; unlock and lock up afterwards: in one-third of churches, these people are officially unpaid (although grieving families may still choose to thank them financially). Sixty-four percent of the surveyed congregations, however, have a policy in place to recompense volunteers. This varies from $25 to $100 per funeral, mostly for sound and video techs. It’s worth noting that while these amounts are often called “donations” or “honorariums,” the funds receive no tax receipt and can’t legally be claimed as a donation under Canada Revenue laws.
Given the growing complexity of who to pay and how much, some churches try to simplify the process by making arrangements with local funeral homes. In doing so, they avoid having to collect any funds themselves: costs are itemized, presented, accepted and redirected by the funeral director rather than the pastor or church secretary.
That’s the arrangement the church of this grieving widower has with a local funeral home.
“It’s painful [for the church] to send a bill or collect money,” its minister told me. “For convenience, and to make everything more uniform, it’s just easier to [have this] taken out of the hands of the church.”
He says his church doesn’t charge for the use of its church building; it donates the coffee and facilitates volunteers to serve and clean up the food, which only costs $2 per person. Unfortunately, the widower was not made aware of these policies ahead of time. It’s a sad postscript to what was a beautiful funeral service for his wife, the minister adds. Thankfully, the misunderstanding is slowly being resolved, and church policy on the matter will be brought to the congregation’s attention. Both parties hope that this article will be a catalyst for conversation, so that better communication between churches, funeral homes and church members will help prevent this kind of misunderstanding in future.
“We’ve buried the hatchet,” the widower concludes. “Make it so people will know.”
In the end, the method of interment means very little; it’s how we mourn that matters. The bereaved cannot learn to bear death buried in unexpected post-funeral bills. And the pastors and community members who flank the grave alongside them deserve deep thanks as they help bear our dead from this life to the next.