Book Review: Funerals, For the Care of Souls

Funerals: For the Care of Souls is twice the length of the other books in the series. The reason for this is because author Tim Perry needs to establish some definitions and reflections on what he terms “classical last things—death, judgment, hell, and heaven” (12). Once the floor of understanding has been set, the book continues into the area of practical application, dividing the pastor’s role during a funeral and its attendant circumstances into four parts: catechist, liturgist, evangelist, and pastor.

Tim Perry states early on, “The central claim I’ll unpack in the sections to follow is simple: preachers and pastors have a duty to their congregations to teach them about death and to hold before them with regularity that they will die” (24). This is a necessary exhortation because western Christianity has become quite adept at avoiding death. Perry outlines three “avoidance strategies” that people take to distance themselves from the reality of death: namely; denial, distraction, and medicalization (31–32).

Perry’s treatment of the “classical last things” is done well. Though we use words like ‘heaven,’ ‘hell,’ ‘death,’ and ‘judgment’ with regularity, Perry shows us how these words are used very sloppily, and he urges pastors to use them with specificity. The biblical attestation of death, judgment, hell, and heaven is often worlds apart from the operative definitions that parishioners have. Funerals are a difficult time to bridge the gap because emotions run high, thus, these ‘classical last things’ are best taught steadily throughout one’s pastorate. In this regard, the first part of the book is about how pastors should always talk about death, even when there is no body in sight or funeral at hand.

Then the death occurs. Now there is an event that demands a pastor’s immediate care. Perry writes, “You’re there to do soul-work that no one else can do. You are not a poorly paid social worker, therapist, or funeral director. . . . The church provides an essential service . . . [and] these next chapters will describe those unique aspects of pastoral work in caring for a grieving family” (136–37).

Though it’s difficult to shatter faulty understandings about death and the purpose of a funeral when people are in the throes of grief, the pastor does need to serve as a catechist. In addition to the ‘classical last things’ discussed in the first few chapters, the pastor also needs to (1) educate a family that they are not consumers coming to you to provide a service, (2) not all of their beloved one’s wishes should be accommodated and incorporated into the funeral service, (3) the “family’s loved one is dead. Not passed away. Not moved to another room. Not always with them. A funeral is, in part, the provision of a context in which that hard truth need not be a soul-shattering one” (p. 151), (4) hope is not found in the deceased’s piety or morality, but in Christ alone. This is all discussed in the chapter titled “Catechist.”

Words are important, and nothing protects you from saying something out-of-bounds quite as well as the liturgy. “The funeral is one of at least two Christian services where everything, as much as possible, ought to be scripted” (164). Each theological tradition has their own specific liturgy, but in this context, Perry is talking about “eulogies, Scriptures, and hymns” (166). This chapter is as predictable as the liturgy is to someone who is familiar with it—with one exception! In this chapter Perry supplies an apologetic for the use of “eulogies.” He acknowledges their massively inherent risk, but says it’s “worth it” for the pastoral payoff. It was as compelling of a defense for eulogies as I’ve ever heard, but I still wasn’t convinced. I really enjoyed reading his rationale, and you will too. He also talks about Scripture readings and hymn usage. This is all discussed in the chapter titled “Liturgist.”

At a funeral, the pastor does need to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. That cannot ever be neglected. This is the most important chapter of all because far too often, it is precisely the good news of Christ’s victory over death and the promise of the resurrection that is often lacking at funerals. Perry puts proper emphasis upon this need in the chapter titled “Evangelist.”

The concluding chapter reminds the pastor that his work does not conclude with the funeral. Though shorter in length, it is an exhortation to extended and ongoing pastoral care after the funeral service comes to an end. This is all discussed in the chapter titled “Pastor.” 

This book is done very well. Tim Perry is a gifted writer. His writing his clear and concise and engaging. I learned a lot about how I can better approach my pastoral care toward families during funerals, and even his defense of eulogies brought a smile to my face, because even a pastor as averse to them as I am, the day will inevitably come when a family slips a eulogy by you, and this book has taught me how to appreciate a eulogy and capitalize on one should it arise. 

A quick glance at my personal library reveals that I don’t have any books about funerals. The best treatment I could find was Article 37 from C.F.W. Walther’s Pastoral Theology, which, though good, is only six pages long. This is a book that pastors should have. It will serve well as a primer for the newly ordained pastor, and it will hone edges of the seasoned pastor. This is a book worth taking up. You’re ministry at funerals will be better for it. 

FUNERALS: For the Care of Souls. By Tim Perry. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021. 257 pages. $17.99.

Lexham Press, under the direction of general editor Harold Senkbeil, is producing a Lexham Ministry Guides series. Each book explores a topic pertinent to pastoral care and includes the subtitle “For the Care of Souls.” Thus far, the series has Pastoral Leadership: For the Care of Souls, and Stewardship: For the Care of Souls, and the book currently under review, Funerals: For the Care of Souls.