Bible passages that focus on life rather than heaven, for a funeral
June 14, 2011 4:48 AM   Subscribe

Seeking recommendations for biblical readings for a funeral. It's my granny's funeral on Monday and I have been asked to do a reading, to be inserted into the service from the English book of Common Prayer. Trouble spot: I'm an atheist.

I'm totally happy to read a passage from the bible – now is not the time to start any kind of a fight or kick up a fuss – but I'd like to choose a passage that focuses on life rather than the afterlife. If I have to talk about heaven then I'll feel like a massive hypocrite.

My family are a mix of catholics and Church of England of varying levels of devotion from pragmatic atheism ( = Christmas services with the family) to weekly worshippers. Granny's religious inclinations extended about as far as carol singing during the time that I knew her – she never talked about faith in any shape.

I'd like something that emphasizes that the person is gone, and that we should celebrate having spent time with them, and think about how we relate to each other in the light of the brevity of life.

The vicar says that John 14 1-6 is very popular, but that is the total opposite of what I want – it focuses on belief in Jesus as a gateway to heaven and says nothing about the life of the person.

If you have non-religious reading suggestions I'd be happy to receive those too. Nothing schmaltzy or giftcardy. Think more Kenyon Commencement than footprints in the sand.

All help much appreciated.
posted by Cantdosleepy to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1 Corinthians 13:4 is popular for weddings but could as easily apply to family.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
posted by bq at 5:06 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

The problem with the Bible is that it tends to mention God quite a bit and the New Testament is pretty much all about Jesus being a gateway to heaven. If you can't find a passage which says what you want to say then why not write your own eulogy? I'm sure the Vicar wouldn't object. In the end the funeral is about your grandmother and your family - who are believers even if you aren't. We do these things for others, it isn't about ourselves.

That said, you can't go wrong with Ecclesiastes 3 from the King James Version which, atheist or not, is one of the greatest works of English literature and will always remain so.

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;

A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
A time to break down,
And a time to build up;

A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones,
And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
A time to keep,
And a time to throw away;

A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;

A time to love,
And a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace.

If you want a non religious poem then Christina Rosetti wrote several which might hit the right note for all concerned. For example -

Let Me Go

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little, but not for long
And not with your head bowed low
Remember the love that once we shared
Miss me, but let me go.
For this is a journey we all must take
And each must go alone.
It's all part of the master plan
A step on the road to home.
When you are lonely and sick at heart
Go the friends we know.
Laugh at all the things we used to do
Miss me, but let me go.

When I am dead my dearest
Sing no sad songs for me
Plant thou no roses at my head
Nor shady cypress tree
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet
And if thou wilt remember
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not fear the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain;
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
posted by joannemullen at 5:10 AM on June 14, 2011 [9 favorites]

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

To everything there is a season...

Perfect for a funeral, or any life event.
posted by plonkee at 5:13 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm. BibleGateway is a website that lets you search the Bible for words, passages, and themes, and then check out the different versions. So, for example, you could search for the kind of phrase you're looking for in a modern translation like the Message, NIV or NLT, and then see what it's like in the KJV.
(New International Version, New Living Translation, King James Version)

Saves you having to have a few copies of different translations of the Bible on hand.

Condolences to you and your family.
posted by titanium_geek at 5:16 AM on June 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks guys. Ecclesiastes 3 is definitely the front runner that I had in mind. Anything else around that's similar?
If you can't find a passage which says what you want to say then why not write your own eulogy?
We've already got someone doing the eulogy, and someone reading a poem. I'm doing the bible reading. Good thought, though.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:41 AM on June 14, 2011

The Book of Common prayer actually has passage suggestions with the liturgy. The whole thing is online (the services for Burial of the Dead are in the Pastoral Offices section), so take a look and see if there's anything there that catches your fancy. If this is going to be an Anglican/Episcopal service as such, simply picking one selection at each point in the service will be more than enough to satisfy everyone; don't feel like you need to read them all.

More generally speaking, any Scripture passage you're likely to read is going to talk about God in some capacity, but many of them which are entirely appropriate--especially those from the Old Testament--don't talk about heaven much. Many of them simply talk about comfort for those who mourn, which would seem to be appropriate here. Still, most of them are not going to say much about the life of the person who has died, because... the sentiment you're aiming for
I'd like something that emphasizes that the person is gone, and that we should celebrate having spent time with them, and think about how we relate to each other in the light of the brevity of life.
isn't really how Scripture seems to think about death. For one thing, even in Judaism, death was never really considered the end of life, as the monotheistic religions have always had some concept of an afterlife, even if that is been de-emphasized in Judaism since. But more than that, both the Jewish and Christian hope has always been more in the grace and mercy of God rather than in anything about us. So, when faced with death, the usual move is to rejoice in the Lord despite our circumstances. A very common response when reflecting on death is to meditate on the faithfulness of God. Like so, or so. None of this really seems to resonate with what you're looking for. In that sense, Ecclesiastes is unique in Scripture in that it is mostly a reflection on human experience and contains very few references to God or his activities; Martin Luther actually questioned its place in the canon on that basis.

So if what you're looking for is a passage from Scripture that has as little explicit theology in it as possible, it's hard to do better than Ecclesiastes 3. But I'd recommend that you seriously consider reading all the way through verse thirteen:
What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.
The thrust of the passage seems to be that the "gift of God," and the only profit we gain from our toil in this world, is "to rejoice, and to do good in his life," to "enjoy the good of all his labor." Which seems to be pretty close to what you're getting at. God is invoked, to be sure, but only in a pretty general way.

If you are going to read something aloud, please, please use the KJV. Theologically and textually it's quite problematic, and we have much better and more accurate translations now. But it is unquestionably the definitive English translation for its influence on Western culture. For readings like this one, it simply can't be beat. It's almost certainly the one your gram would have grown up with, so there's that too.
posted by valkyryn at 6:07 AM on June 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks Valkyryn for the really thoughtful response. Unquestionably it's going to be the KJV version that I'll read.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 6:15 AM on June 14, 2011

Yes, read it in the KJV- but the other translations will help you to know what the passage is saying without having to wade through thees and thous.
posted by titanium_geek at 7:03 AM on June 14, 2011

Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
posted by mattbucher at 7:10 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Church of England's "Common Worship" provides readings here, some printed in full and some given with Bible references.
posted by Jahaza at 7:10 AM on June 14, 2011

Proverbs 31:10-31 is considered a description of a good/worthy woman. Not sure if it's right for your situation, but I've always loved it, especially as it wraps up at verse 28.

10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. 11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. 12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. 13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. 14 She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar. 15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. 16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. 17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. 18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. 19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. 20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. 22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land. 24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. 25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. 26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. 27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. 29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. 30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. 31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by MultiFaceted at 12:03 PM on June 14, 2011

I came here to suggest the same proverb as Multifaceted. In general, I think the Old Testament is probably a better fit for this situation.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:34 PM on June 14, 2011

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