The death of a baptized Christian, one who has lived in the communion of the church, is an occasion for thanksgiving and the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every activity surrounding such a death and burial should point to the good news of the gospel.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has no formally approved teaching document regarding funeral practices. Specific material intended to guide the way this church approaches the Burial of the Dead, however, can be found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship in the form of liturgical texts, rubrics (directions) and "Notes on the Liturgy" found in the Leaders' Edition. These notes guide the church’s practice in a variety of circumstances. Although the most common form of the Burial of the Dead involves worship in church with the body of the deceased Christian present, the notes make it clear that adaptations are possible if the body cannot be present.
The notes also guide the conduct of the service and the committal, whether a body is to be buried in the ground, entombed above ground, commended to the sea, cremated, or donated for medical research or organ donation. The church regards all of these methods of disposition of the body as acceptable for the Christian. Some congregations provide space for the interment of cremated remains in a columbarium (where individual urns holding ashes are interred in niches) in or near the church building, or in memorial gardens near the building (where ashes may be buried or scattered and a list of names preserved on a memorial tablet or in some other suitable way).
For pastoral care and to help in planning, the pastor should be notified immediately upon the death of a member of the congregation. No plans for the funeral should be made apart from consultation with the pastor and appropriate parish staff. When possible, it is a good idea to plan the funeral liturgy well before the death of a Christian to avoid planning during a time of grieving. Such planning offers an occasion for the pastor to talk seriously about the Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead through Jesus Christ.
Evangelical Lutheran Worship provides for the celebration of Holy Communion at funerals. At such celebrations, the invitation to commune is extended to communicants present at the service–-not only to the family and immediate circle of mourners. The book also encourages the use of a funeral pall to cover the casket of baptized Christians from the time it is brought into the church until it is carried out. A pall is a large white cloth, sometimes marked with a cross, that completely covers the casket. The use of a pall treats every Christian exactly the same, whether buried in the costliest casket or the simplest wooden box. As well, the pall "echoes" the white garment of Holy Baptism. The casket is always closed for the liturgy, whether it is celebrated in church or in some other setting. The cremated ashes, with suitable adaptations, can be treated the same way when they are present for the liturgy. Lighting of the paschal candle and placing it near the head of the casket as it rests in the church also points the assembly to the promises of dying and rising with Christ that God makes at the time of baptism.
Christians will strive to keep the gospel hope of the resurrection at the center of all observances associated with the death of a Christian. Because the church understands the Burial of the Dead to be a service of worship to God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, it does not allow social or fraternal societies to introduce rites or ceremonies into its liturgy. These ceremonies should not be mingled with the church’s worship of God either in the church building or in any other setting (such as a funeral home, mortuary, or at the graveside). Military honors and fraternal tributes and rites should be kept separate from the funeral and committal services of the church. Practices associated with the mortuary or funeral home or the family home, such as viewing the body of the deceased or watching with the family, are not within the purview of this review of church practices.
Pastors and congregations may choose to extend their care to unchurched people and their families at the time of death and bereavement. Modifications in the burial rite for Christians as detailed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, must then be made, whether the rite is used in a funeral home or church setting.
Although actual practices in congregations may vary, the resources provided for use by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are an important place to look for the established patterns of the church’s practice. Lutheran Book of Worship Leaders' Edition (or the Leaders' Desk Edition) describes the church’s practice in some detail. Additional materials are available in Using Evangelical Lutheran Worship: The Christian Life.