In the Christian Science faith, issues like illness, pain, and even death are all seen as a matter of the mind. The founder, Mary Baker Eddy, didn’t believe in the finality of illness or death. These beliefs greatly influenced the way her followers responded to what most consider to be the natural order of the universe - life and death.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Do Christian Scientists Believe Happens When You Die?
- Do Christian Scientists Believe in the Afterlife? What’s It Like?
- What Are Christian Science Funerals Like?
If you’ve been invited to attend a Christian Scientist’s funeral or have a Christian Scientist friend that passed away, it’s helpful to understand more about their belief system. The more you know about their beliefs, the easier it will be to share condolences, properly express sympathy, and attend a funeral.
What Do Christian Scientists Believe Happens When You Die?
Beliefs about death and dying all around the world vary widely depending on religion and culture. This is true for Christian Scientists, as well. While their beliefs might sound similar to some eastern religions, the tenants of their faith come straight from founder Mary Baker Eddy.
During a prolonged illness, Mary Baker Eddy discovered what she believed to be a revelation: that everything humans encounter is based upon a perception of reality. Things like illness, pain, and even death are not actual realities but are simply perceived as reality. Once the individual can deny that these things are real, they can be overcome by prayer and mental exercises.
She also believed that death was not so much a transition from one reality to another, but a returning of the state of man back to a spiritual essence. For Christian Scientists, illness is a state of the mind that can be overcome by prayer and mental exercises.
In a similar manner, Mary’s followers believe that death does not really occur. Death is a state as perceived by those left behind. The person who is deceased continues living in a spirit state.
Do Christian Scientists Believe in the Afterlife? What’s It Like?
According to Mary Baker Eddy, heaven and hell are not physical locations. Instead, they are states of the spiritual realm into which the deceased may enter. Though definitions are vague on what this state is like, she gives several clues in her book Science and Health.
In one section she writes, “Heaven is not a locality, but a divine state of Mind in which all the manifestations of Mind are harmonious and immortal.”
She also adds that heaven is "Harmony; the reign of Spirit; government by the divine Principle; spirituality; bliss; the atmosphere of Soul.”
As for hell, she says that hell is “Mortal belief; error; lust; remorse; hatred; revenge; sin; sickness; death; suffering and self-destruction; self-imposed agony; effects of sin; that which 'worketh abomination or maketh a lie.”
So what happens after death? According to Mary Baker Eddy, the mind, or the essence of who each person is, is immortal. When they are released from this life through death, they will then understand reality and see the world for what it is - a mere illusion.
Unfortunately, there is little more beyond this to instruct her followers or others regarding life after death. In essence, life goes on, but in what way or what form, we can only guess.
What Are Christian Science Funerals Like?
Christian Science funerals and the traditions carried out will vary depending on the belief level of the family holding the event. This section contains common traditions that you may see at a Christian Science funeral. However, there are no hard and fast rules for Christian Scientists as prescribed by their faith when it comes to funerals.
The etiquette guidelines mentioned here are also general. As with any funeral, take your cues from the immediate family members holding the service. If you know a member of the family, it can be helpful to direct questions to them regarding specific traditions and etiquette questions.
There might be no funeral at all
Some Christian Science families will choose to have no funeral or memorial service at all. Families that believe deeply that death is not reality might forego a funeral altogether. They will likely opt for cremation as the method of final disposition and might simply continue their day-to-day life as if little has changed.
There might be a memorial service
Some families will hold a memorial or celebration-of-life service instead of a funeral service. The memorial service will likely include some of the traditions listed below. Memorial services are often held if the family member who passed away was cremated, though burial along with a memorial service isn’t uncommon. As with the other traditions listed here, what occurs largely depends on the individual family’s preferences.
Not held in a CS church building
Funerals and memorial services are not held in a Christian Science church building. There have been rare exceptions to this rule, such as a memorial service for a sitting president. For regular members, however, memorials and funeral services are held either in the funeral home, the crematory, or the family’s home.
Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to a funeral at someone’s home and there is an open casket. CS beliefs don’t restrict the use of embalming, so a home-based open casket funeral could be something you encounter.
A senior lay member officiates
Christian Science has no organized clergy such as a pastor or elders as is common in Protestant and Catholic denominations. Instead, a senior lay member often officiates at funerals. This member is called a “Reader” because they will read the chosen scriptures and portions of text from their founder’s book Science and Health with Keys to the Scriptures.
Any member of the CS church officiates
Though most Mother Church by-laws call for senior lay members to officiate at funerals, the Mother Church in Boston, Massachusetts states that any of their members can officiate a funeral service, regardless of years of membership or seniority.
If you attend a funeral for someone who is a member of this location, the officiant could be a friend or relative of the family who holds no seniority in the church.
Like many Christian funerals, Christian Scientists will often choose a few passages to read during the funeral or memorial service. Unlike Christian funerals, scripture readings will only take place using the King James Version of the Bible.
Reading from Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
In addition to the Bible, Mary Baker Eddy’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is the most well-known, well-used, and beloved text for Christian Scientists. They are encouraged to study it daily. It only makes sense that select portions of the text will be read at a funeral or memorial service.
The selections are chosen by the family and often point to their beliefs about life, death, eternity, and the afterlife. You might hear portions including:
“There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.”
“The only reality of sin, sickness, or death is the awful fact that unrealities seem real to human, erring belief, until God strips off their disguise.”
Songs and hymns are not traditionally sung at a Christian Scientist’s funeral. If the family decides to create a memorial slideshow, you might hear a few of the best funeral songs played as an accompaniment to the movie.
Depending on the wishes of the family, funeral prayers might be spoken to open or close the service.
If you’re attending a funeral, it’s perfectly acceptable to bring flowers as a way to show sympathy. You can also choose to send them a day or two ahead of time so they can decorate the funeral home or their own home where the service is held.
Offering condolences is acceptable and can be done in person or by mail if you’re unable to attend in person. Though you may not see the family outwardly grieving, feel free to say things like,
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“I knew Bob well while we worked together. I’ll miss him.”
“Janet was a lovely neighbor.”
“I didn’t know Paul very well, but he seemed like a wonderful person.”
If you choose to send a sympathy card because you can’t attend the service in person, sending flowers or something edible like a fruit basket is appreciated.
Some services will be on the short side while others might go longer. In terms of visiting once the service concludes, take your cue from other attendees. There is no rule regarding how much time you need to remain after the service ends. If there is a meal afterward and everyone is invited, it’s a good idea to attend if you can to show your support to the family.
Before you leave, say your goodbyes to the immediate family and offer condolences at that time if you haven’t already.
Etiquette is another area where you’ll want to pick up on cues from information provided in the invitation, by other attendees, or from family members.
Clothing: Some families will dress in traditional black while others will dress in brightly colored clothing. If you’re unsure and the invitation doesn’t specify, ask a close family member or friend of the deceased for the dress code.
Mood: Again, depending on family beliefs, the mood could be somber, sad, neutral, or even joyful. You most likely will not witness much outward expression of grief from the immediate family.
Offering condolences: Families might greet attendees as they enter. If this is the case, you can share a brief word of sympathy before finding your seat. Restate condolences before you leave after the service is over.
A Matter of Perception
For Christian Scientists, death isn’t final, and for some, it’s not even something to be mourned. Funerals and the traditions you encounter will depend on each family’s beliefs about the end of life. If you’re invited to a funeral, go with a willingness to learn about their philosophy of life and death.
- Abbott, Deborah; Gottschalk, Steve. “The Christian Science Tradition.” Religious Beliefs and Healthcare Discussions, Advocate Health, 2002. advocatehealth.com
- Eddy, Mary Baker. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” Science and Health, Christian Science, 2021. christianscience.com
- McKenzie, Elanore. “What do you do for funeral services for Christian Scientists?” Religion, Classroom, 29 September 2017. classroom.synonym.com