Presbyterian Funerals: Etiquette, Service & What to Expect

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Planning a Christian funeral? Which branch of Christianity was the deceased? Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox? Under the Protestant arm of Christianity, you’ll find several different denominations. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

These denominations include Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian, among many others. Each denomination has its own interpretation of the Bible. Church services vary within each tradition according to their own practices and beliefs. This means you can even encounter a difference in funeral traditions.

For example, different denominations might feature certain prayers or funeral songs. Today, we’ll break down what you can expect from a Presbyterian funeral service.

Keep in mind that you can incorporate these traditions whether you're holding an in-person, virtual, or hybrid funeral. A service like GatheringUs can help you work with your church to hold a virtual or hybrid Presbyterian funeral. 

Presbyterian Funeral Service Traditions

Presbyterianism is a denomination of Protestantism. The name of this denomination comes from the presbyterian form of church government — that a given church is governed by a representative assembly of respected elders.

The roots of Presbyterianism date back to the Reformation era in the 16th century. Scottish Presbyterians tend to follow the theology of John Calvin, but there are broader views found within the church. Here, we see what you might experience at a Presbyterian funeral.    

Order of service or program

A Presbyterian funeral or memorial service is generally led by an officiating pastor. That pastor uses both the “Book of Order” and the “Book of Common Worship” to inform the service.

The funeral order of service or program generally looks something like this:

  • Call to Worship
  • Prayer of Invocation
  • Readings from the Old and New Testament
  • Tributes and Remembrances
  • Homily
  • Pastoral Prayer
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • Music, hymns, or solos
  • Benediction

Songs or hymns

You can play many common hymns at a Christian funeral of any denomination. Some people really like to choose songs that resonate with their faith. These hymns are all found in “The Presbyterian Hymnal” and are appropriate for a memorial service or traditional funeral.  

  • “Abide with Me” 
  • “Amazing Grace” 
  • “Be Thou My Vision” 
  • “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” 
  • “For All the Saints” 
  • “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” 
  • “I’ll Praise My Maker” 
  • “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”
  • “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”
  • “Now Thank We All Our God” 
  • “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” 
  • “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” 
  • “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” 
  • “We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight”

Prayers

Certain prayers are typically included in the Presbyterian Order of Service. These include the Prayer of Invocation, the Pastoral Prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer.

However, you can also include other prayers. The officiating pastor will often work with the family to include favorite or meaningful prayers in the service. 

Readings

There are a wide variety of readings and scriptures that are considered appropriate for a Presbyterian funeral. They can be found in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the Psalms. Here are some of the more popular sections:

  • Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 (“For everything there is a season”)
  • Isaiah 65:17-25 (“I create new heavens and a new earth”)
  • Lamentations 3:19-26, 31-32 (“The Lord’s steadfast love”)
  • Daniel 12:1-3 (“Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake”)
  • Joel 2:12-13, 23-24, 26-29  (“Return to the Lord with all your heart”)
  • Psalm 16:5-11 (“The Lord is my chosen portion”)
  • Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”)
  • Psalm 27:1, 4-9a, 13-14 (“The Lord is my light and my salvation”)
  • Psalm 90:1-10, 12 (“Lord, you have been our dwelling place”)
  • Psalm 139:1-12 (“O Lord, you have searched me and known me”)
  • Matthew 5:1-12a (The Beatitudes)
  • John 3:16-21 (“For God so loved the world”)
  • John 14 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled”)
  • Romans 14:7-9 (“We do not live to ourselves”)
  • Philippians 4:4-9 (“Rejoice in the Lord always”)

Duration of service

Presbyterian funerals are not overly long. The general duration is between 30 and 60 minutes. It’s enough time to pay respects to the deceased without being overly long. 

ยป MORE: After a loss, you're never alone. Get the help you need with this planning checklist.

 

Presbyterian Burial Customs

As with all religions and denominations, you’ll encounter general rules about burials. Many of them are deeply rooted in centuries of tradition and some have evolved in modern times. Let’s delve further into that.  

Views on cremation and burial

While there is no clear-cut ecumenical rule about cremation, Presbyterians generally frown upon it. Like Catholics, Presbyterians tend to prefer that the body stays intact and is buried in the ground whole. However, some Presbyterians opt for cremation, and that is okay. There are also no rules one way or another when it comes to embalming. Generally, people opt in if they are having a viewing.   

Some families choose to hold a viewing, visitation, or wake before the burial. This can be held either in a church or at a funeral home. Again, there is no hard-and-fast rule about where a viewing should be held. That decision generally comes down to the individual church and the family. 

There are a few different forms of a Presbyterian funeral:

  • Graveside burial service, where the funeral and interment both take place
  • Memorial service, which is held either before or after the interment, at which no body is present 
  • Traditional funeral, where the body is present in a casket or in a cremation urn

If you opt for a memorial service or traditional funeral service, it generally must be held in a Presbyterian church. Presbyterian services are not typically held in funeral homes. 

Mourning and remembering the dead

On the whole, Presbyterians believe that a person will go to heaven or hell after they die.

They look at it as a punishment or a reward. If you were a good person with a good relationship with God, then heaven would be your eternal reward. Presbyterian funerals acknowledge that God has power over death. They also celebrate a person’s life and accomplishments. There is no specific mourning period for Presbyterians.   

Presbyterian Funeral Etiquette

Presbyterian funeral etiquette is fairly straightforward. If you’ve been to a church funeral, you likely already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Here are some further details. 

What to wear

The dress code for a Presbyterian funeral is very standard. Colors should be black or other dark colors like gray, brown, or navy blue.

Women can wear skirts, dresses, or slacks. Men should wear a jacket and tie. Be sure to read our guide on what to wear to a funeral for more guidance.  

Offering condolences

If you’re religious or know the deceased was religious, you can talk about the afterlife. It wouldn’t be out of line to say that the deceased has gone on to his eternal reward. Beyond that, the usual rules of condolences apply.

You can send a card or text to express your condolences. You can also make a more practical gesture of support like organizing a meal train.  

What to Expect from a Presbyterian Funeral

Presbyterian funerals are very accessible. Even someone who isn’t religious should be able to follow along with the program and will likely have appropriate clothing to wear to the funeral. 


Sources

  1. “Hymns.” Fpcphila.org, The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, www.fpcphila.org/funeral-hymns.
  2. “Planning the Service.” Fourthchurch.org, Fourth Presbyterian Church, www.fourthchurch.org/funerals/planning.html.   

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