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Two weeks ago, I visited the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, where Rembrandt van Rijn lived, painted, and sold paintings from 1639 to 1658. An audio guided tour takes you through each room of the house, which have been meticulously recreated and curated based on the inventory Rembrandt kept when his possessions were auctioned off in the face of his bankruptcy. The walls are, of course, covered in art. Works by Rembrandt, works by his friends, works by his colleagues and pupils.

But it wasn’t the art, or the furniture, or even the easels in his studio that captured my imagination that morning. Rather, my interest was peaked by a small silver medallion in a glass box in the parlor.

This is a funerary medallion. One side bears the arms of the Guild of Saint Luke and the year 1634. On the other side, the name Rembrandt Harmans and the letter S. The Guild of Saint Luke was composed of artists and makers – those who sculpted, painted, built coffins, engraved, etc. All such makers had to belong to the guild and pay their dues in order to work their craft in the city of Amsterdam.

And, as of 1579, all members of the guild were expected to attend the burial of a fellow guild member or his wife. Every member of Saint Luke’s was issued a medallion bearing the coat of arms and the year of their admission into the guild, along with their name and profession. So we have Rembrandt Harmens (as he was known at the time), who joined the guild in 1634 as a Schilder, or painter.

Upon the death of a guild member, the servant of the guild would distribute the medallions to their owners, who would then turn them back in again at the funeral. If you failed to attend the funeral and hand in your medallion, you had to pay a fine, which increased with every occurrence of absenteeism. The money raised from the fines went to help those members of the guild in financial need.

This practice was not without its squabbles. By 1621 the guild had grown so large that keeping track of everyone wasn’t tenable, so they only required the presence of members of one’s own profession or craft. But just what constituted one’s “craft” was a debatable matter. In 1735 it appeared that the fine painters, or art painters (kuntschilders) didn’t feel they had to attend the burials of house painters (kladschilders). To solve this petty matter, the distinction was removed, and everyone simply became a schilder.1

Even with the evidence that not everyone appreciated, or observed, this guild requirement, it strikes me as a remarkable practice. It was expected that you would attend the funeral of someone in your community, whether you knew them well or not. The community came out to pay their respects to one of their own, and, in the words of Tom Long in The Good Funeral, to mark that “one person’s death represents a breech for the whole community and an occasion not only to bow in respect toward the deceased but also to remind ourselves of the transience of life and the meaning of life and death.”2

Today, our sense of community is not felt so strongly. If we substituted “church” for “guild,” the idea that the whole congregation would come out for the funeral of a fellow church member would strike many of us as implausible. Certainly, we would attend if we knew someone well. But not just because they were part of the community. Long (in Accompany Them with Singing) argues that our society has come to see funerals as primarily occasions for grief management and comfort of the bereaved. So we may be more inclined to attend the visitation, where such comfort can be offered in a more intimate setting, than the funeral, where we’re relegated to our pews.3

And yet, says Long, it is at the funeral where the church functions as church. The funeral is an occasion for comfort, yes. But much more so, it is “a dramatic performance of the gospel, enacting the meaning of life and death for the person who has died, for the Christian community and the communion of the saints, and, indeed, for the whole of humanity.” At the Christian funeral, we enact a narrative that proclaims it is the living God in Christ Jesus who has the last word, not death. And so “the merchant, the dentist, and the fellow parishioner are needed at the funeral not primarily to give or receive comfort (though that happens), but because they have important roles to play in the drama. They are needed ‘on stage’ to act out the gospel story on the occasion of a death.”4

I wonder what might happen in the church if we reclaimed this as the primary purpose of a Christian funeral, and if we each saw ourselves as having “important roles to play in the drama.” I know – the world has changed and unless all funerals take place on Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons, it’s difficult for those who work or are in school to attend. But *what if* we began having funerals on Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons so that the whole Body of Christ could attend, could participate, could enact this drama of life after death, could bear witness to the truth that the Communion of Saints transcends time and space?

My hunch is that this would counter, in a profound way, the individualism, isolation, and loneliness running rampant through our communities. I’m positive it would help us collectively become better at talking about death, suffering, and the meaning of life. And I suspect it would help us navigate sticky moments in our congregations with more grace, humility, and hospitality. After all, part of the drama of a Christian funeral is the declaration that, says Elizabeth Johnson, “death’s destructive power cannot sever the bonds holding persons in communion, for these bonds are grace, love, and community of God’s own being. In dying, one falls into the living God and is quickened by loving-kindness which is forever faithful.”5

And as in dying, so in living.

  1. I. H. van Eeghen, tr. Jasper Hillegers, “The Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke in the 17th Century,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, vol. 4.2 (Summer 2012),
  2. Thomas G. Long & Thomas Lynch, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2013), 205.
  3. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 92.
  4. Ibid., 94.
  5. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of the Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003), 70.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    You are so right. So right. My first five years of ministry were spent in a very traditional Hungarian Reformed church in urban Jersey, where everyone came to all the funerals. And they were thoroughly ritualized over the course of three days, with specific patterns of bell-ringing, and two prayer services besides the actual funeral with its processions and full liturgy and specific hymns, and then a small group of the older men, for example, would be sure to be at the graveside to sing the final hymn, not mention the quick luncheon and beer for the crew aftertward followed by the major meal at The Elks hall,, often including dancing. The joke was that you kept your church membership just for the right to get the funeral. The Funeral liturgy in the 1968 Liturgy of the RCA is one of my favourite rites in the whole tradition, and the long prayer is magnificent. Funerals belong in church, and sanctuary floor plans need to accommodate rich funerals. With processions! Yes, at funerals we become church, witnesses to the Gospel of life and death. You are so right.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Thanks for a persuasive and provocative argument for recovering the drama of the funeral service. Too often, unfortunately, the drama of God’s work in our lives is set aside for vignettes of the life just ended. Another symptom perhaps of a church whose members see themselves as solo practitioners of Xty more than members of one body.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself,
    Every man is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
    Or of thine own were:
    Any man’s death diminishes me,
    Because I am involved in mankind,
    And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.
    John Donne

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Having just attended a Saturday backyard white-tent party memorial for a dear friend at odds with the church yet whose life and acts of grace touched many family/friends/strangers from many walks of life—many of whom also attended—this article resonates deeply with me. At the same time I’m saddened not to be able to attend the funeral of a community pillar, the first principal who I served under as a rookie teacher, whose death was just announced yesterday and whose funeral will be tomorrow, a Friday.

  • Emily R Brink says:

    Thanks so much, Laura, for this claim that the church, not only the family, remembers and also celebrates (I use that word deliberately) that “In Life and In Death” we belong to God. The quotes refer to the first ever “Pastoral Guide for Funerals” in the CRC, much needed then and still so helpful, written and compiled by Len Vander Zee; I had the privilege of helping get that published back in 1992, part of my work as music and liturgy editor at that time in the CRC, a very different time in our church and in our culture.

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    This morning, I received notice of the death of a colleague’s wife, neither of whom I know well. Yes, I will attend the funeral, because that is what we do as the church. Surprisingly, and sadly, the service it is not in the church.
    Oddly, though I did not grow up in the church, our family always attended the funerals of relatives, friends, and neighbors. In fact, I was told I went to my first wedding at 3 months old, and my first funeral at 5 months old. Perhaps we were more “church” than we ever knew!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Your careful parsing of this this subject during your time with us has had such a profound influence on my view of funerals. Also, playing funerals for 52 years and watching them become occasions for 40 minutes of remembrances that, I believe, belong within the circle of the family, leaving about 15-20 for the Word to be spoken. David is right. Thank you for caring about this part of our lives – from birth to death – a member of the body.

  • George Vink says:

    Once again,we’ll put. Keep putting it so clearly and tightly. It’ll preach and needed now more than ever.

  • Scott Forbes says:

    As missionaries in our early 20’s in Zambia we were stationed in a place where there were no other Western missionaries present. When a young girl whom we loved died of sickle cell disease we took our cues from the church people and began attending the multiple days of mourning at the home. Multiple choirs sang in the afternoon and evening from multiple denominations along with multiple sermons and a central meal in the evening for anyone present. Then people bedded down in the house and yard to sleep. Because we had resources and a motorbike we volunteered to help source food. Each night around ten pm we were told to go home and rest there. So we did as instructed returning the next day with food in the afternoon. It all seemed as natural as breathing. Years later in our presence the most senior member of the denomination stood up at a meeting and told the story about some young missionaries who once upon a time attended a funeral as though they were members of the family and how that had forever endeared themselves to their Christian bothers and sisters. We didn’t know it at the time but had since learned that showing up counts and showing up at times of celebration and mourning counts even more. Thank you for reminding me of this truth.

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