So you’re going through the 2019 Prayer Book, making sure you’ve got a handle on how this book operates and how it differs from its 1979 predecessor and how it relates to the classical 1928 Prayer Book and the editions before it, and you get to the Burial Service.  I mean, let’s face it, we’re living through an epidemic right now, and we may see a larger number of calls for the Burial Service than usual, depending upon your circumstances, region, and “luck”.  You’re reading through its initial directions on page 248 when you come to this weird rubric:

This Burial Office is intended for those who have been baptized and profess the Christian Faith.  Portions of this Office may be adapted for other circumstances.

In short, if you’ve been asked to hold a funeral for a non-Christian, you’re going to have to re-write the liturgy.

Is this a bug or a feature?  Why are there no further directions for how to handle this scenario?  How does this comport with our Anglican heritage?  Why can’t we just use the Burial Office as-is for someone outside the Church?

the Principle at work

Let us compare this with a rubric at the end of the Burial of the Dead in the 1928 Prayer Book, page 337.

It is to be noted that this Office is appropriate to be used only for the faithful departed in Christ, provided that in any other case the Minister may, at his discretion, use such part of this Office, or such devotions taken from other parts of this Book, as may be fitting.

This, in turn, is an adaption of a rubric at the beginning of the 1662’s Burial of the Dead, page 326.

Here is to be noted, that the Office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptised, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hand upon themselves.

One can see a clear line of commonality through the tradition; the Burial Office is a Christian service, and its readings and prayers reflect that expectation.  This is how to bury a Christian.  When burying a non-Christian we obviously cannot speak of the hope of Christ within him or her, and therefore if for some reason the Church is sought for the dignified burial of one outside her fold, we have to adapt our language accordingly so that we don’t speak untruly either of the deceased or of God.


It is interesting to note that the reference to suicide was dropped by the 20th century.  In Roman theology, suicide is typically considered a “mortal sin” and therefore one who commits suicide (psychological impairment aside) dies in a state of condemnation.  I haven’t examined this subject deeply, but it appears that 17th century Anglicanism retained some sense of that view that we do not as explicitly hold ourselves to today.  We, after all, do not have an officially codified definition of mortal versus venial sin in our formularies.

The 1979 Prayer Book, meanwhile, is an anomaly in this area.  Its directions on page 490 are very similar to that of the 2019 Book except it omits the rubric about treating non-baptized or non-confessing persons’ burials differently!  Instead, on page 506 it offers An Order for Burial, “When, for pastoral considerations, neither of the burial rites in this Book is deemed appropriate”.  The implication is that the Order there presented is for those outside the church, but the inclusion of the possibility of a Communion (in step 8) rather undermines that and muddies the waters.  The 2019 Book has clearly removed us from that confusion and restored the traditional Anglican way.

how, then, to bury the non-Christian

We have always had to look to supplementary liturgical texts for guidance in burying the non-baptized or the non-confessing person.  The best example that I know about is in A Manual for Priests of the American Church, which was paired with the 1928 Prayer Book.  You can read about that manual here, if you like.  Citing the rubric on page 337 of the 1928 Book, this Manual sets out The Burial of Persons for whom the Prayer Book Service is Not Appropriate, and it cites the Occasional Offices of the Church of the Province of South Africa as what this order was adapted from.  I won’t copy the whole thing, but present it in outline.

  • Psalm 130 De profundis.
  • Lesson: John 5:24-30
  • Anthem: “Man that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live…”
  • The Committal: “We commit the body of our dear brother to the grave…”
  • Kyrie & Lord’s Prayer
  • A prayer from the Litany: “Remember not, Lord, our offenses…”
  • Collect for Advent I: “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness…”
  • Collect: “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask…”
  • Prayer from the Burial: “Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of all comfort…”
  • “O Savior of the world, who by thy Cross and precious Blood hast redeemed us; Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.”
  • The Grace (2 Corinthians 13:14)

Pretty much all of this can be found in the 2019 Prayer Book, and, given the additional possibilities for Scripture readings, we could flesh out this order to be something a bit longer and more substantial if we wanted.  But of course, one has to be very careful with handling the funeral of a non-believer.  When the Church speaks, we must proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but it can be rather unhelpful, to say the least, to announce the damnation of the departed!  And it would be irresponsible (and probably a lie) to claim a secret Christian faith in the name of the departed for which there was no verbal evidence in life.  So we must proclaim our faith in Jesus prudently, “in season and out of season” with all the wisdom and sensitivity and attentiveness to the context that we can muster.

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