The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Jamaica, The Bahamas, Cayman and Turks and Caicos will no longer conduct funerals in its sanctuaries for deceased persons whose lifestyle were lawless and devoid of good principle.
At the same time, the church will insist on a code of conduct barring mourners from wearing flesh-revealing attire, drinking alcohol, bearing firearms or vending in the precincts of the church.
The decisions come as part of several companion measures recommended by the Issues Committee of West Indies Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for the conduct of funerals, and became necessary in response to a spate of incidents earlier this year in which mourners flouted long established traditions meant to uphold the dignity and sanctity of the church.
In one of the main recommendations, the church said that before agreeing to conduct a funeral, it would first have to meet with the family of the deceased, and as far as possible, with all participants in the church service, to determine if the lifestyle of the deceased has been in contravention of law and order and good principles.
The church also warned that if there were breaches of the agreement, it would reserve the right to stop the service and conclude it at the place of interment. The church will also limit funeral services to two hours.
The President of the West Indies Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Dr Patrick Allen said the decisions of the committee came after "months of discussion, debate and fervent prayer over what was a painful issue".He indicated that the problem, though recent, was a growing trend, and pointed to another funeral of a popular deejay where the dress code had been violated and participants "deliberately attempted to perform a last tribute to the deceased, which was totally out of harmony with the principles and standards of the church".
Local newspapers have also published photographs of mourners standing on the church's platform with alcoholic beverages in their hands, paying tribute to the deceased, he said.
"The overriding concern was how can the church continue to support the community, especially as it relates to funeral services, and at the same time ensure that total respect is given to the one object on earth on which God has placed His supreme regard," said Allen.
The Protestant mainline Seventh-day Adventist Church, with over 213,000 baptized adult members, is the largest and fastest growing denomination in the West Indies.
Support of Adventist decision by other Christian Churches and Groups
Several local church groups have expressed support for the Seventh-day Adventist Church's decision to stop holding funeral services for persons who have broken the law and insist on a dress code and rules of conduct during funeral services and burials.
The president of the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC), Rev Philip Robinson, is among those who have thrown their full support behind the Seventh-day Adventist's decision.
"They are quite right," he said. "A funeral service is essentially a service of worship and therefore one would expect persons to behave in a fitting manner."
But while the move by the Adventists has generated some discussion among members of other denominations, none of these other groups have encountered the problem with the same degree of severity as the Seventh-day Adventists.
According to Robinson, among the 10-member JCC - which includes the Methodist churches over which he once presided - he has not heard of a similar stance being taken or even discussed "in that detail".
"Different churches have always had their individual rules regarding funerals. One would have to check with the churches to find their general guidelines," he said.
A similar view was expressed by Rev Jonathan Hemmings, the president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, which covers some 310 congregations and has over 40,000 members.
"We haven't discussed it in a formal way," he said. "The church is there to serve the community. One of the ways to do this is to make our facilities available (but) we would want to, as much as possible, insist on certain codes of conduct being maintained."Rev Peter Garth, the president of the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals (JAE), an umbrella grouping of some 21 evangelical denominations with over 700 congregations, has also endorsed the move by the SDA church.
The changes stemmed from a series of incidents at the Hagley Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kingston earlier this year.
"If what took place in that Seventh-day Adventist church came before our umbrella group, the JAE would condemn it," Garth said.
"The difficulty is that sometimes the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals doesn't respond to certain issues because we are made up of different denominations. The JAE can't make a ruling for denominations on that matter."
He preferred to comment, he said, only on the church he pastors - Hope Gospel Assembly.
"In my denomination we have not come to any decision regarding not doing funerals for persons that are questionable and it depends on what is meant by questionable. I have not barred persons who are drug dealers, but I meet with the family before (the service)," Garth said.
He added that his only concern about the SDA union's decision is that it might put individual churches in a precarious position.
"I hope they have explained to the overseas church (SDA union) our culture and context. If people turn on them, it's going to be pretty serious," Garth cautioned.
As an example, he recalled an incident involving one of his member churches in the inner city where the pastor turned down a request by persons from the community to hold a funeral in his church.
"They took off the door and had the funeral. They brought their own pastor and left and they did not put the door back on. They wanted a building and they took the building by force.
I am prepared to sit and discuss it with families rather than say no. You can't stop them. It might create a stir," he said.