Some time ago there was a death in the extended family of a friend of ours. We were somewhat surprised by the strength of feeling with which she told us that they were not going to a funeral but to a celebration of life. I was reminded of that incident yesterday, when I heard a Christian theologian remark negatively on the concept of funerals as celebrations of life rather than the mourning of the loss in death. It was a passing comment, but I pondered it this morning as I tilled the garden. I am inclined to agree with the theologian, I think that the primary focus of a Christian funeral should be the mourning of a death rather than the celebration of a life. I am interested in the thoughts of others, but here are my own, for what they are worth.
From the biblical perspective, human death is an evil and a tragedy. It came into the world with sin, and it will not be part of the world in God’s new creation. We all know that we will die unless the Lord returns first, and we anticipate that those whom we love will die too, some of them before we do. Every death is a reminder of the tragedy of sin, and particularly of the alienation from God, the giver of life, which sin brings about.
Thankfully, God has not allowed death to be the end of the human story. The Word became flesh, taking our nature upon himself, and thereby subjecting himself to the possibility of physical death. Paul beautifully spells out a stark contrast in Romans 5: the sin of Adam brought death to all who are in him, all those naturally born as his descendants; but death had no claim upon Jesus because of any personal sin on his part, he voluntarily laid down his life, bearing in his own body the consequences of human sin, and bringing eternal life to all who are covenantally united to him by faith. All who believe in him are united to him in his death, but also in his resurrection and in his ascension.
For believers in Christ, death has a very different significance than it does for those who die unreconciled to God. Consequently, Paul told the Thessalonians, we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). Yet we do grieve, even though our grief is eased by our hope of the resurrection of those who die in faith, a resurrection which will complete their transformation into the perfection of God’s image, in body as well as soul. Jesus himself wept at the grave of Lazarus (Jn 11:35), and he did not rebuke Mary and Martha for their grief at the loss of their brother. He reminded Martha that Lazarus would rise again, and she assured Jesus that she knew and believed this (11:24-27), but she had a legitimate sense of loss.
When we come to the funeral of a believer in Christ, I think it is right that we should mourn their death. Death is not natural to human being, though it has become a necessary reality of our fallen condition. Death reminds us of sin, and it reminds us that all who die must then face God as their holy Judge (Heb 9:27). Death is the end of our opportunity to be reconciled to God, and so it is a very sobering event. So funerals can have a beneficial role in our sanctification. They challenge all of us who are still alive to ponder our own inevitable death, and to prepare ourselves to meet God’s judgment. When we have reason to believe that the one who died was reconciled to God in Christ, we do not grieve hopelessly. The sting has been taken out of their death by Christ’s resurrection. And so we need not face our own deaths with fear, but the prospect should keep us spiritually wakeful, trusting in the righteousness of Christ on our behalf, and always striving to move forward in obedience, lest we fall away. As we mourn the death of a loved one in Christ, we have hope for their future life, and we can be hopeful of our own life after death as well, when God’s Spirit prompts us to call God “Father.”
Of course, at the funeral of a believer in Christ, we will have cause to give God thanks for his grace in their lives. I am often inspired and encouraged when I attend the funerals of people whose lives have been a blessing because of God’s life within them. There is much to celebrate in such cases, including the knowledge that death in Christ is actually better than continued life in this body (Phil 1:20-23). But we need to beware of the death denying spirit of our age. When people have no hope of life after death, the life lived by the deceased is all they have to celebrate, and I think that this informs the approach taken in secular funerals. Consequently, we should be critical of this perspective as we plan Christian funerals. Life is a good gift from God, and we have no right to take it away prematurely. We can and should be thankful for the life that God has given to a person who has died, but we should not shrink from acknowledging the tragedy of death, or grieving the loss of our relationship here and now with the one who has died.
Let’s mourn the loss, but grieve with hope. In the meantime, let’s take the opportunity that a funeral provides to review our own lives in light of the awareness of our own impending death. Let us persevere in the obedience of faith, knowing that it is those who stand firm to the end who will be saved (Mt 24:13), trusting in God to finish in us the good work that he has begun (Phil 1:6).
March 25, 2016
Here’s a helpful article on the theme of this post: “Don”t Force the Celebration at Funerals.”