I humbly suggest there should be a funeral service of witness to the resurrection of Christ to help us grieve properly, and hope substantively, knowing that Christ has indeed defeated death. While our hearts are tender and our minds are anxious with the thought of being without one we love, the message of a certain resurrection to come-as promised and proven by Christ- is exactly what is needed.
The recent funeral activities for the longtime Queen of England prompted me to address the importance of the Christian practice of grieving the loss of loved ones as a church community. In particular, the increasingly common American evangelical practice of conducting a “Celebration of Life” service rather than a funeral service provokes this brief article.
Historically, Christian funeral services make the truth of the gospel and the resurrection of Christ the focus and hope for those understandably and rightly grieving the death of a loved one. Such a service declares Christian truth in the face of our worst enemy- death. It prompts those attending to consider their own mortality. Such a service does not shy away from grief, but rather helps us to grieve with hope. The body of the deceased (normally) being present, does not allow us to color coat the reality of what sin has brought and none of us will escape unless Christ returns first. The declaration of God’s Word meets our grief with gospel surety and a future hope. One leaves a true Christian funeral service having been helped to mourn properly and more focused on Christ. When we think of the deceased, we are comforted knowing they are alive together with Christ. We even find joy in the midst of sorrow knowing there will be a reunion of believers in the not too distant future. We will have plenty of time to remember past interactions with our departed loved one as the months and years unfold (indeed, we should make remembering them a regular part of our lives going forward), but the funeral service is about Christ first and the certainty we find in Him.
So called “celebrations of life” cannot help but focus on the person who died more than anything else. Such services are relatively recent inventions that probably come from (at least partially) a desire to avoid the reality, ugliness, and finality of death, hence the name of the service. Though well-intentioned, such services often become embellishments of the person who died, laden with sentimentality and emotionalism. Grieving is not usually a real part of such services, in fact, a sort of “the person wouldn’t want us to be sad” message is given. It’s almost like such services try to suspend grief. “Bob wouldn’t want us to be crying and sad right now,” is the kind of vibe that is often given by such services. I suggest, if Bob would actually want to pause from his heavenly, contented basking in the glorious presence of Christ, he would tell us something like, “Who cares that I taught theater, told corny jokes, and was a good cook? Believe and praise the risen Christ! I am alive in glory because of Him!” I suspect Bob would exhort us to have a funeral service of witness to the resurrection of Christ in response to his departure, not a celebration of his life, as such. There will be plenty of time and occasions to memorialize Bob and think of his contributions to our lives. However, immediately after his death, enroute to burial, I humbly suggest there should be a funeral service of witness to the resurrection of Christ to help us grieve properly, and hope substantively, knowing that Christ has indeed defeated death. While our hearts are tender and our minds are anxious with the thought of being without one we love, the message of a certain resurrection to come-as promised and proven by Christ- is exactly what is needed.
Whatever we might call a service for a Christian loved one who died:
- Christ should be the focus.
- Grieving is proper, necessary, and OK.
- Any “celebration” should be about Christ’s victory over the grave, and people should leave thinking of Christ more than the deceased.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14).
Dr. Anthony J. Felich is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, Kansas.