Funerals are not celebrations of life. Birthdays celebrate life. Graduations celebrate life. Weddings celebrate life. Baby showers celebrate life. No celebration, however, draws us to a funeral. We gather because death summons us. We must never forget that death is an interloper, an intruder, an enemy, and a divine judgment upon human sin.
To everything there is a season…a time to die (Eccl 3:1–2).
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better (Eccl 7:2–3).
The past several months has been a season of bereavement. My father’s younger brother was the first to die. The next was my mother’s oldest brother, an uncle who invested a great deal in me when I was a child and young man. Then two mentors and friends died within weeks of each other. Two weeks ago, my father’s youngest sister passed away; she was one of my favorite aunts.
Both mentors were radiant believers. My father’s brother and sister both professed faith. My mother’s brother resisted the gospel all his life, but my aunt reports that he called upon God to save him before he died. I have at least some hope of meeting all these people again.
Nevertheless, the sorrow and the sense of loss have been real. These feelings have been intensified by the fact that I was not present for three of the funerals, which were restricted by COVID-19. Previously, I had not much considered how important the funeral or memorial service is as a way of providing closure for those who remain. Subsequently, I’ve been thinking about death and funerals. Funerals serve two great purposes: first, to comfort the living, and second, to offer spiritual guidance in a time of need. Three current trends tend to thwart the accomplishment of those purposes.
The first trend is to redefine the funeral as a “celebration of life.” No, funerals are not celebrations of life. Birthdays celebrate life. Graduations celebrate life. Weddings celebrate life. Baby showers celebrate life. No celebration, however, draws us to a funeral. We gather because death summons us. We must never forget that death is an interloper, an intruder, an enemy, and a divine judgment upon human sin. Christian funerals (i.e., those conducted by Christians) must display death in its proper context and then explain its character rightly.
Christian funerals must also provide the bereaved with an opportunity to mourn. Funerals are not a time for celebrating. They are a time for sorrowing (though not as others who have no hope). Even if we expect to meet the deceased in heaven, we know that we must endure the pain of separation, perhaps for many years. Funerals are a time for saying goodbye. The funeral is not for the dead, but for those who live and grieve.
The second harmful trend grows out of the first. It is the tendency to shift the focus toward memories of the deceased, whether happy or otherwise. Of course, funerals do constitute an acknowledgement of the departed, and certain expressions of personal interest are natural and appropriate. For example, a funeral should include an obituary or some other recollection, normally presented by the officiant. Believers’ funerals should always feature their testimony of conversion. These are ordinate ways of personalizing a funeral.