Should a funeral mourn a death or celebrate a life?

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).

Addendum

March 25, 2016

Here’s a helpful article on the theme of this post: “Don”t Force the Celebration at Funerals.

 

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8 Responses to Should a funeral mourn a death or celebrate a life?

  1. Daryl Climenhaga says:

    My thought, Terry? I think of Christians in Zimbabwe, grieving deeply at death — helping to fill in the grave with their own physical exertion. Celebrating without grieving seems to me to be an unhealthy form of denial. In Paul’s words, we grieve, but not as those do who have no hope. Too easy a celebration does not take the reality and nature of death seriously, which hurts the one grieving more in the long run than entering fully into the valley of death’s shadow. We can walk there unafraid; but we must walk there. We can’t go around this valley. We enter and walk it.

  2. Daryl Climenhaga says:

    Agreed. The desire to celebrate (without grieving) plays into our society’s discomfort with death. I remember funerals in Zimbabwe–everyone helping to fill in the grave after the casket has been lowered; grieving fully together; able afterwards to let go of the grief because we had walked through the valley together. Celebration without grief can turn too easily into denial. Grief without celebration is what is left for those who have no hope (as Paul says); so we celebrate–and we grieve.

  3. Stan Fowler says:

    I’m with you on this one, Terry. One of the effects of this trend that I have observed is that it minimizes the affirmation of the resurrection of the body in the funeral service. At the evangelical Christian funerals that I have attended in the last few years, there has often been no reference at all to resurrection in the service. The focus has been on the celebration of life, and any references to post-mortem realities have been about disembodied life, not resurrection life. I do not understand how Christians can respond to death without emphasizing our resurrection at the Parousia, as Paul does in 1 Thess 4. I fear that someday I may stand up and scream at a funeral service. Perhaps you will visit me in jail when I am arrested for disturbing the peace.

  4. Lydear says:

    I am a victim of celebrating the life of my son, while i should have grieved. Now I am paying for it!! After the so called celebration, and every one has gone their way, you a left alone with the full reality of death and that you loved one is no longer with you. I am now grieving alone and feeling so lonely, frustrated and annoyed at every one…. I need the peace of God!!

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      I am very sorry to hear of your loss, Lydear. The death of a child is an unimaginably painful experience, and it is particularly difficult when a person is alone in their grief. I am praying that God will minister to you personally, giving you comfort and the peace you long for, which only he can give. I am also praying that God will bring into your life others who can grieve with you, and who will allow you to express your emotions openly and will accompany you in the journey of grief, which can take a long time and often has its ups and downs.

  5. Chaplain Byron Keith Fite says:

    You are Dead wrong, no pun intended. When Lazarus died, Jesus had not died ,and there was no one to take that sin until Jesus went to the cross, and in John 19:30, he spoke these words, It Is Finished! That comfort, and celebration that man had been seeking thoughtout the entire Bible up until that time, had come to an end. When Mary Magdalen was approached by Jesus After The Resurrection, Jesus ask her Woman WHY DO YOU WEEP? He did NOT try to comfort her, but told her to go and tell the others the Good News. I lost My Dad, Wednesday, and yes there is a time of grief, for my mother and I, but we are celebrating because we were with my Dad, and he knew us both and was not in pain, and when we prayed with him, and released him into the Kingdom, he was gone, and we celebrated. Grief is necessary, but my dad was born again, and he live 86 great years, and was married to my mother for 62 years, and that IS something to celebrate. I’m the Chaplain for the Western District of North Carolina, and I love God with everything inside of me, and I know Him, and He knows me, and I know His voice, and another I will Not follow. Many Blessings, and I think you should Really seek God on this subject, and Really hear from Him before making post, instead of what You Think!

  6. dennis patch says:

    I dont see too many people cheering and throwing their hats in the air at funeral services. Personally I detest the celebrating of the life phrase. I havent celebrated one of the deaths I have encountered
    and arent about to either. When someone passes they are lost
    to us and we should be grieving, not celebrating.

  7. Terrance Tiessen says:

    I just added a link to another helpful article which addresses the subject of this post.

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