The Death of Funerals

As a pastor, I have officiated at many funerals. As a ritual, funerals are meant to help us process our very real grief and loss as well as set our sorrow within a larger horizon of meaning. Within a Christian framework, a funeral is a reminder that this earthly life is temporary, bound by limits. A funeral is an acknowledgment of human mortality and of the very real experience of suffering. Indeed, etymologically, the word “funeral” derives from Latin words meaning “death” or “mourn.” Is it any wonder, therefore, that the psalmist wrote in Psalm 90:12, Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts?

Because one day the funeral we attend will be our own.

Yet, while we as Christians grieve, we do so as those with hope. As the apostle writes to believers dealing with the death of believing loved ones: you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Such hope isn’t mere vague, subjective wishful thinking. Instead, this hope is directly connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life. Our union with Christ in faith means we will also be raised as he was. Truly, the most powerful funerals are those where this hope is not only explicit but at center stage. Because of this hope, in 1 Corinthians 15:55 Paul asks: Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting? Answering these questions, he continues in 1 Corinthians 15:56-57: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Declaring this in the midst of grieving is the purpose of the Christian funeral.

A Christian funeral, therefore, while occasioned by the death of a beloved saint, is not first or at least not exclusively about that saint. For the death of a follower of Jesus, and the funeral held on their behalf, is a signpost of hope in a world of pain and sadness. The message of a Christian funeral is that death has ultimately been undone because Jesus is risen. The promise of the gospel is that one day his beloved saints will also rise from their graves and live forever in his presence in the new heavens and new earth. In other words, a funeral is a reminder that our present earthly lives are not all there is. These lives of joy and sorrow we inhabit for a short time are framed by the reality of eternity, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Not that funerals aren’t also a commemoration of a person’s life. They certainly are. Our sharing of personal narratives, memories, through our laughter and tears is a key component in how we come to terms with our experiences of loss. By coming together and surrounding the immediate family with support, grieving becomes a community experience and an experience of community. Scripture calls us to mourn with those who mourn.

But there has been a marked shift in how funerals are sometimes done. For example, changing the language we use—say, from a funeral to a celebration of life—can reveal how our attention has quietly transitioned from the ever present reality of human mortality and the need for genuine hope to a ritual whose focus almost entirely consists of recounting and celebrating the biographical details of the deceased. It is the beginning and end of the life of the deceased, not the person of Jesus Christ, that is experienced as the Alpha and Omega of existence.

Another sign of this shift is the place of music in funerals. Not only is congregational/group singing much more unusual at funerals, the kind of music most funerals include has changed significantly. Once it was the expected norm to have primarily, if not exclusively, sacred music (hymns or worship music); now the pendulum has swung noticeably in the other direction. Depending on the funeral, you’re more likely to hear the favourite popular music of the deceased than a hymn or song which draws attention to eternal matters. Whereas in the past the music in a funeral was meant to lift our gaze heavenward in hope, now it often tethers us to the ground.

Such limiting of this particular ritual in this way signals a profound, larger cultural shift. Fewer people hold a Christian worldview. There is essentially no cultural consensus about how to acknowledge death and what, if any, rituals ought to surround it. In addition, if in past generations more nominal believers or even non-believers saw participating in a traditional funeral as an important and obligatory part of community life, this is no longer the case.

I say all this not to complain or criticize. I am merely observing, not evaluating. I don’t expect or want anyone who isn’t a Christian to have a Christian funeral. We likely have little choice but to acknowledge that in reflecting the beliefs of deceased loved ones and their families, funerals or celebrations of life will inevitably have fewer and fewer explicitly religious elements. I do think, however, that these changes in how more and more people are approaching funerals has certain implications.

The most profound consideration is the manner in which people deal with the reality of death. When the spiritual scaffolding of Christendom (that is, the cultural support systems that used to reflect a Christian worldview) is either significantly weakened or altogether absent, there are no externally located reminders of eternity. Our perspective becomes hemmed in by the immediate, the temporary, the here and now. There are no cultural norms or social cues that allow us or encourage us to ponder the deeper meaning of life and the question of what, if anything, happens to us after we die. Such reflections are left entirely up to the individual. Outside of actual religious communities (churches, for example) there is no communal sense or experience of larger meaning that places death and our experience of grief in a meaningful context. Except, possibly, the growing collective sense that either this life is all there is or that we simply can’t know if there is anything more. At best, people retain this uncertain, but semi-Christian hope that so-and-so is now in a better place. Such residual Christianity (or theism or ill-defined spirituality) can hardly provide a sturdy bulwark against the uncertainties and fears people have in the face of suffering and death.

When the cultural air we breathe each and every day limits our vision to our present earthly lives, it becomes impossible to have actual hope, a hope with substance that is more than wishful thinking. Such a fanciful hope cannot alleviate our fears but may instead accentuate them. It leaves us without spiritual resources to deal with our fear of death. Everything eternal is a question mark. Whereas a Christian funeral challenges this perspective and offers genuine hope–hope with actual content and assurance–other funerals merely leave us to ourselves and our biggest questions without any answers.

Indeed, whereas in previous generations funerals would bring us face to face with such questions and the fears we have because of them, but then offer hope, celebrations of life can have the effect of hiding them from us. I think of parents who refrain from bringing their children to funerals for fear of upsetting them. Is this truly a healthy way of dealing with the reality of death or are we simply guaranteeing that upcoming generations will lack the kind of perspective and resilience needed to deal with it? Questions around death and mortality are common with the youngest among us and we do them a disservice by not being honest with them in age appropriate ways.

Our entire society fears death and the symptoms are manifold. And our approach to end of life rituals reflects how we increasingly lack the ability to confront and handle these fears in a spiritually honest and helpful way. Even the fact that more people are opting not to have funerals or any ritual to mark the passing of a loved one is a trend worth noting. What happens to a society where there are no rituals that bind us at such significant moments in our lives? When there are no outward signs that something has changed, that we are in the midst of grieving? If the fear of death is real, and we do all we can either to avoid it or to alleviate it, what effects might this have on how we conduct ourselves as neighbors and as a community?

But that is precisely the point of the good news of Jesus. Consider these words from Hebrews 2:14-15: Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. Apart from hope in Christ, people are slaves to a fear of death whether they realize it or are willing to admit it or not. A Christian funeral brings us face to face with this fear and gives us the hope of overcoming it–so that the fear of our inevitable future death doesn’t determine how we live in the present. This is why I love a good Christian funeral, one that, while genuinely expressing sadness, also has a powerful through-line of hope rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Alas, it seems as if the trajectory is moving in a direction where few funerals will have this.

As a pastor, I suspect this will increasingly put me in the strange, if not awkward position of being asked to officiate at funerals or celebrations of life where the family not only are not believers themselves but wish to have no religious language or elements in the service at all. Having me present to officiate will then become an obligatory nod to a previous age. Thankfully, at this point I can still speak of Jesus as the resurrection and the life, offer prayers, and read Scripture. The moment this isn’t true is the moment when perhaps I will step aside and suggest the family look for someone else to fulfill the officiating role. But until then, I will continue to use funerals as an opportunity to speak of the gift of eternal life through Jesus. I will continue to do what I can to help people grieve, but will invite them to do so as those with hope.

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