Funerals Are Not Celebrations of Life

They're a Time to Mourn

I am doubly inclined genetically to read obituaries. Both my parents were faithful daily readers of the obituaries in the Pensacola News Journal. I remember their often commenting to one another about persons whose notices were in the paper that morning. My sister once said something to the effect of, "We're Smiths; we read obituaries."

I check obituaries in three news papers almost daily - the Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS), the Pensacola News Journal, and the Hattiesburg American. When in the News Journal I find an obituary of someone such as person who went to my high school or my church, I will often copy and paste the link and send it to friends and family with Pensacola ties. My wife sometimes teases me about my obituary reading, and I reply, "I'm just checking to make sure I'm not listed."

Now the obituary reading may be hastening the day of my listing. Why? Because there is so much I find irritating in them. I grunt with disdain when I read, "He is survived by his best friend and the love of his life, Jane Doe." What happened to the simple, "He is survived by his wife, Jane Doe"? Obituaries are not the place for extolling the romantic and relational aspects of John Doe's marriage. It's only going to get worse as we will soon be reading, "John Doe is survived by his best friend and the love of his life, Jack Doe."

But the irritant I have in mind today is the obituary that reads: "Visitation will occur at 1:00 P.M. followed by a Celebration of Life at 2:00." Sometimes these celebrations are not held in churches or funeral homes: "A celebration of John's life will be held at Joe's Bar and Grill next Saturday. We'll share stories about his way with the ladies and his devil-may-care life and get drunk. Please be sure to have a designated driver or to call at taxi. We don't want you to join Joe."

Christians seem attracted to celebrations of life rather than funerals because they think it's Christian and "a good testimony."  They don't want to deny the reality of the intermediate state (what is often called "going to heaven") nor of the final resurrection from the dead. They don't want to be mournful or to weep, because this would deny the fact that John has gone on to a "better place." "We want to be joyful because we know the Lord. Please do not wear black but bright and colorful clothes." (I was shocked when I attended a Presbyterian funeral in one of those big "First-type" churches, and a stylish and dignified lady, the wife of an elder, showed up in white slacks, yellow shirt, and sandals. I thought, "Her Mama should've sent her to finishing school.")

I don't like all this, "Let's show we're Christians by our upbeat attitudes, smiles or attempts at smile, and platitudes about "victory in Jesus." A person has died. Most often the Christian who dies does not want to die until near the end. He wanted to live. That's why he took the chemo. Now he has died. By faith we know he is with the Lord and among the blessed dead (and therefore, we trust, would not come back if he had the choice), but we need to face the reality that he didn't want to go. He's dead. The Psalmist was suffering and depressed and living on the front side of Christ's resurrection, but his prayer should not be dismissed.
Hear my prayer, O Lord,and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”
People need to acknowledge not the partial but the full reality of what has happened to the person who has died.

Those of us who are left behind, if we loved the person, did not want him to go until it seemed a mercy that he should be relieved of the suffering of this mortal life. Now that person will not be part of our lives again. Our houses have become houses of mourning. There will be an vacant place at our holiday tables. We feel empty, lonely, sad. As C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of Joy, he had not known that "grief felt so much like fear." Death hurts - it hurts like hell. People need to acknowledge and experience their grief, not deny it, or suppress it, or postpone it. There is wisdom in the words of the Preacher: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Ecclesiastes 7:4).

It is not the Christian faith that turns funerals into celebrations of life. Our Lord, who knew he would raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, nevertheless wept at his grave.  It is true that the Apostle Paul longed to be with Christ which is "far better" and that in 1 Corinthians he taunts death, "O death where is thy victory?" But he also told the Thessalonians with regard to their fellow Christians who had died not not to grieve but not to grieve as those who have no hope. He wrote the Philippians that he was thankful the Lord spared his friend Epaphroditus who had been sick or he would have had "sorrow upon sorrow."

The Book of Common Prayer Order for Burial of Dead combines the hope of resurrection with the reality of mourning. It begins with "I am the resurrection and the life said the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." It also includes this prayer for the bereaved:
Almighty and most merciful God, the Consolation of the sorrowful, and the Support of the weary, who dost not willingly grieve or afflict the children of men; Look down in tender love and pity, we beseech thee, upon thy bereaved servants, whose joy is turned into mourning; So that, while they mourn, they may not murmur, or faint under thy chastening hand; but, remembering all thy mercies, thy promises, and thy love in Christ, may resign themselves meekly into thy hands, to be taught and comforted by thee, who bringest life out of death, and who canst turn their grief into eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The same combining of realities takes place at the grave. Dirt is thrown onto the casket as the Presbyter "commit(s) his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ." 

Funerals are times for mourning in the context of worshipping God who gave and who has taken away. I have rules with regard to my funeral: 1. The service, which so far as I am concerned can just be at the graveside, shall be the Order for the Burial of the Dead. 2. Nothing shall be said about me beyond the fact that I have died. The words would be embarrassing either way - whether honest or dishonest. 2. My body shall not be sent to any of the Hoff Celebration of Life Centers.* 

* Real name of a funeral home business. 

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