Should We Trade in Funerals for “Celebrations of Life”?
Fresh out of seminary, I became good friends with a guy who owned a funeral home. I remember asking him what was the most significant thing he had learned over the years in that job. He was a godly man, a member of my church, so I thought he’d offer me some deep theological insight. Instead, he simply said, “The sap rises, and the sap falls.”
I appreciated his eccentric brevity. I also expected a little more. So I stared at him, waiting. But nothing followed.
Nearly 10 years later, his statement has haunted me—its bluntness and brevity. I hear his words in the back of my mind almost 10 years later. A day is coming for us all—the sap rises, and the sap falls.
FUNERALS—OR “CELEBRATIONS OF LIFE”?
Over the last decade of serving the local church, I’ve noticed a trend: people don’t like thinking about death. In every conceivable way, we dismiss, ignore, and refuse to acknowledge our mortality. In the words of the blues artist, Albert King, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Nobody wants to die and nobody wants to think about death. We can usually stay busy enough and distracted enough to keep thoughts of death at bay but what happens when a family member dies? Surely then we are forced to think about the weighty topic of death? Not so fast!
As a pastor, I’ve noticed how our aversion to death affects how we handle the deceased. Funerals have been traded in for “celebrations of life.” More and more, I’m hearing from my congregation that they “don’t want a funeral” for their loved one. Rather, they want to celebrate the life of the one they loved.
I’ve nothing against celebrating the life of a servant of the Lord Jesus. We ought to honor faithful followers of Jesus for finishing their race. We ought to challenge those in attendance to “let [their] manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And yet I wonder: does this desire to celebrate life grow out of a stronger desire to avoid death?
Celebrations of life are attractive. They’re fun. They’re post-mortem roasts for non-celebrities. Friends stand up and make jokes about the departed as a way of showing them honor. Their order of service is simple: some funny stories, a couple of songs, and an inconvenient homily.
I’ve heard it often enough now to know what’s coming: “We want the service to be upbeat and lighthearted!” Celebrations of life can deliver on “upbeat and lighthearted.” But they often fail to offer hope that is distinctly Christian.
HAPPINESS ≠ HOPE
As pastors, one component of our job is to teach our people that there’s not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between happiness and hope. Jesus clearly displayed this in John 11 at the tomb of Lazarus. He weeps. Furthermore, we need to understand that helping grieving families reckon with death is part of our job description. We need to help our people realize that Christian grief has room for joy—and even laughter—because it’s tethered to the ultimate victory already won for us by Jesus.
Funerals provide a unique opportunity to clarify all this for those in attendance. They force us to consider soberly what comes after the finality of death. The preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us, “It will be well with those who fear God” and that “It will not be well with the wicked.” These contrasting truths follow the preacher’s comments on the burial of the wicked. Once praised in the city, presumably praised at their burial, this wicked person is now dead—and what matters now is whether they feared God.
Does this mean all funerals should be dreary and depressing? Of course not. Instead, their emotional tenor should be appropriately attuned to the sad reality of death, even as it’s considered alongside the joyful remembrance of the dead.
After all, death is God’s enemy. Paul tells us as much in 1 Corinthians 15:26. But it’s an enemy that has already been defeated by the resurrection of Jesus. What better venue than a funeral to highlight this glorious truth? We shouldn’t aim for “upbeat and lighthearted” when the deep emotional well of Christian hope is available to us. We shouldn’t spend so much time on jokes that we give short shrift to Jesus Christ who, having defeated sin and death, has made a way for the wicked to be forgiven and made righteous.
As strange as it sounds, we can’t afford to waste the opportunities a funeral provides.
So pastor, if a grieving family encourages you to deliver an “upbeat and lighthearted” service, gently remind them of John 11. Show them how Jesus wept over his friend Lazarus because of the curse of sin as seen in his death. Remind them that just as Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out,” so he also calls out his people from spiritual death to eternal life. For those in attendance who fear God, this gospel reminder will be a call to worship. And for those there who don’t fear God, perhaps it will be the means by which he calls them to eternal life.
If we want to truly celebrate life in our funerals—and we should—then let’s do so by mourning the tragic reality of death and then by celebrating the eternal life Jesus has won for his people.