The Case for Funerals

Mom did not attend a church, but believed in Christ. Shortly before her death in 2010, I learned that she did not want a funeral. I really don’t know why. Maybe it was because she did not have a local church. Perhaps she thought there would be no one to officiate for her. It is also possible that she thought that funerals were too grim, and she wanted to be remembered in a different light. She had arranged for her cremation and burial plot, but thought that a funeral was unnecessary—perhaps even a bad idea.

I was unable to be with her when she died, but said goodbye to Mom about a week before her passing. (I could not stay, but was constrained to return to Denver.)

Without a funeral, something was missing and empty. I had no formal way of saying goodbye. I would have gone back for the funeral. I would have tried to speak at her funeral. Although I do not know why mom did not want one, I do know that funerals are biblical and emotionally healthy.

Our Lord Jesus did not have a funeral. Criminals were not so honored in that day. Jesus was taken to be a law-breaker when, in fact, he was a love-bringer and truth-teller. Christians celebrate his death and resurrection simultaneously in communion until he comes again in glory. But it is because of Christ’s death and resurrection that Christians should have and attend funerals.

Jesus came to earth in order to reverse the powers of the fall. Death invaded the human race because of sin against God (Genesis 3). Ever since, man has mourned the dead, feared death (or claimed not to), and sought to alleviate or postpone mortality. People have also murdered one another, committed suicide, killed in war and self-defense, and killed others accidentally in myriad ways. History is red in spilled blood. You cannot long avoid seeing a grave yard or reading an obituary.

Jesus has no tombstone, and no permanent burial place. The grave is empty. He is elsewhere, at the right hand of the Father and above all death yet still incarnated—God in human form. As the resurrected and ascended Lord, he has died his appointed death, and he lives his life for his people.

Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Death, however, is still tasted on earth. Death comes from sin. We cannot ignore sin and death. We typically solemnize them through funerals and other commemorations. Yet if Jesus has vanquished death through his death and resurrection, why should be observe funerals at all? Listen to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes.

A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4).

This wisdom was written before the coming of Jesus, but we do not throw it out for that reason. It is Holy Scripture, as Jesus affirmed (Matthew 5:17-18; John 10:33) and as Paul told us:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

We can either try to divert ourselves from thinking about death, be morbid about it, or face it with courage. God calls us to have courage in a wounded world and to make the most of our limited opportunities. Going into “the house of mourning” is sobering—and we need sobering up in a culture of diversion. We should “take it to heart.” What is better than going to “the house of mourning” to become wise, to make the most of the few days we have under the sun?

We should attend funerals in order to sober up, to remember a life now ended, and to encourage those who grieve. We should make funeral arrangements to help others solemnize the life that God gave us and to consider that God will take away every life before the resurrection of the just and the unjust (Daniel 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). Of all people, Christians can face death with courage and hope. One way to show this courage and hope is to attend and plan for funerals.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

One thought

  1. Death is difficult for many to bear much less think about their inevitable end. This was true of my father who did not want to talk about his own appointment with the grimm reaper. Why? I’m not sure. He was a professing believer. What I do understand is that death also has an appointment with death…the new heavens and earth that await those who are in Christ. The resurrection is the only reason we truly need not fear death, even though we try to avoid it and stay it’s hand through modern means.

    While we live between the ages, believers should remember that death is not ultimate, God is. Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me though he die yet shall he live. The death of death in the death of Christ is precious to me, for by it I no longer have to fear to what death points–God’s wrath.

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