On Death and Funerals

A recent trend seems to be moving funerals away from a Christian observance of death, and toward a celebration of the life of the deceased. The emphasis indeed has its good points. Every life is of inestimable value before God, and every life leaves behind a trail of meaning, whether narrow or wide. Thus the celebratory approach to a funeral simply attempts to put a life at its close into perspective.

From a Christian viewpoint, however, a Christian funeral does not let the celebration of the life of the deceased overshadow the celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He by the grace of God “tasted death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). He conquered death. Though believers too must die, it is through him alone that we have hope for the life beyond. That must be celebrated as foremost.

A Christian funeral is therefore above all a time for the singing of hymns of rejoicing and the preaching of the saving gospel of promised resurrection. Those elements should govern the whole service.

It isn’t that I don’t want someone to say something nice at my funeral. But my greater hope is that a preacher of the gospel will proclaim a message that rings the bells and blows the trumpet for the message of eternal life given by God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

The New Testament says of our Lord Jesus Christ that he shared in our humanity “that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14,15).

It is good to be aware that the New Testament uses the language of death and dying in four different ways. Murray J. Harris has organized them helpfully.

1. Dying is a physical process we are all experiencing each day even now. But it will one day become a critical event that will bring to an end our mortal journey on this earth (II Corinthians 4:12, 16)

2. The New Testament also makes reference to spiritual death. This stands for our natural alienation from the Living God and our opposition to him, which is the essence of sin. Both natural and spiritual death are the consequences and penalty of sin – the common lot of mankind (Romans 5:12; Matt. 8:22; Jn 5:24, 25)

3. The New Testament also speaks of the second death. This term refers to a permanent separation from God for those whose names are not found written in God’s book of life (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14-15; 21:8).

4. Death to sin is used as a metaphor to describe the results when the believer identifies fully with the death and resurrection of Christ. This brings about an unresponsiveness to sin’s appeal and power and a responsiveness to the voice of God (Jn 5:24; Rom 6:4, 6, 11, 13).

I can think of no verse that better summarizes the key issue regarding our physical and spiritual destiny than this: “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I John 5:11,12).

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2 thoughts on “On Death and Funerals

  1. Thanks for raising this issue, Bishop. I’ve noticed that the gospel is often overshadowed on these occasions by admiration for the deceased person. There is an important place for such admiration at a funeral, of course – particularly in the eulogy. But I’ve heard too many funeral sermons that were really more like eulogies than sermons! No matter how good the deceased person might have been, our hope tor their future and ours is completely founded on the gospel of Christ, and this gospel needs to be the main emphasis at a funeral. You’ve expressed the point very articulately and sensitively!

    • James: Your observation and commendation are very much appreciated. Let’s find other ways also to make this point so that families that want to go down the wrong track will be ware. And perhaps ministers here and there who follow the trend without thought will think.

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