Have you noticed how difficult it is for us moderns to utter the word death? It seems we will substitute just about any euphemistic word or phrase before we speak this epithet that insults our secret hope that we will live forever. We reverently speak of passing, the deceased, or of someone’s demise. Sometimes, because of our discomfort with death itself, we go the other direction: we get down to the brass tacks (sort of) and refer to death as kicking the bucket, pushing up daisies, joining the invisible choir, being six feet under, and so on… Whichever verbal path we choose, we make it quite clear that we are troubled with the word death, and I believe we are more troubled still when it comes to mourning the dead.
When I’m dead and gone, please don’t celebrate my life; instead, mourn my death. Wear black, shed a tear, sing some great hymns, proclaim the resurrection of the dead, and worship God because death is the last enemy to be destroyed. But please don’t let my funeral be life affirming. Yes, tell some jokes about me when you reflect on my life; maybe show a few pictures of what I looked like while I was living. Review my life and then give thanks to God for any good in me that you call to remembrance on the day of my memorial service. May my funeral, however, be depressing because I have died… yet joyous because I placed my faith in Jesus Christ.
In The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Thomas Lynch, both an undertaker and a writer, points out the obvious: We don’t like funerals. He says this: Most folks would rather shop dry goods or foodstuffs than caskets and burial vaults. Given the choice, most would choose root canal work over the funeral home. Lynch makes a fascinating point in his book about a significant shift in the modern world. Once upon a time we went outside to do our business (another euphemism) in what was called an outhouse. The sights and sounds and odors reminded us of the corruptibility of flesh. Ever since, though, Thomas Crapper’s invention of the toilet was popularized, all we do is pull a lever, and the evidence of our decay and fallibility disappears in seconds. About the same time the toilet was brought indoors, the parlor was pushed outdoors. The parlor became obsolete, giving way to the living room. Do you know what a parlor was?
The parlor was an important feature of the large, multigenerational home, where Grandmother slept upstairs during the last years of her life and babies took their first breath as they were born. The parlor was the room where much of the intersection of the generations took place. It was in the parlor where the young couple sat on a love seat, wide enough to sit next to each other, but short enough to keep them upright. The parlor was the place where the family played games. And it was also the place where Grandmother’s body would rest in a casket when she died. Friends and family would come to view her body until she was buried a day or two later. All the common ventures of life—from birth, to courtship, to marriage vows, to death—were likely to take place in the parlor. In recent times, though, we moved these ventures of life outside. Now many of these things take place in the presence of experts. We are born in the hospital, we date in our cars, we die in our retirement community, and our body goes to the funeral home—and it is likely we will never be seen again. As Lynch puts it, Bringing the [toilet] indoors has made feces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death [an embarrassment].
So, when we come together for what once was a funeral, now we celebrate life. We give closure to a person’s life. That is good and necessary. But, from the Christian’s perspective, isn’t something missing? With your permission, I’d like to plan my own funeral.
First, let my death be bad. Don’t sentimentalize, institutionalize, or normalize my death. Don’t say, Well, everyone dies. We should have expected this. Death is horrible: it is an enemy to dread, a curse we endure. Our days are, according to the psalmist, like grass: we flourish like a flower of the field and then we are gone (103:15-16). There is nothing good about death. When I die and you gather to talk about me, let death itself be held up as the enemy Christ came to destroy. Death is the great democrat who, in the end, levels all our pretentions, wrote Elton Trueblood in The Common Ventures of Life. If you come to my funeral, may Christ’s victory over this great democrat be the focal point.
Second, proclaim the gospel. Let the fundamental law of the universe be heard loudly and clearly: The wages of sin is death, and Reed Jolley wouldn’t have died had there been no sin. Yet then say, with equal clarity and increased volume, The gift of God is eternal life for those who place their faith in Christ.
Third, be careful with the eulogy. The word eulogy means to speak well of someone, and most funerals include them. They are necessary and appropriate. Historically, however, the eulogy was saved for later, for after the funeral. When the church gathered to mourn the end of someone’s life, the gathering was for worship. The church focused on God, not on the person who died. So, when I die, keep it short. Don’t let Reed Jolley be the main thing. Worship God.
Fourth, proclaim the Resurrection. When the emotions come, go ahead and mourn. Let the tears flow. And don’t feel like you have to resolve those emotions by the time you get in the car to drive home. But in the midst of any sorrow you feel, proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ and then rejoice over what that resurrection means for my dead body. The Christian’s hope is not that, when he dies, his soul goes to heaven. It does that, and that is good news. But that is not our hope. The Christian hope is that we have the promise of future resurrection after we die. One day, the apostle tells us, this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. Then, and only then, will we say, Death is swallowed up in victory! (1 Corinthians 15:53-55). So, when you grieve at my funeral, grieve as friends and family who have hope. Grieve as people who know that death is not the last word. And then, worship the God who numbered my days even before I was born. Imagine that!