Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 KJV)
Grief is a hard reality for all of us in this fallen world. Sorrow is keenly felt when a loved one dies. Jesus himself was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3 KJV) and at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35). But the Christian’s experience is tempered by the glorious reality of Jesus’ resurrection and the promises of eternal life for all who believe in Him. We still cry, but we do not “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thes. 4:13 NIV). I had the unique privilege of being at two funerals on successive Mondays: officiating at Margaret Maienshein’s and participating at the memorial service for my mother-in-law, Shirley Baker. Praise God that both services were for believers and both offered a time of joy in Christ as well as an opportunity to grieve.
Although there is no doubt that funerals are difficult, I believe there are numerous blessings that attend the funeral of a believer and that when we understand the purposes of a funeral it will better equip us to plan ahead for our own or a loved one’s as well as enhance our participation in the funerals we attend. Hopefully we can all learn to better “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2 ESV) and so be able to say, with Paul, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4 ESV).
The following nine points are taken from chapter one of Dan Lloyd’s very good book: Leading Today’s Funerals: A Pastoral Guide for Improving Bereavement Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997). The points are his but the comments, aside from direct quotations, are mine.
Funerals help us grieve
Death is a direct result of the Fall, in that sense it is an enemy and not natural. But death is natural in the sense that it is inevitable in our fallen world. Unless Jesus Christ returns each one of us will die and we need to be prepared for that day. Sometimes death is expected and there is time to prepare, other times it is an unexpected tragedy. But while we might be prepared for death, we may find ourselves unprepared for grief. The loss of a loved one is a shock and the depth of our emotions may be a surprise even when we have unwillingly anticipated the reality of death – that sad day when a loved one passes away. A thoughtful funeral service helps us work through our grief as we are reminded from God’s Word that weeping is part of our life on this earth and that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1 NIV). If you wonder whether Christians shouldn’t just celebrate and be joyful because the believer is now in heaven, please take a few minutes to read The Banner of Truth Trust’s booklet Christians Grieve Too by Donald Howard.
Funerals help us express sympathy
This is a blessing that extends to others, that gives them an opportunity to share in the sorrow of the bereaved. As Dan Lloyd notes, “it is natural to want to display our sympathy to a family facing the pain of losing one of its members. Attending a funeral is a tangible way of expressing compassion and support to the hurting. Our presence also reaffirms our love for and commitment to those who have lost someone special” (p. 17). For those of us who have recently lost loved ones we know how meaningful and comforting it was to have the presence of friends at the funeral.
Funerals help us express loss
The harsh reality of a loved one being permanently (for this life) gone is jarring. You have no doubt heard and perhaps even said yourself, “I can’t believe _______ is gone.” We need time to adjust to a ‘new normal’ and culturally the funeral service is one step in that process. At the viewing, funeral or memorial service, and interment or burial, we understand that this is real. We are forced to talk about the reality of death and loss. As painful as that is, by God’s grace we begin to face life without that person. Mr. Fred Rogers of PBS fame had a wonderful way of talking to children about difficult topics. A funeral is a time when we talk about death, but we can also talk naturally about life after death (heaven) and how the hope we have as Christians helps us wake up tomorrow and go on living.
Funerals help us remember positive times
We want to give thanks to God for His grace evidenced in our loved one’s life. And as we reflect and remember it can be a wonderfully uplifting time of praise and prayer, even though that individual wasn’t perfect! Not only do we want to remember and share and pass on the funny stories but we should want to emulate the good character qualities God worked in their life. Praise God when we are able to say to our children, “You remember this about your Grandma? I see that same trait in your life!”
Funerals motivate us to make memory investments
Let me quote Lloyd here to explain this one: “You make a memory investment when you establish an annual event or tradition your family will cherish in the future. I encourage people . . . to continue the traditions that were of value to the one who has died. In this way the family can look forward to honoring its loved one and maintaining a sense of family stability” (p. 19). He recommends Gloria Gaither and Shirley Dobson’s Let’s Make a Memory. And he shares an example from his own family. “When my mother’s side of the family gathers for a special meal, someone will inevitably say in a deep, gravelly voice, “Nostovia.” My Ukrainian grandfather often would give that brief toast, which means “to your health,” when he was still with us” (p. 19).
Funerals help us find hope
Sometimes people come to a funeral feeling that there is no hope; we can point them to the Gospel promises which form the basis of the hope that we have. Our hope is not wishful thinking, but is the assurance (confidence, trust) that God will faithfully do what He has promised to do! So we share those promises and how they are received. We may rightly focus on the promise of eternal life and Christ’s constant presence and peace, but we ought to also communicate the promise of the forgiveness of sins for all who believe in Jesus. The world doesn’t have a good answer for the despair many feel in the presence of death; a Christian funeral can clearly present the Good News.
Funerals help us express respect
Again, Dan Lloyd says it well: “Love desires to express itself in meaningful ways. Love does not die when a friend does, but it still seeks expression. Funerals provide an excellent opportunity for people to ‘pay their respects’” (p. 20). And your presence is beneficial to the grieving family. Old friends, neighbors, co-workers, and classmates expressing their respect and sympathy is a blessed acknowledgement that this life mattered and this person was loved.
Funerals help us prepare for death
Funerals are somber and sobering. We are forced to assess our own life and are sometimes vividly reminded how tenuous and fragile life is. Our days are numbered (Job 14:5; Ps. 90:12) and we would be wise to be ready.
Funerals do not help the dead
Our current culture is confused about eternal realities and it is not uncommon to hear erroneous ideas bandied about at funerals. We need to be compassionate but also careful to speak the truth in love. Maintaining a wrong belief about what happens when we die is not helpful even if it is sincerely held. The best antidote to this is not to bash people for their wrong understanding, but to teach the truth long before we enter the funeral home. Let’s be sure that we have a biblical understanding about life and death and life after death. Let’s not be afraid to talk about death and dying and what God has revealed. Let’s be certain that even the youngest among us hear about the only way to the Father, Jesus Christ. And let’s be sure to pray that God works in our hearts and the hearts of those near and dear to us to graciously grant us new life, eternal life.
May God bless you and give you comfort in life and in death,
P.S. If you’d like to talk to me about your funeral, just let me know!