Is a funeral really a “celebration of life?”
Dear friends, this is an excellent question that pastors often are asked. And the answer is not quite as straightforward as we normally would think.
Let me begin by answering, “Yes . . . and no!” Therefore, in light of God’s Word, let’s break this down a bit.
First of all, when we speak of funerals, what are we really talking about? Death. Plain and simple. You don’t have a funeral unless someone is dead. So, then, what does the Bible have to say about death?
Well, we learn in the Scriptures that death is an aberration of God’s good creation. That is, it was not an original part or intent of His creation but rather is against His order of creation—which always was intended for life.
Death, as we see in Genesis (2:16-17, 3:19), is a direct result of man’s sin—man’s rebellion—against God. Indeed, we read in Romans 6:23 that, “The wages of sin is death. . . .”
So, when we talk about funerals, we are talking about death. Death which God did not intend, but which was brought into the world through man’s own sin and into which we are all conceived and born (Psalm 51:5).
Now, when people speak of a funeral as being a celebration of life, we usually are referring to celebrating and rejoicing in the life of the deceased. That is, remembering with thanks the many good things that he/she was able to do/give/receive in their lifetime.
That is why it is a somewhat common practise at funerals to go to great lengths to praise the person who has died. While it is not wrong, per se, to remember with joy this person who has died, and the blessings that they were able to both give and to receive, yet we must ask ourselves whether the funeral (which for the Christian is a time of worship and praise to God alone) is the best or most appropriate time for such discussion.
Secondly, it is always good to bear in mind that as it is a funeral, it is entirely right—and acceptable—to mourn, weep, and be sad and sorrowful.
For, as has been said already, a person has died—their life has been taken away against God’s original intent in creation.
This is, indeed, a sad and trying time for the family and friends left behind, and so we are free to mourn. We know from Scripture that Jesus Himself wept at the death of His good friend, Lazarus (John 11:35).
The Apostle Paul also speaks to this issue in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep [sleep is a Christian euphemism for death], that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
As Christians, who confess and believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We still mourn, still cry, still weep as we face death in all its ugliness—but not as those with no hope.
For herein lies the true celebration of life for the Christian at the funeral service. We remember with joy and thanksgiving that our Lord Jesus Christ is victorious over all death. As Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 20-21, 54b-55): “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . . .
“Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man [Adam] came death, by a man [Jesus] has come also the resurrection of the dead. . . .
“Death is swallowed up in victory. ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’”
So you see, the great celebration of life that we rejoice in at a funeral is not the earthly life of the person who has died, but rather the everlasting life that they have received through faith in Jesus Christ, the Risen One Himself, who has conquered and destroyed the power of death.
The focus is always upon Christ, who was crucified in our place for our sins, but then was raised to new and everlasting life for us so that by faith in Him we, too, might live in eternity.
This is the life that we celebrate. Not that they were such a good and wonderful person but rather that they are a sinner who has been redeemed by the shed blood of Christ—and who, by faith, has been promised and given life by the Living One Himself—the Lord Jesus.
This alone is the comfort and joy of the Christian who mourns and sorrows at a funeral. Being ever mindful of the work of God in Christ Jesus on behalf of not only the deceased but all of us, as well. Therefore, even in the face of death, even as we are confronted with the stark reality of our own mortality, even though we weep at the prospect of death, yet we still have hope, yet we still have joy.
Joy found not in ourselves. Hope rooted not in our own works or righteousness, but in the cross of Christ and His empty tomb, which gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Indeed, as Paul teaches us in Romans 6:3-5, 23: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might walk in newness of life.
“For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. . . .
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So, is a funeral a celebration of life? Yes! The life that we have received by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
And that’s “What’s up with that.”
In an effort to make this a somewhat regular addition to our local newspaper, if you have any questions or comments about this or any other topic and would like a pastor’s response, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to hearing from you.
Rev. J. Quast is the pastor of The Church of the Lutheran Hour here and author of “Angels: What You Should Know About These Divine Messengers (both the good and the bad).”
Is a funeral really a “celebration of life?”