Funerals are a gift because there are few things in life that throws the primary questions of life in your face like a funeral. Funerals insist that we shake off our life-stupor, at least for a while.
Against the backdrop of the smell of the wreaths, the hushed tones of the mourners (or loud talking if it’s a Chinese wake), and general awkwardness all round, the main questions of life yell at you. In the face of death we ask the questions of life:
Does life have meaning?
If you did well does anybody care?
What does it mean to do well anyway?
If you lived your life poorly, is there anyway to make things right? Is there redemption?
If life has meaning why must it come to an end?
What happens after death?
Will anybody remember me after I am gone?
What truly matters in life?
This is why the church ought to take funerals seriously. There are few other occasions where we can both list out the main questions of life, and venture to consider the answers.
I grant that funerals are inconvenient. Why hardly anyone tells you ahead of time precisely when they are going to die. Funerals are murder on your calendar. (The last wake I attended came on a day when I was told I had 24 hours to leave the country, but that’s another story.)
Still, my default stance is to attend wakes and funerals. I also make it a point to go all the way to the end — to the crematorium or to the actual burial — if I can. I also welcome every opportunity to speak at wakes and funerals even though it drains me emotionally.
Jesus knew the power of funerals. He allowed his good friend Lazarus to go through one (John 11:1-44). Jesus could have rushed to his friend’s side and healed him so that he needn’t have to die. Jesus could have healed Lazarus long distance. But He didn’t. He understood the power of a funeral. He had a use for that one.
Although Jesus arrives after the funeral is over, He does give us a master class on what to do at funerals. No emotional distancing here. He weeps at the grave of his friend. He is angry at the loss of life. If indeed humankind is made in the image of God then every death is an assault against that image and the life that God had purposed.
When we go to a funeral, we are saying that life is precious. The life of the deceased is precious. The lives of friends who lost a love one are precious. Funerals, wakes, walking to the end, allow us to say that something significant has happened. It allows us to say that people have infinite value.
So grief is allowed. Jesus wept. Paul calls us not to grieve as those without hope (1Thessalonians 4:13). Be he doesn’t say do not grieve. Even if the deceased is a believer, we will not be seeing him or her again this side of heaven. Loss calls forth grief. And Jesus cries with us.
(If the deceased had suffered there is relief that the suffering is over but that is a different matter.)
By His tears, Jesus gives us permission to grieve. But He does something more. He does only what He can do. He offers life beyond the grave. At Lazarus’s funeral, Jesus makes this startling claim:
“Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?’”
(John 11:25-26 NLT)
Crazy words to say at the graveside of a friend. Here is no vague saccharine consolation. Here is a promise that death can be conquered. Crazy words indeed, if Jesus hadn’t proceeded to call Lazarus back from the dead, if He hadn’t gone on to die and get raised from the dead after three days.
So in the midst of tears there is real hope. And when God’s people show up at a funeral, they incarnate that hope. There are the sermons of course if it is a Christian funeral. But even if it isn’t, God’s people bring along with them the smell of life (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). (Insensitive hard sell evangelism is inappropriate on such occasions. But I hope hope pours out of the pores of believers.) By their very presence, Christians at a funeral point towards someone else who is at the funeral.
This someone is saying:
Life indeed has meaning.
There is life after death.
There is redemption.
There is love beyond the grave.
So if Christians do not show up at funerals to weep with those who weep and to bring real hope, who will? Who can? If funerals raise the most basic questions of life, who will bring the Answer?
By the way when my time comes, I like to be buried in Penang if that’s all right. And please, no “There’s a land that is fairer than day.” I want something more robust, something by U2 perhaps?