Funeral Practices that Honor the Lord of Life

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Death is a reality that comes to all people, whether saved or unsaved. It is no respecter of persons, families, age, or race. It often gives us no warning.

Death ends earth-life opportunities. The finality of an eternal destiny after death sobers us. The separation of death brings us grief.

Life seems to screech to a halt when death touches a family. Plans are changed. a funeral must be planned. It is in these times that the support and help of friends and the church family are so much needed and appreciated. We often ponder two questions: (1) How would the departed loved one want this funeral to be? (2) How can we honor the Lord of life in this funeral? For the people of the world, funerals hold some unpleasant reflections. The thought of what is possibly beyond the grave chills their hearts. Death comes to them with a bitter sting and holds no comfort of the assurance of eternal life. Some of their practices seem to brush aside the reality of death. Cremation and the practice of no viewing can be an effort to get away from pondering the seriousness and reality of death.

Additionally, their practices often glorify the departed loved one. Expensive flowers and eulogies are lavished on the departed one. There often is some recognition of accomplishments for all the committees, boards, charities, etc. of which this person was a part. Sometimes services held in memory of the one who died are called “celebrations” of life.

But for the Christian, there is hope and assurance of life after death. apostle Paul said, “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (1Thess 4:13-14). Paul actually desired to go to be with the Lord. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 he states, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”

Christian funerals should be characterized by this assurance and confidence in the Lord of life! While there is sorrow and tears, there should also be the deep settled peace and resignation to God’s will. As loved ones slip from this life to the next, we should gain a greater longing to go to be with them in glory.

When a loved one passes away and there are questions about their salvation, we do well to face the facts soberly. an honest recognition of a life away from God and what that means in death challenges others to make sure of their salvation before it is too late. We can rest in God’s faithful judgment in these times but we cannot change God’s law of righteousness.

Our viewing and funeral practices should include time for quiet reflection on the reality of death. The very practice of a viewing brings us face to face with the reality of death and its finality. It is good for our children to be along for these occasions and learn something of death at a young age. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.”
Our viewings should be characterized by respect for the dead and the grieving family. Our visiting should be quiet, and in soft tones. There should be opportunity to speak with the family and offer our condolences and encouragement. Laughter, joking, and the light-hearted spirit all are not befitting for a Christian viewing or funeral. We should be careful when there is a large crowd waiting to view that even the normal visiting among the crowd does not get too loud.

At times the family prepares a letter relating the details surrounding the death. This often serves to answer people’s questions before meeting the family. It may help people know how to encourage and share with the family. It can also help to keep the viewing line moving since many questions and details are shared in this printed form. As attendees at a viewing, we should be careful not to visit too long with family if there are many others waiting to view. We must find the balance of showing our interest and support and not taking too much time. Our presence, along with some words of sympathy, means so much to the family without a lot of visiting. a visit in their home sometime later would be a better place to visit and reminisce over the past.

Our Decrees say, “Gospel simplicity and economy should characterize our funerals. Flowers shall not be used in our funeral services.” We face a constant pressure to leave the simplicity of the Gospel in all of our church services, especially weddings and funerals. Expensive and fancy coffins are not necessary for the Christian. Flowers, decorations, and other vain show only distract from the spirit of simplicity and may rob the honor from God.

How should we view a display of pictures of the loved one and their activities before death? It does provide a window into the family’s experience especially for those who are more distant and have not seen the family very often in the past. But should not these displays also pass similar tests of Gospel simplicity and economy? Could our displays of pictures and personal items of the departed one eventually do the same thing that flowers would do in our services?

Funeral services should have Gospel preaching as the main event. A clear Gospel message warning the sinner and comforting the saint should be part of the service. In time of death hearts are often more tender and open to truth than at other times. Let us not miss the opportunity to have Truth shared in these times!

Drawing undue attention to the accomplishments and life of the departed individual can detract from the honor that should go to God. The apostle Paul did reflect on his godly life when he said, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8b). We must find the balance between the eulogies the world would offer and a modest reflection on the faithful life of the departed loved one. All such reflections in our services should be to magnify the power and grace of God in the life of the deceased one. These reflections should challenge the rest of us living to follow in the same ways of righteousness. a life of holiness and faithfulness does hold a powerful message to the unsaved!

Perhaps the long list of fond memories of good times together and the many outstanding deeds done should be shared in private visiting with the family left behind. This can be a means of encouragement for them. It often helps a family find healing from grief to speak about their loved one’s life and the many pleasant experiences they had together.

The grave side service is the conclusion of the funeral. Singing together and pondering the message of looking forward to the resurrection when the graves will be opened is a normal and very fitting practice at the grave side. Many indelible impressions are made about the reality of death, standing beside the open grave and then seeing the coffin lowered into the earth and finally covered with dirt. It seems more reverent to not need to use a machine to place the vault lid. Men working together to lower the casket, place the lid, and then finally cover the grave seems to be a respectful, reverent way to conclude this part of the funeral service.

Often a meal is served afterward for family and relatives. It seems fitting to welcome all to stay, if possible. The time of visiting and sharing together as a community of believers can also speak to the ungodly who may be present. Where is their god in death? Who will be there for them in a time like this? This time of sharing should also be characterized by sobriety and seriousness. It is not time to lay off sorrow and begin to make merry. It is rather a time to appreciate what God has done for us and what it means to be part of a brotherhood that cares and supports in times of need like this.

Sometimes funerals bring together youth from far away and they desire to meet after the funeral for some fellowship and activity. Our Decrees ask that, “Late night and after church service gatherings for physical play activities are discouraged.” Would not gathering to play after a funeral fall into the same category? It would be much more in keeping with the Christian spirit of sobriety to gather to visit and renew acquaintances or gather to sing the songs of comfort and of Heaven.

Finally, let’s remember the words of Hebrews 9:27, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Let us live each day so we are prepared for the day of our death. May we understand how to honor the Lord of life and the Victor over death in all of our lives.

~Fredericksburg, PA
February 2011