Just before I left for a trip, I did a memorial service (see my last post). I had a few hours on a international flight to reflect on the delicate balance between celebrating and mourning at a memorial service. Here are a few thoughts.
I like doing funerals. I know that’s a strange opener, but let me explain a little. Funerals provide a unique opportunity. Some Sunday mornings at our church, it’s a feat to get everyone quiet and focused to start the service. I’ve never experienced this at a funeral. When the family comes in and the minister stands behind the pulpit, typically all you can hear are a few sniffles as everyone solemnly directs their attention towards the front.
This is how it should be. What should happen at the service? While it’s certainly a time to honor the person who has died, it’s also a tremendous opportunity to minister well to people who may be confused and hurting.
What’s the point of the service? This is a more crucial question than we may have recognized. Whenever I do a service, I tell them very clearly that we are here to do three things.
One, we are here to celebrate a life.
Two, we are here to mourn a loss.
Three, we are here to have our thoughts shaped by the Word of God.
Ecclesiastes is such an interesting book. Some passages are admittedly enigmatic. Among the most intriguing passages is this one:
“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” – Ecclesiastes 7:1-2
Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Is Solomon saying it’s better to die than to live? Not exactly. What he’s saying is it’s good to look back at a life well lived. Babies are cute, but they aren’t very useful. They are all potential. A man who lives a long and faithful life leaves a legacy. There’s much to reflect upon.
The living go to the memorial service and lay it to heart. They come face to face with their own mortality and realize that one day, folks will be gathered in a room telling stories about them.
There’s a popular movement to take the sadness out of funerals. I get it, especially for those who had faith in Christ. I think we’re allergic to discomfort. (It’s why opioids are so popular). While it’s true enough that death is the door to being with Christ, and it is gain to die for those who are in Christ (Phil 1:21). It’s also true that death is sad. Jesus cried because his friend Lazarus died (Jn 11:35). He was sad because death is sad. Paul taunts death in 1 Cor 15. The context is the resurrection and the fact that death has been dealt the death blow (pun intended). Paul says “Death, where is your sting?” (I Cor 15.55) But importantly, this follows verse 54 which reminds us that it’s “when” and “then.” In other words, there will be a day when death doesn’t sting but for now, it hurts. The Bible concludes with the great hope that death will be eliminated one day. “Death will be no more” and “every tear will be wiped away.” (Rev 21:4). For now, we mourn, but not as those who have no hope. (1 Thess 4:15)
The Biblical Frame
Regardless of who the service is for, I try to do something very similar here. Regardless of where someone is spiritually or their understanding of the gospel, I want to provide a biblical lens to understand life and death. I find the most accessible way to do this is to follow the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration model. I hit each point briefly.
Creation — man was created in God’s image and as such, has a special relationship with the Lord and his creation. Psalm 8 is a great place to go and of course Genesis 1.
Fall— Genesis 3 introduces a plot twist when the serpent shows up and the story is redirected. Man rebels against God and the fallout is catastrophic. It’s important to emphasize here that man will “return to dust.” The clock is ticking on Adam’s days. This explains why death is so hard. It was not an original part of the plan! Deep inside of us, we know it’s not supposed to be this way. Everyone knows and feels it at a memorial service. Death strikes a dissonant note in the song of life.
Redemption — Now we’re ready for the good news of Jesus. Back at the curse, there was a promise embedded that the serpent doesn’t get the final say (Gn 3:15). Jesus came and defeated death through the resurrection. He offers the promise of eternal life to those who place their faith and trust in him. 2 Cor 5:21 is a great place to explain the great exchange that took place. Your sin for his righteousness. Sin isn’t just Adam and Eve’s problem. Sin is your problem too (Rom 3:23).
Restoration— The Bible’s story actually makes sense if you read straight from Genesis 1-2 to Revelation 21-22. The story starts with God’s people in God’s place. They are told to fill the earth and subdue it. The story ends with abundant people in a temple-city with the presence of God. The bookends are important to point out! We are part of a much bigger story!