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On the significance of funerals and the good news to be found in death.
It can be a real struggle to put words together that make sense when coping with the death of a friend or family member. Words that offer the smallest measure of comfort and catharsis are often hard to come by. Losing a loved one is always painful, whether that loss was “expected” or not. To be honest, I don’t think there is much you, or I, or anyone, for that matter, can ever do to truly “prepare” ourselves for moments like this. Death always catches us off guard. It always comes when we least expect it. And it always feels surprising and unreasonable.
I think the reason we can’t reason with death is because death is, in fact, unreasonable. We can’t accept it because we weren’t created to accept it. It’s unnatural to us. It’s an alien invader. And it’s our inability to reason with death that, I think, is most indicative of the fundamental aberration of death itself. By which, I mean, services which honor the deceased hold in tension the very fact that death is, at once, both an enemy and an evangelist.
Of course you and I both know and recognize that death is an enemy. It is the persistent hold over from the curse with which we have not fully wrapped our heads around. Death came into this world because of sin (Gn 3:17–19; Rom 5:12), and every time we lose some to the grave, it is a reminder that this world is not as it should be. That something is off. Something is wrong. This world of flesh and bone and wood and water was not created with death in mind. Death doesn’t belong. It wasn’t part of God’s original design for our world. It’s the adversary of all the goodness and beauty with which God implanted in his creation. Our grief in the aftermath of loss, therefore, is the soul’s ache at the oddity of death.
Fortunately for you and for me, we don’t have to rely on ourselves to “find the right words” to reason with the loss of life. That would be a quick and fruitless endeavor, I think. Instead — gloriously and graciously — God gave you and me his Word: his matchless, unchangeable Word, which speaks messages of peace, comfort, and hope to us in these precise moments. This Word incisively cuts through all our ill-conceived notions and all our manifest anxieties regarding the afterlife. It doesn’t give us pithy, motivational platitudes. No, it gives us real, honest hope. Hope that comes not by shying away from, sidestepping, or pretending that grief isn’t real. Rather, it confronts death head-on as the dreadful enemy that it is. Instead of offering us saccharine encouragement in the aftermath of loss, the cheering news of Scripture is the announcement that we aren’t left to combat this enemy on our own.
And it is in that way that I think death can serve as one of the best preachers. “Death is an enemy, but also an evangelist,” writes Kent Hughes.1 It might even be the best evangelist seeing as it is a reality which everyone must face. The Scriptures say in Ecclesiastes that “the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth,” and that it is “better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, since that is the end of all mankind, and the living should take it to heart.” (Ecc 7:1–2) The notion that funerals are “better” than parties seems incredibly morbid. But the writer of that Scripture is using the undeniable reality of death as a rebuke to how we who are still alive spend our lives in the here and now. Which is to say, that while parties might be more fun, funerals are undoubtedly more significant.
“The heart of the wise,” continues the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “is in a house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.” (Ecc 7:4) This candid language points to what death can teach those who are still alive. The great leveling agent of humanity remains the same as it always has been: everyone dies. Notwithstanding who you are or what you’ve done with your life or how well you’ve “prepared,” there is coming a day when you will die. It’s in all of our futures. There is nothing you can accomplish or acquire that can prevent that day from coming either. In that sense, death operates as God’s strictest teacher, schooling us away from the carless frivolity and festivity of the world, and showing us the supreme value of life itself.
“Grief is better than laughter,” says the Preacher, “for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.” (Ecc 7:3) This, in my mind, is the fullest expression of the tension with which we have been dealing so far. Faces that are sad may belie hearts that are glad. While that may sound morose to your ears, it is the posture of all those believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ who are, likewise, confronted with moments loss and abject sadness. Though our faces might grieve and mourn the death of loved ones, our hearts can rejoice in the grief-eclipsing news of the God who has conquered death.
This is that which the Word of God tells us. It identifies death as “the last enemy to be abolished” (1 Cor 15:26) — the enemy with which King Jesus has come to contend. It tells us that the world’s greatest wrong will one day be made right. That one day, “death will be no more.” (Rv 21:4) The untiring hope of Scripture is the assurance that our King “will destroy death forever,” and “will wipe away the tears from every face.” (Is 25:8) It informs us “of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tm 1:10) It informs us that our Savior Christ Jesus has once for all “tasted death for everyone . . . so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.” (Heb 2:9, 14–15) “There is no sting in death to the Christian,” writes B. H. Carroll. “The sting of death is sin, and sin has been blotted out. The strength of sin is the law, and the law has been satisfied. The power of death is the devil, but he has been conquered.”2
Why are funerals “better” than parties? Why can sad faces be glad even when dealing with death’s haunting reverberations? Because the Scriptures speak to us the cheering message that our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, has not only died for us but has also conquered death by rising again from the dead on the third day. (1 Cor 15:1–22) Therefore, what at first appears to be a severely melancholy perspective on life is actually a hopeful reminder of the resurrection. It is not in the “house of feasting” but in the “house of mourning” that we are reminded of the paradoxical hope of Jesus Christ, who triumphed by trampling the grave and walking out of it. Who through death brought life to the world. Who in his own death and resurrection buries death’s sting with the news that his resurrection is freely offered to you in his gospel.
Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Cor 15:54–57)
R. Kent Hughes, The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry, edited by Douglas Sean O’Donnell (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 183.
B. H. Carroll, The Pastoral Epistles of Paul and I and II Peter, Jude, and I, II, III John, edited by J. B. Cranfill (New York: Revell, 1915), 147.