Funerals are out of fashion. Today, celebration of life services are in.
This trend, however, is a product of broader influences in society and the church. In our culture we tend to shun sadness and encourage happiness. You see it in parenting, movies, sports, and education. But in the church also we don’t give much place to grief. For instance, just consider how many ‘happy’ songs we sing in church compared to how many ‘lament’ songs we sing. Moreover, in a church full of amazing worship, extraordinary events, great experiences, and most importantly fun, there’s no time to cry.
Now, I don’t mean to simply nit-pick at a name. But I wonder, what do we really gain by virtue of this name change? Or perhaps, what do we lose? It seems to me that this new name, while possibly setting a brighter and happier tone for the event, actually has two unintended consequences.
First, it implicitly discounts grief as an acceptable response to death. After all, it’s a celebration of life – and you don’t grieve at a celebration. Surely, the Apostle Paul didn’t want Christians to grieve without hope as unbelievers do (1 Thess. 4:13) – but God forbid we get rid of grieving altogether. On the contrary, Paul exhorted Christians to not only rejoice with those who rejoice, but also weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Furthermore, the resurrection and the life himself, Jesus, wept over the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). Could we possibly accuse Jesus of grieving without hope? Such a possibility is absurd – so also, the thought that grief is an inappropriate response to death.
Second, merely celebrating a person’s life overlooks the very thing that will actually make others wise, namely, death. I don’t mean to suggest that at a funeral there ought not be any remembrance of a person’s life and the (hopefully) many fond memories of family and friends – such storytelling is quite worthwhile. But is that all a funeral is good for? As Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “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.” Thinking about death – as miserable as that sounds – makes us live better. Contemplating our own mortality is, in fact, meant to make us wise; for in the words of Psalm 90, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
While I’m not defending the word ‘funeral’ as the most appropriate designation of a ceremony for a deceased person, perhaps it is better than ‘celebration of life’. For so long as pain and tears and death are a part of our world, may we respect the house of mourning and enter in to weep with those who are weeping.