In my 42 years of ministry with The Salvation Army, I have conducted many funerals. All kinds in many different formats in many places. It has been a distinct privilege to meet people at their deepest need, during a time of sadness and grief.
To meet people in their home and share with them in such a personal way is a great privilege. Indeed to pay respect to the one who has died and help the grieving family is what this is all about. Many people don’t like attending funerals—I can understand why. It can be very confronting and disturbing, especially when the deceased was still in the prime of their lives, and death was sudden. Going to funerals or memorial services can be uncomfortable for some people because of the emotions involved. Knowing what to do and say at funerals—and what to wear—can ease the discomfort.
When someone loved dies, we naturally question the meaning of life and death:
- Why did this person die?
- Why now?
- Why this way?
- Why does it have to hurt so much?
- What happens after death?
To heal in grief, we must explore these types of questions if we are to become reconciled to our grief. In fact, we must first ask these ‘why’ questions to decide why we should go on living before we can ask ourselves how we will go on living. This does not mean we must find definitive answers—only that we need the opportunity to think, and feel, things through.
The most important thing to remember is that the funeral is as much about the living as the deceased person. The funeral service provides a way for family and friends to say farewell to a dear loved one. It is also the time when friends of the bereaved—those who lost the loved one—can show their support for them. Attending a funeral shows the bereaved that they and/or their loved one meant something to others.
Funerals Make Us Reflect
I have said before in this segment that about 300 people die each day in Australia. Why is this important? Because funerals force us to reflect on life’s true value. Day by day we become involved in our lives and seldom give funerals any thought. But when death comes to someone we love, or a close friend, we stop and reflect on what is really important.
How do you cope attending a funeral? What do you think sitting in the seat of a church or funeral chapel? Do you wish you were somewhere else, feeling very uncomfortable? When King Edward VII died in 1910, his body lay in state at Westminster , and there was a huge funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral.
And the Minister read the very popular poem “Death is nothing at all”:
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we are still.
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone,
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me,
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effort,
Without the ghost of a shadow in it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you
for an interval
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.
All is well. Nothing is past; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”
(Canon Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral)
Death Is an Enemy
No doubt this is a very inspiring piece of literature, and I have no doubt it has helped many people. But it is a bit simplistic in my opinion. To say death is nothing at all is misleading.
Death has a great deal of significance, and profoundly affects those left behind. Death is an enemy. We recognise that in our language. When someone dies after a protracted illness, we often say they lost their battle with the disease. You battle an enemy. It takes away from us people we love dearly. They can never be replaced. We can never be the same. Our lives take on a new shape over a period of time, but we all miss them.
In the face of an enemy’s action, our grief is not selfish. It is normal. We grieve, because we love. The one we love is no longer here for us to love. Our hearts ache with the pain, and we grieve. Anything less is unnatural. We should not pretend everything is rosy when it is not. God can help us face the facts, that in death we lose someone very close.
Jesus wept – John 11:15 NIV
Death is a harsh reality, and the death of someone we knew and loved is never easy. But Jesus Christ came to conquer death—and he did by his resurrection from the dead. Now we don’t need to fear death any longer, if we know Christ. You can attend a funeral service believing that Jesus said “Everyone who has faith in me will live, even if they die”. (John 11:26).
We read in the Old Testament in Ecclesiastes 7:2, “It is better to go to a funeral than to attend a feast; funerals remind us that we all must die.” A funeral can never be a happy occasion. Death is always horrible, an unnatural intruder into God’s world. Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). We read that “Jesus wept” at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35). And in Acts 8:2 we read that “Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him”.
And yet at a believer’s funeral, there can be comfort, thanksgiving, and even joy—I have seen that for myself quite a few times. A committed Christian need not have any fear or hesitation in eternity.