One of my favourite tasks as a pastor is presiding over a funeral. I cannot think of a funeral I’ve served at that was not deeply rewarding. It’s not because I’m morbid (at least I hope not). It’s because of the deep lessons learned as you walk alongside a grieving family and consider the weight of the life left behind, cast against the backdrop of eternity.
Because of that, it’s difficult to write an article highlighting mistakes we make at funerals. A funeral could make all three of these mistakes and still be profound, beautiful, and God-honouring. One of the worst outcomes I could imagine from an article like this is that someone enters into a family’s grief and uses that sacred time to offer a nitpicking theological critique.
On the other hand, I do hope this article will help you, the reader, avoid making these mistakes. More significantly, I hope this article strengthens our collective thinking about death and the life to come. Because I’ve become convinced that North American Christianity is rather anemic when it comes to thinking about these matters.
With my goal thus stated and qualified, I offer for your consideration three mistakes we make at a funeral:
We minimize the awfulness of death
Death is a direct result of sin in this world. A world without sin in it would likewise be free of death (Genesis 2:17, 3:19; Romans 5:12-17). Because of this, death is God’s enemy. Indeed, the Bible says that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Put simply, God hates death.
Death is so awful that Jesus responded to it with visceral disgust. In John 11, Jesus comes face-to-face with death. Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead, the mere presence of death shakes him. The Scriptures say, “He was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33b). They tell us, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). This is powerful, evocative language. Jesus knows in his bones just how awful death is.
But we in the West like to pretend like death isn’t even there. We hide the reality of death as best we can. Certainly no open casket. Maybe don’t even have the casket in the room. Call it a “Celebration of Life,” not a funeral. Focus on the positives; try to ignore the ominous pall of death that hangs over the room. This is not as it should be. Christians should look death square in the eye and mourn. A funeral is not just about a loved one’s life; it’s also a time to think about death. Don’t try to hide it or minimize it. Grieve it. God hates death. And so should we.
The first mistake we make at funerals is we minimize the awfulness of death.
We downplay the body
Central to the Bible’s teaching about people is that we are both body and spirit. Paul lays into the Corinthians for thinking the body was inconsequential (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). The two central holy days for Christians are when Jesus took on a body and when he bodily rose from the dead. One of the great Christian hopes is the bodily resurrection of all believers (1 Corinthians 15). My body is not any less “me” than is my soul.
So when the soul is “absent from the body” (2 Corinthians 5:8), it is an unnatural situation that is awaiting resolution. Body and soul were meant to be together. And that body, sown into the ground as something perishable, will itself rise as a new imperishable body, united again with the soul for eternity.
This kind of biblical thinking is largely absent from our funerals. We tell our children as they pass by the corpse, “That’s not Grandma; Grandma is with Jesus.” But that’s not true. It is Grandma as much as her soul is Grandma, neither one perfectly Grandma. Her corpse looks wrong and disturbing because her body is dead, separated from her soul. But when Jesus returns, it is that very corpse which will rise up, made new, reunited with her soul.
Even more telling, Christians are increasingly turning to cremation. Because the body is viewed as inconsequential, we turn it into ashes. But Christian burial is a rich and important tradition that reflects our high view of the body. It wasn’t too long ago that church buildings were in close proximity to the graveyards where the bodies of deceased church members lay, waiting for the day of resurrection. For a deeper look at this topic, click here.
A second mistake we make at funerals is to downplay the body of the deceased.
We lose sight of Christ’s return
Attend most Christian funerals and you’d be led to think that the end goal of the Christian experience is to have your soul leave your body and enter into God’s presence. Notwithstanding how glorious that moment will be, we’ve entirely lost the plot. In Revelation, what are the souls of the martyrs doing in God’s presence? Are they enjoying streets of gold and swimming in crystal rivers? Not at all. They are pleading with God in prayer, “How long?” (Revelation 6:10). They are longing for the day when Jesus returns and makes everything right.
Similarly, in the oft-quoted 1 Thessalonians 4 passage (“do not grieve as those who have no hope”), what is the concern of the church that Paul addresses? Is it that the soul of the one they love might not be with God in paradise? Not at all. Their concern is that their loved one’s death might cause him to miss out on the day of Jesus’ return. They are worried that those who die will miss the greatest day in history. But Paul comforts them saying that, “The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:16b-17a).
Passages like this should not surprise us. Because the Bible’s movement is not toward all souls being with God in heaven; the Bible’s movement is always toward Jesus’ return, when he establishes the new heavens and the new earth. In that place, a new humanity of people with both body and soul enjoy the goodness of God’s presence for all eternity.
Of course, if the body doesn’t matter, then the funeral can simply celebrate that Grandma’s soul is now with Jesus. We don’t need to long for the day when Jesus returns and Grandma’s body is raised.
And of course, if death is no big deal, then the funeral can simply celebrate Grandma’s life. We don’t need to long for the day when Jesus returns and death is swallowed up in victory.
But the body does matter. So funerals should be a time when we long for Jesus’ return.
And death is awful. So funerals should be a time when we long for Jesus’ return.
More than anything, Christian funerals should be “maranatha” events. They should center around our collective aching for the return of Christ and all that brings.
We err at Christian funerals if we lose sight of Christ’s return.
Of course, the real problem isn’t funerals with flawed theology. The real problem is the flawed theology to begin with. On this side of eternity, our theology will always be flawed to some degree. And funerals will continue to be one of my favourite tasks as a pastor, even with their flaws. It just so happens that funerals are a place where our current underlying flawed theology tends to show itself. So in all of life – not just in funerals – let’s continue to let God’s Word refine our thinking. And if a provocative little article on funerals can serve that end, praise be to God.