Funerals may sound like a strange topic in our youth-obsessed, death-avoiding North American culture.
Every day the barons of media and marketing seduce the American public out of millions of dollars by playing to the fear of aging and the greater fear that one day this old world will carry on without us.
In some places in Europe and the United States, funerals are fading in importance and being ignored. These are not good signs but may rest on a misunderstanding of the importance of the funeral.
The truth is every human life has a beginning and an ending. Both remind us that we are not God. We did not birth ourselves into this world.
In the same manner, we did not claim for ourselves salvation or access to life everlasting. These are gifts from God. We might not have been, but we are. Our lives are gifts from God who loves us.
When we gather for a funeral, we are not just remembering or eulogizing someone whose presence we now mourn.
When we gather for a funeral, at its theological heart, we are gathering as the body of Christ and making great statements of faith. We are saying that the Lord who gave us this life as a gift of love cares just as much about life’s endings as its beginnings.
We are saying that, because the Lord who made us has defeated death, this ending is truly a doorway to a new and unimaginable beginning with God and so we mourn, but we mourn with hope.
We do not seek to run from the reality of death. We let it pass through us as we grieve love lost for a season. But we do not face death or eternity outside the loving presence of God and those who love God.
The funeral service is an important part of being the church that is the true body of Christ.
In the funeral, we are reminded of the God who is faithful to us, as God was faithful to Jesus at the cross (and in the resurrection) and to the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us.
In the funeral, we can name our grief, say our goodbyes, and be nurtured and strengthened by those who love us and love the Lord. We can acknowledge the importance of a singular life and all life as sacred to God.
We can honor and celebrate the presence of God in the one whom we have loved. We can hold in tension with our sadness, the mystery of our lives transformed by the resurrection and the promise of eternal life in the Spirit.
For churches with demographics that tend toward the younger end of the age range, a funeral can be especially meaningful.
It can remind us of the whole spectrum of life and the need for balance in understanding the needs of an entire community of all ages, not just the everyday concerns that consume us in our youth and young adulthood.
It can help us learn to be more honest and at home with all of life, to not fear this important part of our humanness and to learn the privilege of standing strong for someone else.
The funeral service is important to a church and to the body of Christ if for no other reason than to remind us regularly of the truth written long ago by an old philosopher that “only where graves are, are there resurrections.”
Pastor of Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia.