Why a Funeral Is Not the Time to Rejoice
A funeral is, most certainly, a time for reflecting on and being reminded of the Christian hope; the Book of Common Prayer calls for a prayer that asks God to confirm in each heart the ancient truths of our faith:
"help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting."
Yet even if we have unshakeable hope in the Resurrection, death shakes us, especially when death occurs suddenly, violently, or to a young person. But even when someone very old or very sick and death ends their great pain, death is no friend. Paul calls it an enemy.
English priest and poet John Donne wrote a famous sonnet to Death ("Death, be not proud") which puts death in the context of resurrection—"one short sleep past, we wake eternally/And Death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." While I love this poem, I wonder if its message was one needed more in its own time than in ours. Donne's wife, Anne, bore 12 children in 16 years of marriage before dying in childbirth; two of their children were stillborn, and three died before age 10. They did not need to be reminded of death's horror. Indeed, what they needed to hold fast to was the promise that in the scheme of eternity, death was merely a "short sleep."
We have absorbed this message a bit too well. I have been to a number of Christian funerals that were blithely referred to as "celebrations," as "homegoings," as "graduations," with the assumption clearly throughout that the only story we Christians can tell about death is that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord"—which, though true, does not tell the full story. In our own context, most of us do not have to face death as bluntly and as frequently as did John and Anne Donne. When the arrangements are made by professionals, when sleek "life celebration" photo displays are created, when bodies are trussed and trimmed to look as if they're lying in bed, insisting that Aunt Jodie is "in a better place," that Uncle Joe is "no longer suffering," or that baby Jane is "in the arms of Jesus" can hide from us the ugliness and decay and (almost) irreversible loss that death represents.
Theologian N.T. Wright warns readers not to assume that Jesus' disciples expected for Jesus to rise from the dead. They didn't. For them, Jesus' death was a devastating loss, not simply of a dear friend and teacher—which would've been bad enough—but also the loss of the hope of the peaceful kingdom they'd hoped that he would establish. They weren't tapping their fingers waiting for Sunday morning. They were mourning. If they expected to see Jesus again, their expectations would have been mouldering corpse rather than glorious Christ. It's this—this bursting forth from life from a place of mourning—that Christians have ritually reenacted for millennia in the observance of Lent and, especially, of Holy Week. The fasting of Lent makes space for the feasting of Easter; wallowing in the horror of death makes space for glorying in the hope of the Resurrection.