I've been to too many funerals lately. A month ago, a close friend buried his uncle. Two weeks ago, a family in my ministry buried their 11-year-old daughter. Then last week, my church laid to rest one of its patriarchs. Every one of those losses was painful. I watched all three families cry and grieve and sometimes struggle for breath. But as much as funerals are difficult and painful, they are also essential and good. Death is not good, but funerals can be. I never leave a funeral wishing I hadn't gone. Here's why.
Funerals remind us of our mortality. You wouldn't think we need reminding. After all, everyone knows they're going to die. But we often live like we've forgotten. Death no longer happens in our homes or even with our families. Death in our culture is often shrouded by beeping machines and IV tubes and waiting rooms and hospice care. We don't kill to eat and we don't witness death in our own species, so, most days, we go about our lives as if death weren't real.
I was encouraged when I saw that my friend burying his uncle brought his kids to the funeral. It's hard to talk to grade-schoolers about death. But then, it's hard to talk to 40-year-olds about death too. If we're going to live well, we're going to have to do hard things; we're going to have to face hard truths, like the truth that we are mortal.
At the funeral I went to last week, a friend of the deceased summarized his friend's character with three words: empathy, kindness and gratitude. I wondered what three words my friends will use to eulogize me someday. (Probably confusion, dereliction, and fetor, but that's another post.) That, I believe, is a good exercise — to imagine our eulogies, even to aspire to one. I wonder if we would all be better off if we held funerals for our living friends about once per decade, just as a sort-of report card on their lives. I like to think the eulogies would get better.
But funerals don't only force us to face death and encourage us to live well. They do something else.
Funerals remind us of our immortality. We need this second reminder more than the first. As much as we tend to forget our mortality, at least death is something we can see. We file past the open casket and cast our eyes upon the proof of our mortality. But we don't get to see eternity before we enter it. And oh, how we long for a glimpse! It tells us who we most truly are — not accidental collections of biological odds and ends, but players in a cosmic, eternal story; children of God. It tells us where we're going — not to the grave but to the sky, not to an end but to a beginning.
At last week's funeral, the pastor read C.S. Lewis — the last paragraph of the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia — which describes the experience of the Pevensie children after their death in a railway accident. (Yes, one of the most joyous and innocent stories in all of children's literature includes the death of children!)
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
If you've ever gone to a Christian funeral and you thought it was all about mourning and despair, you missed the point. It's a send-off, a farewell party, a great big emotional flower-laden arrivederci; a space in our togetherness, as Khalil Gibran would say. Because we will see them again, in a story that keeps getting better and better.
We serve the God of life; therefore life is good, death is bad, and humanity hounded by mortality is not the way things are supposed to be. But when we gather for a home-going we are reminded of truths that outlast life and a God who outshines death. And any gathering that accomplishes that is a good thing.