Day 6 of Walking and Blogging. I got 11,804 steps in so far today, and I’m about to blog. So, a successful day 6.
The local funeral home is less than a half mile from my church. I generally walk there when I have a funeral. This evening, I had a viewing to attend, and so I walked down. By the time I got back to the church, I felt like I’d jumped in a pool. It was hot and muggy, and I was just drenched in sweat. But I hit my daily goal along that walk back!
People sometimes ask me about funerals, if it’s hard to deal with death as often as I do as a pastor. Honestly, it’s not. Sure, there are some funerals that are difficult for me. When I bury someone from my congregation whom I’d grown close to, that can be hard. When I buried a sixteen-year-old, that was damned hard. But in general, I find funerals to be a great honor. It is an honor to keep vigil with a family when they are dealing with grief. It is an honor to speak about the resurrection in the midst of that grief, to speak the most holy words to people who need to hear it. It is an honor to walk in front of the casket as it moves from the funeral home, or church, to the hearse; and as it moves from the hearse to the grave. It feels as though I am leading that person from this life to the next. Of course, that person has no need of me in that role, but I do this to symbolize God’s action.
Funerals are especially powerful because they are the fulfillment of Holy Baptism. In the Lutheran liturgy (and probably in many others), there are many similarities between the Baptism and Funeral services, because we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and so when we ourselves die, that baptism ushers us into the resurrection as well. A funeral service, while it is indeed sober and solemn, is also a celebration. The relationship has ended, and that is indeed tragic; but the promise of the resurrection tells us that there is hope, and there is life, and the person we love will live again, through the same promise that was made to them in their baptism.
I’m not a fan of calling the service “A Celebration of Life,” because I think that misses the point. I understand that the reason for shifting to that language is a way to focus on joy instead of sadness. And if the “Life” we’re celebrating is the life eternal, the resurrected life promised to us, then I agree with that. But I get the sense (maybe incorrectly) that usually the “Life” that’s celebrated is the life of the deceased person. I get the sense that the intention is to focus on the happy times, not the fact that she’s dead. And that, I think, misses the whole point.
The point of the funeral is that someone has died. Not “passed away,” but died. Death is scary, and death is sad, but death is real. And we don’t do ourselves any favors by pretending it’s not. But the point of the funeral is that death is not the final word. A funeral doesn’t ignore death to focus on life — a funeral walks directly into the face of death, and proclaims Christ’s word “NO.” And through that, a funeral is indeed a celebration of real life, of eternal life, of life lived in the face of death.
Our whole life is lived in the face of death, if we could but see it. And a funeral, done well, helps us to come face to face with that, and see that Christ has defeated death. And we have the victory. Death is not gone, but its sting is removed. And we can live, even now.