Light in a Dark Time: Hope at the Funeral

Jesus was dead and his body had been laid in a tomb. On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James’ mother, and some other women came to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ dead body and morn. When they arrived, they found that the stone was rolled away from the tomb door and there were two angels there. The angels said to the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has risen” (Luke 24:5-6, ESV). It is only in Christ’s resurrection that hope is found. As one sits at a funeral before a dead loved one, he or she must realize that we are all dead in our trespasses; we have all committed high treason against God, punishable by death. But the good news of the gospel is the hope found in Christ. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and every one who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26, ESV). Romans 6:4-5 paints a beautiful picture of this death-resurrection relationship, reading, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like this, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (ESV). Therefore, if the loved one believed in Christ, there should be joy because of Christ. The one who believes should cling to this hope, and those who are simply dead without hope, must hear the gospel. A funeral should honor the dead, but it is of little value if there is no message of hope, no message of the gospel.

“There is no pastoral ministry,” writes Criswell, “that offers the open door of spiritual opportunity as does the presence of death in the home. [. . .] This is the hour when the loving and caring pastor is needed most” (Criswell 1980, 295). It is in the difficult time of death when the living are grasping for something of God. It may be that they have questions, or it could be that they—now being faced with death—are looking for some kind of hope. They not only expect the pastor to know how to find the hope that overcomes death, but they expect him to share it. Tragedy would be to remain silent or go the way of secular morning. A funeral that only serves to honor the dead does nothing to serve the living, but the funeral that shares the message can honor the dead and care for the living.

Funerals are discussed throughout the Bible, but little is said of the funeral itself. Genesis 50 states that Joseph’s father was embalmed and the Egyptians mourned for him for seventy days. There was a precession of chariots. Israel was buried. Deuteronomy 14:1 prohibited the Israelites from mutilating themselves or shaving their heads as a form of morning through funeral rites. There was often a special dress for the funeral, typically sackcloth, and sometimes even ashes or dirt on the head (see Isaiah 32:11 for example). Luke, chapter 7 tells of a funeral procession that Jesus came across in Nain. It is written that a “considerable crowd from the town was with her [the mother of the dead son]” (Luke 7:12, ESV), suggesting that some funerals were well attended. And devout men, those who knew and understood the hope for Stephen, still wept for him at his funeral (Acts 8:2).

Today funerals are diverse. Some funerals are well organized with rehearsed benedictions and eulogies, while others are haphazard, allowing any in attendance to say a few words. Sometimes there is music, sometimes poetry reading. Special ceremonial honors are bestowed on some based of factors such as military or police service. But the most important aspect of the funeral is the message of hope. Without it, death abounds; but with it, the dead may leave the funeral with hope, alive in Christ.

Criswell, W.A. Criswell's Guidebook for Pastors. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman Press, 1980.

* This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  
** Painting: "Dead Christ" by Mantegna Andrea, in the public domain. Photo by Beverly and Pack is registered under a Creative Commons License.