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Jesus began to weep.
~John 11: 35
Grace to you from the Triune God,
Whatever we do, we avoid death face-to-face as much as possible. Gotta keep that wailing and crying to ourselves! And ideally, none of it at all. That’s the mantra our culture imposes upon us. It is true so much so that we quite literally put makeup on dead people to make them look more alive (although they never look like they once were) or simply burn them to ashes altogether. Anything besides facing death plainly and as the horrible thing it is. Now we do have ready-made, canned responses to keep in line with our culture’s habit of death-avoidance. It sounds like “We shouldn’t have a funeral because our loved one wouldn’t want us to be sad.” That’s why we now commonly redress it as “Celebration of Life” or perhaps “Memorial Service.” We’re only allowed to remember the good things.
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When asked how we are doing at the death of the a loved one, we’ll catch ourselves saying, “I’m okay” or “I gotta be strong” when in fact we are not okay and we are not strong. But these are the expectations we face in a death-avoidant world. Jessica Mitford wrote a whole book related to this topic in The American Way of Death. There you’ll learn why we call it a “casket” rather than a “coffin.” (Hint: to avoid that icky connotation of death). You’ll also learn that embalming is not legally required nor does it really do that much preserving of the body as we are led to think.
A dead body. Not sort of dead. Not half dead. But really dead. Jesus Christ, eternally both God and a human being in one inseparable person—was dead. Holy Saturday, that glimpse of time between Good Friday and Easter, is when we remember that our God died and was a dead body. Joseph of Arimathea took God’s dead body to his tomb.
Before his death, Jesus knew that he was to suffer and die. And in his turmoil, he did ask God the Father to “remove this cup from me.” Quickly followed up by, “yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14: 36). Indeed, it was God’s will for Jesus to suffer and die in this way on the cross, and thus it was Jesus’ will to do it even as he felt anguish about it.
The key to the reconciliation of God and humankind to one another if found through the death of Jesus. Which is also, an unpopular position to hold. God did not avoid death. And, in becoming human, he experienced death that he would not have otherwise. And then, on the third day, he rose again. He did not avoid death. He went through it. And then he destroyed death. Death has now lost its sting. That means, it has lost its finality.
The problem with our culture’s death-avoidance is that we want to pretend it doesn’t exist. That it’s not the terrible thing it is. But this is all to our detriment. Being forced to contain our pain, we bottle it up. And when this happens, there is true loneliness. The Scriptures instead tell us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12: 15). There is a time for everything under the sun. Mourning the death of loved ones and to have funerals is a time to weep. God does not ask you to be okay. Nor does God expect you to be strong. Instead, when you are weak, you are strong—for God’s strength is found in weakness.
So, I’m not saying don’t remember the good times. Nor am I saying cremation and stuff like that is evil. But I am saying to weep and to wail. To let it out. I want you to know what is under that makeup. That it’s okay to not be okay. We will mourn. We will suffer. We will be bereaved in this life. When we’re done saving ourselves from death, when we have experienced the depth of death’s arrow, there is greater appreciation for the fact God is the one that does the saving. Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. He knew Lazarus would one day rise again, but he still wept.
I don’t want a Celebration of Life. I want a funeral. When I die I want people to cry. Because I love them and they need to cry. But mostly, I want a funeral because of the promise. God’s promise. It’s not the good things I have done in life that have redeemed me. Nor do I really want to be remembered for them— “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). The celebration I want is not of my life and my accomplishments, but of God’s redeeming love for a sinner in Jesus the Christ.
Peace and joy,
Pastor Levi Powers
Mount of Olives Lutheran Church
Rock Springs, WY
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