Walking Together Through the Valley
One of the most gripping moments in recent history in our North American experience would have to be the events of September 11, 2001. Just months ago we marked the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks where we could revisit the many and varied emotions we experienced during those tense hours and days. Once the dust settled, we witnessed a nation (or maybe nations) in grief. Many mourned the loss of loved ones, while others clung desperately to a faint hope of discovery or survival of missing relatives and friends. Those who sacrificed their lives in an effort to save others were given special attention and we were even invited to join in numerous public funeral or memorial services. While we watched these events unfold on our television sets we could not help but feel the effects of grief. We grieved empathetically for those who suffered loss. We grieved the loss of a sense of security. We grieved over the effect of sin in this world and the hopelessness of separation from God. We grieved because it was the natural thing to do.
Our Queen addressed the nations in one of the memorials by way of a letter. As she expressed sympathies from the Commonwealth she added this fitting reflection, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” I would like you to tuck that away for a moment, in your minds. “Grief is the price we pay for love.” I hope to reflect upon this in a biblical context.
A Death-Denying Society
Many writers in the area of grief and bereavement have suggested that we live in a death-denying society. Much of what is said and done in the mainstream of society pushes the imminence of death to the outer edges. Our society likes to think of freedom in retirement, golden experiences in aging, an ongoing pursuit of youthfulness, a marginalization of those who are no longer vital, and a quiet and dignified slipping away at the end of it all, all the while hoping that we will be long remembered beyond our death. The presence of death in life opens the door to examining the meaning and significance of each day in the context in which we live. For many it seems easier to live each day like this life will never end. In the same vein, we experience a grief-denying society. A society that is unwilling to contend with death is equally resistant to coming to terms with the grief that accompanies loss. The journey of grief is expected to be short and expedient and we champion those who can best shoulder the experience and move on to new and better things. We feel best when others are tidy and private in their grief.
How is it in the church of Christ? Certainly we live in the light of eternity. We live with the hope of a better day, when tears and grief will be no more. We acknowledge death in terms of the victory of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are rich in gospel proclamation about the sting of death being removed and the hope of the resurrection. But where does this leave the grieving child of God who has lost a loved one? Can we sing the victory song and will it vanquish our feelings of grief? I suggested at the outset that we grieved over 9/11 because it was the natural thing to do. I hope to convince you in the light of Scripture that this remains our duty to grieve the loss of our loved ones and it remains our responsibility to give our brothers and sisters in Christ permission to grieve.
Grief with Hope
The words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13 are often shared in times of bereavement:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant of those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
These words of encouragement to a bereaved child of God are intended to ease the pain of separation, yet are often infused with a sense of reprimand or correction to one who is grieving, suggesting that by grieving their loss they may be adopting a worldly position. One may suggest to the grieving that they can be lifted above their grief by virtue of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Thus we are not like the rest of men who have no hope. The suggestion may be that grief does not really exist for a Christian, or at least that its bite has been removed. Some understand grieving as a display of weak faith and giving up on Jesus Christ and so steer their brother or sister out of its path towards a more appropriate “faith” response to loss. In our losses we are often challenged to think in “other-worldly” terms and abandon the context of this life in favour of the life to come.
Let me not be misunderstood. There is hope for the bereaved in our Lord. Scripture is rich and clear on that point. Yet there is also grief in the life of the Christian. This is what Paul refers to in 1 Thessalonians – there is grief for the bereaved Christian, yet it is unique in that it is enveloped in hope; unlike those who without Jesus Christ encounter a grief with no hope (or false hope). This is the topic we will encounter first. Let us define and describe grief with hope so that there can be increased understanding about the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual journey that the bereaved Christian is faced with. Once we have established this groundwork we can explore the roles we can play in assisting the grieving in a practical way.
We have to reckon with the realization that in the Christian context, dare I say the church, there is a built-in resistance to grief. Grief seems to bear the stigma of something contrary to faith. Grief is seen as a worldly response to bereavement and in many ways at odds with the gospel of hope. It is important that we first break down that construct.
What is Grief?
Let’s begin with defining grief. Grief is anguish, sorrow, or pain that is experienced both mentally and physically when we are separated from someone or something we hold dear or even love. Grief may be experienced over temporary or permanent separation. Grief is our response to the hurt of separation. We may grieve over the loss of a job or business. We may grieve when a dear friend moves away. We even grieve when a treasured item is lost or broken. We definitely grieve when a loved one dies. We express this in our infancy when things are taken from us that we want and we carry this response with us throughout our lives. We all know something of the symptoms. It may be a pain that starts deep in our belly, or catches in the back of our throat; it often constricts our chest or causes our head to ache. It may prompt us to become openly emotional, either angry or sad, or feel empty and detached. A strict definition of grief is elusive because it is unique, influenced both by our personalities and our individual circumstances. Nevertheless it is brought on by separation, by interrupted love, and it seems to have a course of its own to run.
Grief is Natural
Grief is our natural human response to loss. We’re wired to grieve. I would even suggest it is part of our being made in the image of God. We read in Scripture how the Lord God the Creator was moved to holy grief and sorrow over the broken relationship with his people and that his heart was filled with pain. God grieved over the loss of communion with man whom He had created to serve and love Him. This covenant love relationship, broken by man’s sin, came with a price: God’s grief and man’s grief. This led to the destruction of mankind in a flood, where only Noah and his family were saved because they remained, by grace, in covenant relationship with God. We can read more about this in Genesis 6. So we see that the relationship between love and grief is first discovered in the one who has revealed Himself as love.
We also see that our Lord Jesus Christ experienced grief in his lifetime. We read in Matthew 14 that after our Lord heard of the death of John the Baptist He withdrew to be alone in a solitary place. It was only the persistence of the crowds that followed Him that cut this expression of grief short. We are all familiar with the stirring passage where Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. I have often wondered about this passage. How could our Lord, who certainly had a good understanding of the purpose of his mission on earth and was able to keep in constant perspective the will of his Father, how could He be so moved to weep along with the people? If grief is incompatible with faith, would this suggest that the Lord was uncertain here, or lost focus or even lacked faith? Impossible! Yet He wept. Many suggest it is evidence of his true human nature, that He felt the pain of separation from those He loved. It was a natural response to grieve. Others suggest He may have wept over the futility of the people’s mourning and their lack of understanding of his purpose on earth and in that respect we may see that this may speak even more dramatically of his divine nature, in light of God’s grief in Genesis 6. I think it is safe to say it was part of his suffering, that He experienced grief, even though He was without sin. We see this more acutely in the Garden of Gethsemane as He anticipates the reality of being forsaken by and separated from his Father in Heaven in his impending death and burial. Jesus knew of a grief far more intense than any of us will bear, because He bore it for us. And what did He do? He wept and sweated droplets of blood and called out to his Father in prayer asking for relief. Here we see that grief and trust in the Father are not running cross current. Our Saviour worked out his grief in tears and prayer. It is for this reason He was prophesied to be a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”!
And then we can go on citing numerous examples of grief and its expression in the lives of believers recorded in the Old Testament. We can think of Joseph mourning over his father Jacob and the lengthy funeral procession that ensued; of David lamenting over the death of Saul, the anointed of the Lord, or upon the report of the death of his rebel son Absalom; of Job sitting in sackcloth and ashes grieving the death of his children while his friends gathered to comfort and counsel him. There is a long tradition of Jewish mourning practices born out of the actions of the Jewish forefathers. It is not my intention to direct you to their customs, but rather to show that there is a place for grieving in the life of the people of God. Perhaps even more emphatically: grief is an important element in the growth and maturation of God’s people.
The Price We Pay for Love
We need to take a moment to reflect again on the words of the queen I mentioned at the beginning to test their validity. Do you remember? “Grief is the price we pay for love.” The more you reflect on this you will come to see there is almost a mathematical exactness to it. If you could quantify emotions you might develop a formula to show that for the amount of energy one puts into a loving relationship with someone (or even something) there is a reciprocal amount of grief that is required to unravel that relationship when it is interrupted or terminated. Love and grief are inextricably joined. Grief in itself is not sinful but it is our natural God-given response to the brokenness of sin. You might say when we became “as wise as God knowing good and evil” we also inherited the capacity to grieve, which God already had, as we were made in his image. Now if we accept this premise that grief is the price we pay for love and we expand our thinking to realize that our greatest calling from God is to love Him and only second to that, love our neighbour, we begin to see that we are destined or called to grieve in this life. The only way to avoid grief is to avoid loving and thus to deny God what He requires of us. And so you see why I insist that grief is part of our Christian experience.
And we need to reflect a little more. We can’t leave this as mere theoretical consideration as we move forward. For grief is a thorny business because it doesn’t remain with considering just matters pertaining to our head, to thought and reason; it burrows deep down in our hearts, in areas that we often are unwilling to expose or even examine. But isn’t this the very thing God requires of us in relation to Him and to our neighbour? He doesn’t want a superficial relationship with us, one only well thought out and militarily exercised. He wants our hearts, for this is where love dwells. And in the same way in our deepest relationships with each other, as husband and wife especially, but also as parents and children, as friends, as brothers and sisters in the Lord, we are not only called to acts of service but to deeper relationships of love that link our hearts and that are all the more richer when bound up with the Spirit in Jesus Christ. And so this business of grieving is tied up with the depth of our relationship with the Lord and our neighbour. This is sensitive and vulnerable territory that we will be exploring. Are you willing to go there?
The Grief Journey
I mentioned in the beginning that the bereaved are on a grief journey. Grief has often been described this way because it follows a definite course. It has a defined beginning and moves into new territory for the bereaved. Some have described this route as circuitous, starting and eventually ending at the same spot. I think this is a poor model because a significant loss in life requires the eventual acceptance that we do not end up in the same place, that we cannot recreate the past, that we must allow ourselves to enter a new reality. However, we must recognize cyclical patterns in grief as the bereaved person reviews and reworks the many feelings and thoughts encountered at this time. Let me illustrate by trying to give an overview of the grief journey (sometimes called grief work). This is not meant to be prescriptive, but rather based on others’ research in compiling the descriptions of many people’s experiences.
We have to understand that bereaved people are reluctant travelers on the grief journey. They did not ask for the affliction that causes their grief. They are generally unwilling or unable to initially accept it, let alone willing to embrace it. As a result the initial steps on this road are steps of resistance, embodied by shock, numbness, denial, anger, frustration, and inability to focus. They may repeat phrases like, “I can’t believe it! It doesn’t seem real. It can’t be – we were just together this morning! It’s all a bad dream.” There is an intensive period involving a continual revisiting and questioning the reality of the events surrounding the death, including feelings of guilt and a sense of responsibility about actions at the time of death or prior to it. We might hear, “If only I had been there. If only I had insisted we go to the doctor earlier. If only we had just stayed home. If only I made him take better care of himself.” If only statements are our natural way of trying to regain control in a situation we cannot change ... by moving back with “if only I had done this or that” reasoning we mentally move back in time to a place where we might have been able to effect a change on the sequence of events that led to a death.
Eventually the bereaved will let this go as they realize it cannot change the reality of the death. These things do not happen in a set or ordered pattern, nor is this an exhaustive list. But it is clear that the beginning of the journey has much to do with accepting the fact of the loss. Until someone reaches the point where they have accepted the factual evidence that their loved one is gone, it is impossible to move on to a response to this loss.
I use the term “gone” in the strict physical and temporal sense. Scripture also speaks of the dead as those who are “sleeping.” This is a helpful term in that it illustrates to us that death is not final and that there is the full expectation of the awakening of the dead in Jesus Christ. Yet the term is not helpful if it prevents the bereaved from facing the reality that, in this life, their loved one is now dead to them, and even more to the point, the relationship they shared has come to an end in this life. This is crucial to a healthy Christian grief response. The secular response over the ages is that the soul is immortal and remains embodied in nature, or in our memories, or in our hearts and somehow remains available to us. This is not the Christian teaching. Those who die in the Lord are with the Lord. They are no longer with us. This is not an easy reality to grasp. It works itself out over the journey. We cannot rush someone into acceptance of this any more than we can steer them around it. It is the first difficult step. We cannot put a rigid timeline on the grief journey.
Once the difficult reality is experienced and accepted, now the reaction follows. Again the response is varied, but it can generally be described using some of the following terms. Disorganization encapsulates this period in many ways. The bereaved have had their lives turned upside down. To be concrete, I will speak about the sudden loss of a husband or wife. What was a normal and safe living routine for many years suddenly becomes threatening and uninviting. Every action and event seems to accentuate the absence of the spouse instead of providing relief or respite for an aching heart. Quite often the bereaved cannot find refuge in their home. There is a general scrambling around to find something that brings the safety and security that was once afforded in the relationship with the spouse. It is elusive because it is gone.
There are many factors that will influence this response: the gender of the person, the type and depth of the relationship, the time of preparation for the death, the nature of the death, as well as many other factors. The bereaved not only deal with the primary loss of the relationship with the loved one but also all the secondary losses that accompany it in a domino effect, such as loss of financial security, loss of social identity, sometimes loss of mobility, loss of hopes and dreams and future plans, loss of spiritual support, loss of intimacy, and the list can go on. In summary, the bereaved suddenly realize that there is a big unwelcome change in their life and they begin to scramble to cope with it. Often this leads to over-activity when they are already physically weakened by the experience. This may stimulate feelings of anxiety, panic, and fear.
This all happens within the framework of being a child of God. I am not suggesting that this grief journey assaults one’s belief in God, although it may test it. It is clear that the child of God may feel all these emotions even while feeling secure in God’s care.
The next steps on the road are very difficult for the grieving and also taxing for the supporting community (family, friends, pastor, etc.). Quite often there is an extended feeling of spinning ones wheels. Lack of motivation, depression, sadness, emptiness, and a general unwillingness and inability to move forward, all form a response to the very real understanding that life has changed irreversibly for the bereaved. This is a time that tries the patience for those who are supportive, for quite often their own lives do go on, without as large an impact on their daily routine. They want to be supportive, but tire of the journey.
This is where many well meaning people try to divert the bereaved person’s attention from grief work and try to offer short cuts to bypass the grief response. They just want to help the bereaved move on. Frustration sets in when their efforts seem to have little effect and don’t seem to bear positive results. It is common that the bereaved march to a slower beat than those around them. This needs to be accepted. This is a time of introspection and rediscovery for the bereaved. I would suggest that this is a time of significant personal growth, also in a spiritual way, for a grieving Christian. In 2 Corinthians 5, we read about groaning and being burdened in our earthly tent. Often the bereaved are very in tune with this reality in their grief. It is not uncommon for them to experience feelings of wishing to join their loved ones and having a sense of purposelessness in normal daily activities. This is not the same as being suicidal. It is simply a feeling of no longer knowing their role and calling in life. This also needs to be rediscovered. A new social arena needs to develop, also amongst the communion of saints and within the family structure.
There does come a time, for those who allow themselves to walk the grief journey, where they begin to turn from disorganization to reorganization. This is sometimes called a period of reconciliation. In short, the bereaved are very aware of the impact of the loss of their loved one in their life, they are able to acknowledge and express this, and are also able to begin to make plans for a new reality. This is not a time where pain and grief are left behind, but where it is openly acknowledged and accepted as a part of living. It is also described as a movement from a “head” acceptance and understanding of the death and its impact to a “heart” understanding. This is usually a time of acute mourning, as the numbness has worn off and the stark reality has set in. Often you will hear the grieving say the second year is harder than the first. This is a testimony to where they are on the journey. Over time the intensity of the pain is dulled and less frequent. There is hope for the future and a re-emerging sense of purpose for one’s life and the possibility for commitment to future plans and goals returns. The bereaved arrive at a new place that is shaped by their grief experience.
As I mentioned earlier, this journey to healthy resolution of grief does not go in a circle. The bereaved do not return to a former reality, but emerge to a new place, often with a new sense of identity. It is unreasonable to expect that one who has been in a marriage relationship (where two have become one) would not have to do some unravelling after the death of their spouse in order to continue on. In marriage you focus on each other’s well being. When one spouse dies, the focus needs to shift. This takes time and energy. This takes grief work. This also applies in varied ways with the death of a child, a parent, or a sibling. The relationship of the bereaved to the deceased influences the reorganization of one’s life that needs to take place and the emotional attachments that have to be let go of. Again, this is an area where the supporting community is not always helpful. Often others resist changes in the bereaved person’s life or personality. Others also wish to recoup the past. They want life to go back to normal as it was before the death. This can lead to internal conflicts in families and amongst friends when the need for change is not clearly understood.
This has been a thumbnail sketch of the grief process. There are undoubtedly more questions that could be asked and answered. I hope you share in my conviction that grief is an important and natural part of the life of a Christian. It is part of a healthy spiritual life, as well, and can serve to strengthen one’s faith in the Lord. In fact the opposite is also true; a refusal to grieve the loss of a loved one may leave one desperate and confused and in spiritual jeopardy. This is where the role of the pastoral caregiver or friend is a crucial one.
The Pastoral Friend
The Bible is filled with examples of the care of our heavenly Father for the widow and the orphan. There is a strong sense that God is well in tune with the plight of the bereaved. I won’t cite all kinds of examples, but rather focus on the twenty-third Psalm as typifying the role of a pastoral support for the grieving. The words are very familiar to us:
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Certainly these are words of consolation for the dying as well as those left behind. The grieving person will relate to the feeling of walking in the shadow of death, where every thought, decision, and action seems to be overshadowed by the reality of the loss of their loved one. The comfort offered in this passage is that they are not alone. The shepherd is with them and He has the tools to protect and comfort. Yet, He does not steer them off the path or introduce a new way. He does not suggest that a different road be taken so that one can flee from the shadow of death. He accompanies them on the journey and uses his resources to comfort and allow for safe passage. This then is the role for the pastoral friend.
Practically speaking, what does this mean? How can an office bearer or friend fulfill this calling? The foundation for helping the bereaved is the need for a personal comfort level and acceptance of the grieving process. If you are a reluctant traveller on the grief journey, you may prove to be of little assistance to the grieving person. If your goal is to take the grief away, you will do everything possible to find the shortcuts, to sidetrack, to sit and rest rather than travel along on the hard journey. This is demonstrated by explaining away the need for grief because of our sure comfort and our heavenly perspective, by avoiding the topic altogether, by doing all the talking and controlling the direction of discussions, by cutting off, interjecting, providing quick solutions, by showing uncomfortable body language in the face of tears, etc. This must be your initial consideration: am I prepared to make this journey? If not, I suggest you would be better off to turn the rod and staff over to another and not feign your assistance by asserting your own way. You cannot help the grieving, even when you come with the gospel of salvation in your hand, if you are unable to allow for and accept the expression of grief. God listens to and accepts our grief as evidence of our love, his shepherds must be willing to as well.
If we are willing, that is a start. We will still need to employ the tools and resources. What exactly is the rod and staff that will comfort the weary traveller and maintain a safe way, and how do we use them? We all know the clear expression of the source of our comfort as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1, but we also need to know how to administer that comfort effectively to the bereaved. I suggest that when you accompany someone on the grief journey you need to adapt to the terrain. We need to be willing to respond to a differing set of needs as time moves on. I spoke earlier of the initial grief responses including shock, denial, numbness, and disbelief. At this early stage of grief it is important to be aware that our words are our least effective tool. This is because the hearing of the listener is muffled. The shock accompanying the finality of the death of a loved one, even when it is expected, reduces one’s ability to absorb and digest what one is told. This is not the time for an eloquent explanation of God’s eternal plan for his people. Yet this is a time for action for the caregiver. This is a time to “be with” the bereaved. This is a time when our accessibility and presence is important, where simple words of support, love, and prayer are offered. A calm, caring, and supportive presence is what we can provide at this time. We need to be aware of the inadequacy of our words and be willing to accept that.
We also need to be aware of the limits of our role at this point. We are not expected to take the place of family members by usurping their roles. There also needs to be an allowance for needed withdrawing and regrouping by the family. We need to be careful to allow time for decision making and be willing not to dominate, asserting our position as the “clear-headed” one. This can be a confusing time for the bereaved. Imposing all our thoughts and ideas in an effort to alleviate the burden from them will likely not be helpful. It has been suggested that “mouths closed, ears open, presence available” is the most effective help at this early stage. There is a great opportunity for the pastor to assist the family in planning liturgy for a fitting funeral service. A visitation period often provides opportunity for the ward elder to provide comfort with simple Scripture reading and prayer. The deacon may naturally approach the family in a supportive role offering the hand of mercy. Friends may gather together to offer physical and emotional support. Again, the fact that you are available speaks more than any words you can say.
After the funeral can be a complicated time for the bereaved and often a frustrating time for those trying to help them. This is the time characterized by feelings of disorganization, confusion, searching, and yearning for something lost. One widow describes it this way, “I felt as if I was a lonely traveller with no companion, and worse yet, no destination. It was as if I couldn’t find myself or anybody else.” This is often a period when the bereaved feel as if they are going crazy. Disorganized thoughts and a restlessness never before experienced become normal. Visual hallucinations in the form of memory pictures of the deceased are very common. The bereaved often feel as if they can see their loved one in places they would normally expect to see them. Difficulties with eating and sleeping can accompany these illusory moments, as well as recurrent dreams. This is a time when regular visitation is important. This takes patience, because you will need to listen to stories and feelings repeated over and over again. This is helpful for the bereaved as they begin to come to terms with the reality of the death. Good listening skills are important, as the mourner will sense if you are interested or not. It is through the expression of these thoughts and feelings, at times confused and emotional, that the mourner will develop clarity of mind. Again the role of the caregiver is attentiveness, presence, and simple guidance. The bereaved should also be discouraged from making any rash or dramatic decisions at this time. It is a time for reflection, not more change.
Occasionally the caregiver may become the object of frustration or anger for the bereaved. Your help and attention may be rebuffed because along with it comes the experience of the pain of the loss that has occurred. This is a warning sign that we may be too willing to usher the bereaved along on their journey, while they are resistant and clinging to the past. This is not wrong. It just is. This is not a time to take sides with or against the mourner, rather it is a time to understand their feelings and comfort them. This does not mean that you are encouraging them to cling to the past, but that you are acknowledging their present need to do that. This is a key point in being helpful in a pastoral sense. Your role during the grieving process is not one of reproof or correction of the person’s frustrations or feelings. Rather it is one of understanding and listening to difficult feelings, even spiritual struggles, accepting them as genuine, understanding why they feel them, and offering comfort and hope for the future. The caregiver’s role is not to explain away the feelings of the bereaved but instead to be attentive and supportive. We must remember that the bereaved are always facing the pressure of the society around them to get on with their life by moving away from their grief. The pastoral caregiver should be a grief facilitator, encouraging the expression and discussion of the feelings associated with grief. The fact that the loss is not talked about or mentioned, or that the bereaved never raised the subject at all, does not constitute a healthy or helpful visit. Our duty is to provide a safe and comfortable environment to walk through the shadow of death. Our ability to convey a level of comfort in the presence of the expression of grief will help in this regard. We need to prepare ourselves for that task and be willing to address it by opening a way.
The ultimate goal in the grief journey is reconciliation and reorganization. The task of the caregiver is to expect that this will take place and hold out this hope for the bereaved. This includes the acknowledgment and acceptance of the difficult road to get there. It also allows hope for a better day and encouragement that the grief journey does lead somewhere; not a recapturing of the past, but to a new future beyond the pain of the grief that is presently experienced. The pastoral caregiver must convey an awareness and acceptance of the normalcy of grief and also the expectation and hope that healing is possible. We must understand that this is an emotional, physical, and spiritual journey. The shepherd is equipped with rod and staff to comfort on the journey.
What are the rod and staff that we are equipped with? Without the gospel of Jesus Christ there is no real hope for anybody. Yet, used ineffectively, the Word may not be helpful to the mourner. So I suggest to you that the rod and staff are the gospel message combined with the communication skills we have been blessed with that enable us to be effective pastoral friends: persistent visitation, attentive listening skills, careful and simple expressions of God’s love, sound guidance, willingness not to have “quick fix” solutions, patience, and perseverance. In summary, a truly effective shepherd needs to understand and accept the grief process and work within its confines. A healthy attitude towards grief and its healing pathway is instrumental for being helpful. In this way the child of God may be assisted in making the grief journey and also realize the fullness of the pastoral promises of Psalm 23 ...dwelling in the house of the Lord forever!
A Procession of Faith
When we reflect back on 1 Thessalonians 4 we find the basis for our grieving with hope is rooted in the fact that Jesus Christ died and rose again and as a result God will bring back with Jesus all who have died in Him. The dead will rise again! This is the central teaching of the gospel that is spoken of already in the beginning. In fact, these are God’s first words in addressing our sinful state. First He curses the devil for his deceit and then He pronounces the resurrection of his Son. Only after He has proclaimed the gospel does God assign man back to the dust from where he came. This is significant in regards to the burial of the dead, as we do not abandon our loved ones to the grave.
The graves of the righteous are sanctified (set apart) for the day of the renewal of all things in Jesus Christ. In the beginning, our bodies were formed out of the good earth God created, in our spiritual forefather Adam, and once again our bodies will be re-formed out of the good earth in our spiritual brother Jesus Christ. The hope of the gospel is hinged on the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the source and pattern for our redemption. We find Christ’s work in the centre of the gospel. We confess we have everything in Christ.
This is not a new teaching for us. The church has confessed and taught this for centuries. The main thrust of the Protestant Reformation was the sufficiency or efficacy of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As well as we know this truth, however, there are times when we are challenged to understand all the implications it has for our life and also for our death. In so-called mainstream churches the resurrection of the body is receiving less emphasis and perhaps is being replaced with a new teaching. A stronger emphasis on the spiritual, the immortal soul, replaces the solid teaching of a physical resurrection. A more cross-cultural and multi-faith integrated teaching of some type of new spiritual life beyond this one is being touted as more acceptable and comprehensible for people. There is a shifting away from the importance of the burial of the dead as a climactic part of the Christian pilgrimage. Many are turning to the alternative of cremation accompanied by a general scattering of the cremated remains in favourite natural settings. The body is continually being distanced from the funeral service in favour of a more prompt disposition followed by memorial services. Slowly and subtly the reality of the resurrection is being exchanged for an inferior manmade teaching about where comfort can be found as we grieve the loss of our loved ones. In our North American culture we are standing on shifting ground as we examine this topic. It is important that we begin by climbing back onto the “rock” of solid scriptural teaching.
The Truth We Cling To
In Lord’s Day 1 we confess that our only comfort in life and death is that we belong body and soul both in life and death to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. Often, I believe, we are tempted to separate this teaching rather than appreciate the fullness of this continuing relationship with Christ. While I live or die I remain physically and spiritually Christ’s possession. That has implications for my body not only while I live but also in death. David professes in Psalm 139 that even in the grave God is there for him and again in Psalm 16 that the Holy One would not see decay nor would he be abandoned to the grave. Jesus Christ was not left in the grave and as a result nor will we. We need to appreciate the rich continuum with our Lord also in our physical bodies. In Lord’s Day 17 we confess that the benefits of Christ’s resurrection are threefold, first we share in his righteousness before God, second we are raised to a new life here and now as a righteous people, and third it is our guarantee of our glorious resurrection. This is not just a spiritual matter; it is also a physical one. Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that this is a matter of first importance. The fact that Jesus Christ died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to many is the evidence and pattern for our own resurrection. It is also the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. In Lord’s Day 16 we read the cryptic response as to why Christ was buried. It is a testimony to the fact of his death. This stresses that we cannot gloss over the reality of physical death. It is the verity of his death that makes the resurrection significant and powerful. The catechism continues to apply this to our reality. We too will die in order to put an end to sin and gain entrance into eternal life. It is at the resurrection that Christ will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Wow, this is a powerful teaching! This is the truth we cling to in the face of death.
Interestingly enough, we often start to fragment our thinking once the death of a loved one has occurred. I have often witnessed believing Christians assert, about their own death or the death of a loved one, that the body is just a “shell,” it no longer is the person. A distancing quickly occurs from the physical reality of the body and a spiritual emphasis takes place. The reality that they are taken up to the Lord spiritually sometimes cloaks the remaining body in a shroud of unreality and even disdain. There can be a lack of concern stated about what happens to the body, an unwillingness to consider the significance of the details of burial, and sometimes even a desire to separate the body from the funeral itself. In an attempt to be Christ-centred, the dead body of a loved one is set aside. I have even heard Christian brothers piously exclaim, “When I die you can throw my body away, it is no longer of any use to me or anyone else!” or some Christian sisters say, “I don’t want anyone to look at my body when I die, that’s not me any more.” Initially I saw this reaction is a coping mechanism, a way for an individual to try to come to terms with the anticipation of his own death or to come to terms with the stark reality of death as it is presented to them in the form of their loved one’s body. I understand that this can be part of grief. We all desire to gain control of situations where we clearly feel out of control. Sorting out our relationship to the body of our loved one is difficult at the time of death. Yet, increasingly, I am being convinced that this resistance and uncomfortable reaction may be rooted in an unclear understanding of the fullness and richness of the teaching of the resurrection of the dead. Sometimes our uncertainty in understanding something can cause us to push away from it rather than accept or embrace it. Let’s explore this a little further.
The Body and Burial
Our Church Order does not give us a lot of help here. The simple statement in Article 65 moves the issue away from the church and into the lap of the family and suggests that the activities surrounding funeral arrangements should be conducted accordingly. At first glance I’m not even sure I know exactly what that means. However, I do understand where this response comes from. As a Protestant church we moved away from the teaching of Rome. The Roman Catholic Church had enshrouded the death and burial of the believer in elaborate rites and sacraments as a part of its works-based emphasis on achieving salvation. The importance of the offering of the mass for the dead as a means of imputing Christ’s righteousness upon the deceased, the intercessory prayers to Mary and the saints on behalf of the deceased, the offering of incense, the sprinkling of holy water, the anointing of the body with oil, and the blessing of the burial site all serve to obscure Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and the sufficiency of his burial and resurrection for our salvation.
One can see why the church fathers pushed away from all these ceremonial rites and manmade sacraments and stated that the church plays no official role in the burial of the dead. However, this has left a vacuum. The wisdom in acknowledging that the Scriptures have not prescribed a specific order to the burial of the dead is offset by a vague reference of conducting matters in a way that is reflective of a family affair, not an ecclesiastical one. We might have to acknowledge here that the strength of this article is also its weakness. I think it is this vacuum that remains that causes us not to plumb the riches of the scriptural teaching in this regard.
The church at Corinth wrestled with this too. The Apostle Paul explains the logical consequences of down-playing, or worse, denying, the resurrection of the dead. If we do not hold fast to the resurrection of the dead in Christ we are of all men most to be pitied. Obscuring the reality of physical resurrection is an act of impoverishing and eventually denying the gospel. The Corinthians ask how to grasp the transformation of our decaying physical body into something far greater, an immortal body? Paul’s response is quite practical. In the burial of our loved one’s body we sow a seed to eternal life. There is nothing magical in this process, although for now it remains scientifically mysterious. A farmer sows seed in the soil in the expectation of growth and a harvest, not in expectation of the recreation of the seed. The farmer cannot make this seed grow; this is God’s work and it will happen as He has ordained it. But the farmer may do it in faith (even unwittingly), expecting a result. Likewise when we bear the bodies of our loved ones to the grave, we do it in expectation of the resurrection to a new life. It is not based on our activity, on the exact place, or time, or words uttered. It is not based upon the blessing of a priest, or the result of an elaborate rite; it is founded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ sanctifies the graves of the righteous and makes them a place of new life. Jesus Christ empowers the resurrection of our new immortal bodies on the last day. All we can do is act in faith. And the act of faith upon the death of our loved ones is to believe that it does make a difference what we do, that our actions should reflect what Jesus Christ has promised us regarding our physical body. Our dead bodies are not just human remains in need of disposition. They are not an obstacle to be overcome in order to receive God’s grace and comfort. Remember Lords Day 1; that I with my body in life and death belong to Jesus Christ. Jesus makes my body worthy of burial as a seed to eternal life! The concept of burial of the body in expectation of future glory is a scriptural teaching that is well rooted in the Old Testament. Let’s have a look at some Old Testament examples.
Old Testament Examples
I mentioned earlier that the first directive for our bodies return to the earth is given by God in Genesis 3, but only after the words of resurrection were spoken. God did not assign man to the grave until He first provided the way out. This is crucial as we see that from the beginning the act of burial has been connected with resurrection. In fact, the original act of creation was linked with the earth as well. It isn’t strange that God will resurrect our bodies out of a renewed earth, for that is how He created us in the first place. The Old Testament emphasis on burial is often linked with expectation of receiving the covenant promise of a new land for Israel. Abraham insisted on purchasing the cave of Machpelah for the burial of the body of his wife Sarah. The significance of Abraham owning the burial site in the land of promise was meaningful for the Israelites, as it pointed to fulfillment of God’s promise regarding the land of Canaan as a heritage for his people Israel. Likewise, Jacob instructed that he not be buried in Egypt but be carried up to the cave of Machpelah to be buried with his family. This is not merely sentimental thinking, but also an expectation of a greater day.
Also Joseph made the sons of Israel swear that they would carry his bones with them out of Egypt on the great day of liberation. This request for burial with his fathers also was made in faith, in full expectation of God’s fulfillment of his promises. Most striking is the death of Moses, the servant of God, and a foreshadower of Jesus Christ. God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land with his eyes before he died and then buried him outside the Promised Land, enforcing his decree that Moses would not enter. The fact of his burial was revealed to the people of Israel but not the site, lest they figure they should be wiser than God and carry his body into the Promised Land. Moses would have to wait for the day of resurrection as the Lord had decreed. So we see that in the Old Testament believers were buried in expectation of God’s fulfilment of his promises.
What we do with the body of our loved one, or what we plan to have done with our own bodies upon death, is significant. Not that we have to assist God in any way to achieve his plan for our salvation, but to show our faith, to show we believe that God will do what He says. This has implications on the funeral planning itself, does it not? Will I allow my family to view my mortal remains or will I adamantly instruct them against doing it?
We saw earlier that we confess that Christ was buried to prove he was dead. As difficult as it is to view the deceased body of one we love, it is a crucial confrontation in accepting the reality that someone has died. Our acceptance of that reality is also closely linked with the expectation that that person will rise again. There is not only a mental or sociological benefit to viewing the deceased, but also a spiritual benefit. Unfortunately, not all circumstances allow for this healthy confrontation. And how should we consider our interaction with others at this time? Will we allow for a time of visitation or is this a frivolous man-centred affair? There is a natural healthy reaction when faced with the shock of the death of a loved one to turn inward to a close circle of support. Yet, after a time, there is value to becoming re-socialized through the funeral process and to resume our place in a larger social context, most importantly as a member of the church of Christ and as such one who lives in solidarity with brothers and sisters in the Lord.
It also allows others this healthy confrontation with the reality of the death and it provides opportunity for mutual support. The funeral service itself, planned by the pastor and the family, becomes an opportunity for preparation to go to the grave, to address that “faith crossroads” between what is seen and what is unseen. And then the witness of faith in our procession to the grave suddenly becomes increasingly filled with importance. It is our last testimony to our family, to our friends, to our neighbours that we trust in God and we believe in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The burial of our bodies becomes the climactic evidence of our walk of faith. Again, this is not based on our actions, but on the rich promises in Jesus Christ that He has overcome death. This is a tangible and real activity, proclaiming Christ’s victory over the grave. How could we bury the bodies of our loved ones with any semblance of comfort unless we expect them to rise up? And if we do expect them to rise again, the cemetery becomes a victory ground, not a place of defeat that we feel ashamed to revisit. In fact, a visit to the cemetery keeps our faith in sharp focus, for right here on the last day my loved one, and possibly I myself, will rise again in this place. Then it is fitting to mark the grave, not with self bravado, but with the mark of a follower of Jesus Christ.
So we see that a meaningful Christian funeral process begins to take shape upon the death of a loved one. First an internal coming to grips with the facts and evidence of death, then a reaching out to others to receive support and resume our place in the body of Christ, then a preparation for the solemn act of the burial of the dead, and then a procession of faith to the graveside, bearing witness to the expected return of Christ and the rising of the dead. It seems clear that this is an important faith experience to share with many, and not isolate to a few. It seems clear that it is a family matter that should be shared with the church of Christ. It also seems possible that it loses some of its value if it is not shared as a witness to our unbelieving neighbour, so that they too may experience the rich treasure of being in the midst of God’s people as they confess the victory of Jesus Christ over the grave, in the very presence of an open grave. The Old Testament Preacher suggests there is a time for all things, including privacy and publicity. Our whole society will benefit from public Christian funerals.
I mentioned in the beginning that in the North American culture there is an increasing tendency towards cremation. I don’t think anyone can claim a biblical norm for this practice and many could convincingly make such an argument for burial. We should be careful not to overstate an outright condemnation of it, however, for we also cannot be too bold in what Scripture does not say. I understand that there may be places in the world that this is the only reasonable way of dealing with this issue due to burial space limitations. We must maintain, however, the significance of the burial, even if it has to be cremated remains, as a significant act of faith and a tangible declaration of the expectation of the resurrection of the dead. One of the strengths of the church of Rome is that it does still declare the importance of Christian burial, even though their thought process around it remains flawed with a works based approach. A “scattering of ashes” as a means of showing liberation of our loved ones from the bonds of this human existence denies the significance of the resurrection of the dead and the continued ownership of our bodies by our Lord. Once we close the door to the reality of physical resurrection we open the door to all kinds of fantastical new age experiences.
What about the funeral service itself? It is not an ecclesiastical affair. It would, however, be a strange occurrence if our funeral services became extremely different in character or content than our regular worship, for what message would we proclaim then? In life we worship in one way, yet in the face of death we find no solace there? On the other hand, the funeral service is arranged for a specific purpose. It is here where we in word, song, and prayer come to grips with the harsh reality of the death of a loved one and place that very tangible hurt and grief before the Lord. It is here that we should feel secure in expressing the real and often dramatic changes that will affect the family and close friends and even the church community. It is here that we can also thank God for the gift of relationships and the life of the one who has died. A funeral service that does not acknowledge these things rings with empty and hollow words. For it is in the full realization and acknowledgement of the death of a loved one and the subsequent grief that it causes and our inability to save ourselves from this situation that we can truly turn to the Lord in our need and find solace in Christ’s work. His death and resurrection was real and so the reality of the death and resurrection of our loved ones needs to be experienced as a real event. The funeral remains a service of hope and comfort for the living not for the dead.
Some have suggested that the presence of the deceased body at the service may obscure or hamper our focus in worshiping the Lord. Here is where we need to assert the position of the Church Order and differentiate the funeral service from the regular worship service.
Just as a marriage ceremony has a particular focus, to prepare the bride and bridegroom for marriage and fulfill the legal requirement regarding marriage, so the funeral prepares the mourners for the significance of the burial. At the wedding we don’t marginalize the wedding party for fear of not hearing the Word, but we understand that the Word places the marriage in proper context. Likewise, at the funeral service we acknowledge the necessity for the interruption of the procession to the grave to hear God’s Word and to be strengthened and encouraged and to place the burial in the context of the resurrection. It is fitting that this takes place in the assembly of God’s people. In the body of Christ we share our burdens and we also assist each other. In this way we experience our solidarity in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a solidarity that even overcomes death and the grave. Here we need to rightfully acknowledge our true family in the Lord.
In the end, I believe that we should not shrink back from the fullness and richness of our comfort in the resurrection of the dead in Christ Jesus. If we are unwilling to appreciate the richness of this promise in the face of death, as we plan the funerals for our loved ones and possibly pre-plan the details of our own funeral services we will present a weakened gospel. If we minimize and marginalize the place of the deceased body as the reason for the service, and we reduce the significance of the burial only as a duty of necessity, we will bear a poor witness to the completeness of our salvation. A buzz word in the funeral service profession currently is “Celebration of Life.” For many this celebration will last only as long as the eulogy continues or the last glass is raised to toast the memory of a good friend. But for those in Jesus Christ the true celebration will be a celebration of life everlasting at the great banquet feast of our Lord, where Christ will be in the centre and we will physically live in his presence. This is the gospel truth that we bear witness to as we make our way to the grave, so even at the grave we make our song “Alleluia, alleluia.” In this knowledge the dead do rest in peace, in full expectation of the day of the Lord. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!