QUESTION: So many people today are replacing the funeral with a “Celebration of Life.” Is that acceptable in our church?
ANSWER: A “Celebration of Life” is an event encouraged by the funeral industry to remember the life of the beloved dead. It is also called a memorial service. More and more, mourners choose a “Celebration of Life” to say goodbye to their loved ones. One local funeral home includes this phrase in its radio advertising: “A funeral isn’t a day in a life but a lifetime in a day.”
Christians mourn, but not as others. We cherish memories of the lives of our beloved who have passed on to the heavenly rest. We shed tears when those we know and love are called home. But we mourn with the hope of eternal life earned for us by our resurrected Savior (I Thessalonians 4:13).
Throughout history, funeral customs have changed. This advice is offered to pastors concerning this matter:
Nowhere in Scripture are we told that believers had any kind of religious service in connection with the burial of the dead (cf Mt. 14:12; 27:59-61; Ac 8:2). The church is exercising Christian liberty when it sanctifies a funeral and burial with the Word of God and prayer. An excellent opportunity for a confession of Christian hope and faith is also involved. For that very reason, however, care must be taken that nothing connected with the burial contradicts this testimony. (The Shepherd under Christ, page 294).
A Christian burial is a privilege of church membership. A Christian burial is a celebration of the life of Jesus for us. Because the wages of our sin is death, Jesus was born to take our nature upon Himself. He lived a perfect life in place of all sinful human beings. He paid the penalty our sin has earned (Romans 6:23). We die only to live again forever in heaven with the Savior. Memories of our beloved dead do not give us hope. Our hope centers in God’s Son. He paid the wages our sins earned. He suffered death in our stead. He alone took the sting out of death (I Corinthians 15: 55). Because Jesus paid the ransom, we are redeemed. By faith, we live with the sure and certain hope of eternal life. Our confession of hope is generated by our faith in Jesus and what He did for us. Christians confess this faith as our hope.
We gather for the Christian burial to mourn the death of our beloved departed by hearing the hope we have in Jesus. Christian pastors preach Jesus and Him crucified (I Corinthians 2:2). This is the purpose of the Christian burial. We comfort mourners with the good news that Jesus, in whom the beloved dead believed, has procured salvation for our deceased loved one—for us all. We will see each other again before the throne of God. We will be together again in the Resurrection.
We also remember the beloved dead. We celebrate the life of faith lived by the dead believer. Those memories will not dominate the service. It will not replace the preaching of the Gospel. We celebrate the life of Jesus for us and give thanks for the one we mourn.
When pastors lead congregations in worship, they will let the Gospel dominate. They will preach Jesus. If someone calls such a ceremony a celebration of life, the Christian pastor will understand that to mean it is a service in celebration of the life of Jesus for the dead sinner. We will remember the dead with the hope we have in Jesus and be grateful for the love of both.
Celebrating JESUS who is THE LIFE; this is the good news that comforts mourning Christians and helps wipe the tears from our eyes.
Reverend Charles Keeler
Resurrection Lutheran Church
Winter Haven, FL