What Is the Bible’s View?
Mourning for the Dead
A MAN in India sets some rice before a cock at the crossing of two roads. A woman in Liberia shaves off all of her hair, and wears a black dress for several months. A man in Taiwan stands before a small table on which there are two images, some incense, and a picture of a woman; and he burns paper money. While mourning for dead loved ones, people throughout the earth practice these and many other customs.
What is the Bible’s view of such practices? Do they really assist dead relatives? Would failure to follow such traditions bring harm upon us? Are they pleasing to God? What should a Christian’s attitude be about mourning for the dead? Since our beliefs and customs regarding mourning for the dead involve our worship of God and our relationship with him, it is important for us to know the answers to these questions.
Many customs involved in mourning for the dead are based on the belief that when a person dies his soul continues living in “the next world.” Many persons, believing this, desire to help dead loved ones to be comfortable and happy in their “afterlife.” Therefore they may offer food or drink to dead relatives (in some cases this is later eaten by the living), or, like the man from Taiwan, they may burn money for their dead relatives to use. In the past, servants were even put to death with their master so that they could continue serving him after his death.
Are such efforts, though they may be well-meaning, really appreciated by the dead? Can the living help the dead? King David of ancient Israel did not think so. While his child was sick he wept and fasted; but when the child died, he arose, put on fresh clothes, and began eating again. To his surprised servants, David explained, “Now that he has died, why is it I am fasting? Am I able to bring him back again?” He realized that once the child had died there was nothing that he could do to help him.—2 Sam. 12:23.
Certain other customs are practiced because people are living in fear of the dead. To appease a person who has died, many persons in West Africa hold a wake over the dead body. For several days and nights friends and relatives stay with the body. Loud singing, beating of drums, and drinking are usually part of the wake. It is hoped that all this noise and attention will please the dead person, so that he will not trouble the living. To protect themselves from the dead, many persons in widely scattered parts of the earth engage in various rituals, seek for signs and use charms.
However, there is no reason to fear the dead nor to spend time and money to appease them. Why not? The Bible says: “For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished, and they have no portion anymore to time indefinite in anything that has to be done under the sun.”—Eccl. 9:5, 6.
What about the soul? Is it not something invisible and immortal? No, according to the Bible, the “soul” is the person himself. At Genesis 2:7 we read: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” Since man is a soul, when he dies the soul dies. “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”—Ezek. 18:4, 20.
Since customs designed to assist or appease the dead are based on a false concept about the soul, a devoted servant of Jehovah God should have no part in them. How, then, should he express his grief at the death of a loved one? Many persons believe that one should wear black for a certain period of time. But what do Bible principles indicate about this custom?
It is natural for humans to feel grief and sorrow over the loss of a dearly loved friend or relative. God’s servants in the past expressed such sorrow. Abraham wept over the death of Sarah. The nation of Israel mourned the death of Moses for thirty days. Nevertheless, by his laws to the Israelites Jehovah separated them from the surrounding pagan nations with regard to their mourning customs. Those pagans used to shave their heads and make cuts on their bodies when a relative died (certain African tribes still do). However, Jehovah forbade the Israelites to do these things. (Lev. 19:28; Deut. 14:1) This served to protect them from being corrupted by false worship. While Christians are not under the Mosaic law, they are instructed by Jesus to be “no part of the world.”—John 15:19.
The wearing of black for extended periods is used as an external sign of mourning. Although Jesus wept and ‘groaned within himself’ after Lazarus died, there is no indication in the Scriptures that he ever employed any of the outward expressions of sorrow that were common among the Jews at that time. (John 11:35, 38) Jesus foretold that his followers would fast out of grief after his death, but he also instructed them that they should fast so as to be noticed only by God and not by men. (Mark 2:20; Matt. 6:16-18) Thus the Scriptures reason against wearing black for extended periods or using other outward symbols to express sorrow over a death. So true followers of Christ would evidence grief in their ‘hearts and not their garments.’—Joel 2:12, 13.
On the other hand, they certainly would not want to offend others by wearing clothing that is too gay or casual when it is ‘a time to mourn.’ (Eccl. 3:1, 4, AS) On one occasion relatives and friends went to the home of a deceased father to sympathize; but they were shocked, and some angered, to see the daughter in an old housedress and slippers, giving them the impression of passing off the death lightly.
Then, too, whenever death strikes a family, it is not a time for pursuit of pleasure or laughter. As wise King Solomon explained, “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born. Better is it to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take it to his heart. Better is vexation than laughter, for by the crossness of the face the heart becomes better.”—Eccl. 7:1-3.
When an acquaintance dies it is the loving thing to go to the house that is in mourning and console the sad survivors. Often providing a meal or taking care of some errand would be appreciated at such a time. Visiting the mourners not only comforts the bereaved but also induces us to remember life’s brevity. By reflecting on the fact that the death that came upon this house could come upon us soon enough, we will recognize the need to make a good name with Jehovah God now. If we have been spending too much time in the pursuit of pleasure and laughter, reflection should sober us to change our heart for the better.
However, it is important to keep in mind that too much mourning and grief can have a weakening effect on us. While we will deeply miss a deceased loved one, we should avoid feeling unduly sorry for ourselves. Grief resulting from learning that Jesus was about to die caused his disciples to sleep instead of praying as he had instructed them to do on the night before his death. (Luke 22:45, 46) Consequently, they all abandoned him when he was arrested. After he proved to them that God had resurrected him from the dead by appearing to them on several occasions, their joy and zeal were restored.
This wonderful hope of the resurrection will prevent us from being overcome by sadness. The apostle Paul exhorts: “Moreover, brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who are sleeping in death; that you may not sorrow just as the rest also do who have no hope. For if our faith is that Jesus died and rose again, so, too, those who have fallen asleep in death through Jesus God will bring with him.” And he adds, “Consequently keep comforting one another with these words.”—1 Thess. 4:13, 14, 18.
We do not need to be ‘ignorant concerning the dead’ like the majority of mankind who believe the false teaching of the immortality of the human soul. The fact that they really have no hope is often evident by the way that they carry on when mourning for their dead. One formerly Methodist couple saw clearly the contrast between the faith in the resurrection that Jehovah’s witnesses manifest and the lack of genuine hope that they had experienced at Christendom’s funerals. The daughter of relatives who were Jehovah’s witnesses had died. The faith and strength of this Witness couple, and the Bible explanation of why man dies and of the resurrection that they heard at the Witness funeral deeply impressed them. By means of a study of the Bible with Jehovah’s witnesses they have now gained that same faith and hope.
By taking in knowledge of what the Bible teaches about the resurrection of the dead, you, too, can enjoy that hope. After Jesus “poured out his soul to the very death,” God resurrected him to immortal spirit life on the third day. (Isa. 53:12; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4) This serves as a guarantee to us that God will resurrect the dead from the grave. The members of Christ’s bridelike congregation receive a resurrection as heavenly spirit creatures to share with Jesus in his Kingdom government. After the Kingdom removes this present death-dealing system of things from the earth, there will be a resurrection of “both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) At that time Jehovah God, through Jesus Christ and his bridal congregation, will apply to mankind the sin-atoning benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, thereby restoring mankind to perfection. Then the death that we all inherited from Adam will be brought to nothing. (1 Cor. 15:21-26) Thus “God . . . will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning . . . be anymore.”—Rev. 21:2-4.
Therefore, having the Bible view of what pleases God, the person desiring His approval would certainly want to avoid mourning customs that are based on the false doctrine of the immortality of the soul, or that constitute an ostentatious display of sorrow, or mourning to a degree so as to betray lack of hope in the resurrection. Not superstitious customs, but accurate knowledge of God’s provisions affords real comfort, as Jesus foretold: “Happy are those who mourn, since they will be comforted.”—Matt. 5:4.