Respect for the Dead—How Shown?
BY THEIR mid-twenties, Marc and Paulina had attended a number of funerals in France, their homeland. So they knew of the sadness associated with funerals and of some of the funeral customs that people followed.
Then, while students in New York in 1975, they went to the funeral of an acquaintance from one of the Caribbean islands. They expected that some of the customs might be different. But they were totally unprepared for what they saw. During the funeral some of the deceased’s relatives suddenly burst out in piercing wails. And a few of these island people tried to throw themselves on the casket; they even wanted to take its cover off to kiss the corpse, as was the custom where they were from.
Yes, while that was rather shocking to the French couple, it was common at funerals in that other part of the world. This just illustrates that there are different funeral customs in various lands. Some customs seem to have resulted from local conditions, such as the need for immediate burial in the tropics or for cremation where land is scarce. Other customs grew out of religious or superstitious beliefs. And yet other customs may just be quaint traditions of unknown origin or past meaning.
All Funeral Customs Bad?
When first learning the Bible’s laws and principles, some persons may be inclined to avoid all funeral customs. Why so?
They may be aware that God specifically forbade the Israelites to share in certain funeral or mourning practices of the surrounding nations. God said: “They should not produce baldness upon their heads, and the extremity of their beard they should not shave, and on their flesh they should not make an incision.” (Lev. 21:5; 19:27, 28) God’s people were to be religiously distinct. They were not to copy extreme mourning customs of surrounding pagans. When the Jews in later times did take up these pagan religious customs, it was not with God’s approval.
Does this mean, however, that a Christian today must categorically reject all local funeral customs? Not necessarily.
The Scriptures indicate that some funeral customs may not be objectionable. For instance, the Bible says that after Christ’s disciples removed his body from the stake, “they took the body of Jesus and bound it up with bandages with the spices, just the way the Jews have the custom of preparing for burial.”—John 19:40.
The Jews may have developed this custom partially so as to retard decomposition. But as the spices were applied only externally, the body still would soon begin to decay. (John 11:39) Hence, respect for the deceased loved one may also have been behind this Jewish funeral custom. But once the Christian congregation was established, what would be done? Interestingly, it seems that the early Christians continued many of the Jewish burial customs, such as speedy burial rather than delayed burial or cremation.
Further indicating that some local funeral customs may be unobjectionable is what we read about Jacob. When he died in Egypt, his son Joseph had local physicians embalm the body. The account says: “They took fully forty days for [Jacob], for this many days they customarily take for the embalming.” (Gen. 50:1-3) By following this local funeral procedure Joseph was able to take Jacob’s remains out of Egypt, to bury him in Canaan with his forefathers.—Gen. 49:29-32; 50:12-14.
Factors to Consider
With the variety of funeral customs throughout the world, what guidelines could a person use in determining whether to follow some local funeral custom?
A person who has respect for the dead, but, above all, respect for God, should consider whether a custom conflicts with the Bible’s teachings.
For example, among some Koreans it was the custom to scatter rice on the roof or outside the door of the deceased’s home. And a male relative climbed up on the roof, there to wave a garment of the dead person and shout his name. This was known as the Cho-Hon, or “Invitation to the Soul,” ceremony. It was supposed to invite the soul to leave the house. People in some other lands believe that the dead person passes on to another life, and so they follow the custom of putting money in his mouth or in the coffin. This is so that he will have money to use in the next life, such as to “pay the ferryman for passage into eternity.”
Such customs spring from, or are followed because of, belief that each person has an immortal soul that survives the death of the body. The Bible, though, teaches that each human is a soul, that when he dies he is completely dead and unconscious and that his hope for the future rests in God’s ability to resurrect him. (Gen. 2:7; Eccl. 9:5, 10; John 5:28, 29; 11:24-26) Consequently, how could a person knowing the Bible truth about the condition of the dead share in funeral customs that involve the unscriptural immortal-soul teaching? Surely it would not be an evidence of respect for the dead to connect the deceased with a falsehood.
Another factor to consider is how a particular custom is carried out or understood locally.
Take, for instance, what is called a “wake.” In many areas it is known by that name because it was customary for the family and friends to remain awake near the body for one night or more. But the reasons for this varied. Some peoples followed this custom because they believed that a demon would try to seize the body. Others believed that the soul of the deceased remains in the house for the first night and can make sick anyone who falls asleep. Also, The Encyclopedia Americana reports: “Wakes are sometimes attended by scenes of disorder and intoxication” that show little “sincere respect for the dead.”
What if in your locality part of the funeral is called a “wake”? It would be wise to think about what it is understood to accomplish and how it is carried out. It may now be just the term applied to the practice of visiting the bereaved family during the day at home or in the funeral parlor so as to comfort them and express condolences. The simple fact that this may be called a “wake” certainly does not make it wrong for you to ‘comfort the mourners.’ (Job 29:25; Matt. 2:18; 2 Cor. 1:3, 4) But would it be Scripturally fitting to share in a “wake” if in your area it is presently linked with a false teaching or some unfounded superstition? Likewise, would it manifest respect for the dead to be part of “scenes of disorder and intoxication.”—Rom. 13:12-14; Eph. 5:18.
If you encounter other practices that people expect you to share in out of ‘respect for the dead,’ consider what they mean in the area where you live.
For example, it may be customary for flowers to be sent or brought to the funeral. What is this now understood to mean? In some places, especially so in the past, such flowers were viewed as part of a sacrifice to the gods. Similarly, at Buddhist funerals in Japan today attenders are expected to burn a pinch of incense to the gods. Clearly, you could not follow such customs if you believe that “it is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.” (Matt. 4:10) However, in other localities flowers are not at the present time provided as an act of worship or understood as signifying that. They may be given simply as an expression of sympathy or to add peaceful beauty to the funeral.
Local feelings can be considered, too, with regard to the custom of dress at funerals. And this varies from place to place. In parts of the Middle and Far East men and women are expected to dress in garments of coarse white calico and sandals of white straw. But in Japan and in many Catholic countries it is customary to wear all black clothing or to have a black armband for the funeral. Must this be strictly followed in order to show respect for the dead?
Of course, the dead person is not going to notice what the living wear. But other living persons will. So what will your following the custom suggest to them? Well, is the custom widely viewed as an ingrained practice associated with believers in immortality of the soul and hellfire, or with members of a certain church? If so, then your rigidly following the custom might suggest that you share the local belief about the soul or that you are part of that church. On the other hand, there is the matter of good taste, since you would not needlessly want to offend. You may conclude that clothing that is subdued in color, not ostentatious, is in keeping with the sobriety of “the house of mourning” rather than brightly colored clothing normally associated with “the banquet house.”—Eccl. 7:1-4.
It is not as if it would be wrong for others to be able to notice that a Christian was saddened or was mourning. Though not going to extremes such as cutting themselves, the ancient Jews did mourn at the death of a loved one. And the fact that such ones were mourning under various circumstances might be noticeable in their grooming or appearance.—2 Sam. 13:18, 19; 19:4; compare Job 1:20; 2:11, 12.
There is a balancing consideration. Jesus was familiar with the mourning associated with death. (Mark 5:38, 39) However, though he wept and groaned in the spirit regarding his dead friend Lazarus, there is no evidence that Jesus’ mourning went beyond that. (John 11:33, 35) Similarly, among Jesus’ followers the sorrow associated with bereavement, including its extent and how it is manifested, is tempered by the strength-giving joy and hope of the resurrection. The apostle Paul wrote: “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.”—1 Thess. 4:13.
Understandably, this balanced Christian viewpoint would manifest itself also in connection with funeral customs.
Regarding funeral customs, a factor that can be very important is the personal or conscientious feelings of the individual.
For example, in some lands it is customary for family members, or even visitors, to kneel and pray before the coffin. There certainly is no Scriptural objection to praying to Jehovah God, whether at a funeral or not. Jesus prayed at the tomb of Lazarus. (John 11:41, 42) But true Christians do not pray to deceased relatives, nor do they want to suggest that they believe that their prayers are to help someone out of purgatory or to speed someone to heaven. Also, at funerals many Christians personally have preferred to refrain from showy prayers that might seem to be mere formalism.—Matt. 6:1, 5, 6.
Another personal feeling affecting reactions to funeral customs is the desire to keep a funeral simple, free from ritual.
This could involve, for instance, some customs followed at the grave site. In certain areas the pallbearers or family members are expected to put a flower on the casket or to toss a flower into the grave before it is filled. To many persons this is considered a final token of respect or a last tribute to the dead person. But, of course, the true Christian knows that the deceased is not aware of the flower. And, if the deceased had been a true Christian, he too would have agreed with the counsel at Romans 1:25 against giving undue or worshipful honor to a creature. Hence, the personal feelings of some individuals have led them to omit this custom.
Another practice at the graveside is that of throwing a small amount of dirt into the grave. The clergyman or person conducting the funeral may customarily do this while quoting Genesis 3:19, where Adam was said to have come from the dust and would be returning to the dust. That Biblical comment, though, was a statement of fact—God there foretold what happened to Adam hundreds of years later. It is not a ritualistic formula that must be repeated at every funeral.
Again, at a funeral there is nothing wrong with using some words from the Bible, even the words at Genesis 3:19. However, particularly comforting at such a time are words from the Bible about the resurrection hope. These have lasting beneficial value, more so than token actions that some have felt detract from the occasion.
With so varied an array of funeral customs practiced throughout the earth, who can know them all or be aware of how and why they developed? But when deciding whether to comply with a certain custom in his own area, the Christian is helped if he thinks it through. Is its origin or present meaning widely known to conflict with the teachings of God’s Word? Is the way in which a custom is carried out at variance with the real hope the Christian has from the Scriptures? Will sharing in some custom or refraining from doing so cause offense or needless stumbling? What has he observed at the simple funerals of other true Christians in his area? And what do his own personal feelings and conscience recommend?
Considering such factors can help the Christian to act in a way that harmonizes with his beliefs, his sense of propriety and his proper respect for the dead.