The Bible’s Viewpoint
Should the Dead Be Honored?
“A DEEPLY ROOTED FEELING PROMPTS MOST PEOPLE TO TREAT A DEAD HUMAN BODY WITH A RESPECT THAT IS NOT FELT FOR A DEAD ANIMAL.”—ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA.
MOST people honor their dead loved ones in one way or another. The dead are honored with obituary notices in newspapers, and they are praised in eulogies. In some lands elaborate funerals with religious or traditional rituals are common. Ceremonies for the dead can last for days, weeks, or months. Schools, airports, streets, and towns are named after famous people who have died. Monuments are erected and holidays established to commemorate heroic personages.
According to God’s Word, however, the dead are totally unaware of any honor conferred on them. (Job 14:10, 21; Psalm 49:17) The dead are alive only in the memory of those who remember them. The Bible says: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) The Scriptures do offer the hope of a resurrection that will take place in the future. (John 5:28, 29; 11:25) But until such time, the dead do not exist. They literally become dust.—Genesis 3:19; Job 34:15.
In view of the Bible’s clear position on the condition of the dead, does it serve any purpose to honor them? Should Christians follow traditional customs related to the funeral and burial of loved ones?
Rituals Based on a False Premise
Many, perhaps the majority, of the traditional rituals related to the dead are deeply rooted in non-Biblical religious teachings. Some rites purport to “protect the deceased from demonic attack; sometimes the purpose of the rites has been to guard the living from the contagion of death or the malice of the dead,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica. Any such custom based on the false premise that the dead live on in an unseen realm is in direct conflict with Biblical truths.—Ecclesiastes 9:10.
Many people venerate their dead. This type of worship includes the offering of sacrifices and prayers to dead ancestors. Some who engage in such rituals do not view their actions as worship but, rather, as expressions of reverence or deep respect for the dead. Still, this kind of devotion to dead ancestors has religious underpinnings and clashes with Bible teachings. Jesus Christ said: “It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.”—Luke 4:8.
A Balanced View
Showing honor and respect for dead ones is not always linked to false religious teachings. For instance, a Bible account relates how faithful King Hezekiah was honored after death. God’s people “buried him in the ascent to the burial places of the sons of David; and honor was what all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem rendered to him at his death.” (2 Chronicles 32:33) Another example is that of Jesus. The Bible says that his disciples “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 Scriptures contain many other cases in which special procedures were followed relative to the body and the burial of dead ones. These practices were not ancestor worship, nor were they based on the mistaken belief that the dead continue to influence the affairs of the living. Rather, the mourners manifested deep respect for those they loved. The Bible does not object to such respect, as it is based on natural human emotions, although the Bible does not endorse lavish or hysterical displays at funerals. On the other hand, it does not encourage Christians to be stoic and impassive when faced with the death of a loved one.
Hence, when they attend the funeral or the burial of their loved ones, Jehovah’s Witnesses render proper respect and honor to the dead. (Ecclesiastes 7:2) When it comes to the matter of flowers, funeral services, and other local customs, Christians make careful personal choices in order to avoid practices that clash with Bible teachings. In this, good judgment and balance are needed. The Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics explains that “a rite changes its significance and value from time to time, so that the meaning attached to it in later times may be quite different from that which it had originally, and the popular explanation of it may throw no light on its origin.”*
Is It Wrong to Eulogize?
The principle of being balanced applies also to the matter of eulogizing the dead. At funeral services, Jehovah’s Witnesses strive to comfort the bereaved. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5) A formal program may include one or more speakers. But it would be inappropriate to convert the occasion into a long parade of eulogizers extolling the deceased. Rather, the funeral affords an opportunity to extol God’s marvelous qualities, including his kindness in providing us with the hope of the resurrection.
This does not mean, however, that it would be wrong to remember the good qualities of the deceased during a funeral discourse. (Compare 2 Samuel 1:17-27.) When the dead one has been faithful to God until death, he or she becomes an excellent example to be imitated. (Hebrews 6:12) It is good to ponder over the integrity-keeping course of God’s servants. Sharing these positive thoughts with others during a funeral service provides comfort to the living and honors the memory of the dead.
True Christians do not worship the dead. They do not engage in popular rites that conflict with Bible truths. On the other hand, God’s servants reject the extreme view that because the dead are merely dust, all funeral customs are purposeless and unnecessary. They mourn and remember their dead. But their pain and sorrow is tempered with the Bible truths that the dead do not suffer and that there is the hope of a resurrection.
The October 15, 1991, issue of The Watchtower, page 31, provides the following direction: “A genuine Christian should consider: Would following a custom indicate to others that I have adopted unscriptural beliefs or practices? The time period and location could influence the answer. A custom (or design) might have had a false religious meaning millenniums ago or might have such today in a distant land. But without going into time-consuming investigation, ask yourself: ‘What is the common view where I live?’—Compare 1 Corinthians 10:25-29.”
[Picture on page 10]
The funeral procession honoring Gustav II, king of Sweden, following his death in 1632
From the book Bildersaal deutscher Geschichte