Mourning and Funerals—For Whom?
IT HAS been truthfully stated: “No known human group . . . simply throw[s] out its dead without any ritual or ceremony. In stark contrast, no animal practices burial of dead individuals of its own species.” “Man is the only living being who has a developed self-awareness and death-awareness.”*—See Genesis 23:3, 4.
Those words of the contemporary Russian-born scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky throw light on why King Solomon counseled some three thousand years earlier: “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.” Yes, because we do have a sense of self-awareness and death-awareness humans usually arrange some kind of service for a deceased friend, fellow believer or relative.—Eccl. 7:2.
Does the fact that Solomon says it is better to go to the house of mourning mean that it is right and proper for Christians to go to any house of mourning and commiserate with the survivors? Is it proper to mourn the death of every kind of person? What does the Bible, God’s Word, indicate?
The Bible gives us many examples of mourning for dead persons. There was proper mourning on the part of Jacob and Esau when their father Isaac died. Jacob mourned because he thought his favorite son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. When the patriarch Jacob himself died there was great mourning, not only by his own household, but also by the Egyptians. The Israelites deeply mourned the death of their leader Moses. Though King Josiah was killed in a battle that he unwisely entered, there was great mourning on the part of Jeremiah and all Judah over the death of that good ruler. In later periods of time there were mourning and lamentation over the deaths of Lazarus, Jesus Christ, Stephen and others.—Gen. 27:41; 37:34, 35; 50:1-14; Deut. 34:8; 2 Chron. 35:24, 25; Luke 24:15-24; John 11:17-44; Acts 8:2; 9:36-42.
There is one thing to be noted, however, about these particular instances of mourning recorded in the Scriptures. All the mourned ones had been fearers of Jehovah God and were relatives or held in high esteem by their survivors. But there were those whose deaths were not mourned. For example, there is not the slightest hint that Noah and his family mourned the death of the wicked and violent generation that perished in the Deluge. Nor is there any record that Lot mourned the destruction of the grossly wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah. When Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the Red Sea, Moses and his people, far from mourning, exultingly sang a victory song.—Ex. 15:1-21; see also Jeremiah 22:18, 19.
Why, in all these instances, did God’s servants not mourn or were they not to mourn those who had perished? Because they had been executed by Jehovah God. To have mourned over them would have been tantamount to finding fault with the execution of Jehovah’s righteous judgments. So Jeremiah was commanded not to mourn over the calamity that was to befall his apostate people Israel. And in the book of Revelation we read that although Babylon the Great was mourned by some of her political and commercial paramours, the hosts of heaven rejoiced at her destruction.—Jer. 15:4-7; Rev. 18:9-20.
Most fittingly, therefore, when King David so greatly mourned the death of his ambitious, perfidious, immoral son Absalom, his general Joab justly reproved David. (2 Sam. 19:1-8) But, on the other hand, when David mourned over unfaithful King Saul, he was given no reproof. (2 Sam. 1:17-27) Why was this? King Saul was Jehovah’s anointed. So David was mourning the individual in loyalty to the anointed office occupied by Saul. (See The Watchtower, October 1, 1938, p. 297.) Besides, David did not want to allow for any suspicion that he rejoiced at the death of his enemy.—Prov. 24:17.
All these things were written for our learning, instruction and comfort at this time of the end of the wicked system of things. (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11) In the near future this generation will see the foretold “great tribulation” that will bring an end to this present wicked system. (Matt. 24:21) At that time none of Jehovah’s faithful servants, the only ones surviving, will mourn over the destruction of the wicked. To the contrary, they will rejoice, even as Moses and his people rejoiced at the destruction of Pharaoh and his army.
MOURNING IN OUR TIME
But what about the present time? With what attitude do we hear of mishaps, great loss of life because of terrible accidents, earthquakes, hurricanes and tidal waves? Without a doubt our human sympathies go out to the victims and, in particular, to the mourning survivors, even though they may not have been lovers of righteousness. After all, they were not executed by Jehovah God for having been wicked. So also when relatives, acquaintances or business associates die, Christians normally show kindness in expressing sincere condolences to surviving family members.
When a faithful anointed Christian dies, even though we confidently believe he has received his heavenly reward, we mourn him. After all, we shall miss him; but we do not sorrow inconsolably as do those who have no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13-15) We also mourn the death of those having an earthly hope even though it is reasonable to expect an early resurrection for these. As Jesus made clear, “all those in the memorial tombs” will come forth in a resurrection.—John 5:28, 29; see also Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:13.
WHY A FUNERAL OR MEMORIAL SERVICE?
Some have thought that a funeral is for the purpose of eulogizing the deceased, for the purpose of speaking well of such a one and giving him what is known as a “good death.” But is this correct? Remember that Jehovah God permitted the nation of Israel to weep over Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who perished because they offered illegitimate fire—although their immediate family was forbidden to mourn them.—Lev. 10:1-7.
Nor can it be said that a funeral service is somewhat like a sacrament that bestows virtue upon the deceased. True, most church members of Christendom would view with horror the prospect of a burial without a church service. Thus the Roman Catholic Church has various kinds of Masses for this very purpose. These may contain blessings for the deceased and are claimed to help a soul in purgatory. However, all such practices have no Scriptural backing, for God’s Word makes clear that the dead are unconscious and remain so until the resurrection.—Eccl. 9:5, 10.
Then why should a funeral or memorial service be held for a deceased person? There are a number of good reasons. To begin with, there is the matter of comforting the bereaved. Christians are commanded to comfort all that mourn, including those among themselves who may mourn. (Isa. 61:1, 2; 2 Cor. 1:3-5) As a rule death causes mourning. In particular, it is comforting to hear a discussion on Jehovah’s marvelous attributes, especially his great love in providing his Son as a ransom so that mankind can have the hope of everlasting life. Aside from personal expressions that they may feel impelled to make, those in attendance bring comfort to the bereaved by their very presence.
There is also the matter of giving a witness to Bible truths. Usually a funeral is attended by neighbors, acquaintances, business associates and relatives, who may not be believers. All these stand to benefit from a funeral or memorial service at which a discourse is given presenting the Bible view as to the condition of the dead, why men die and the hope of a resurrection. Because of such fine purposes being served, it seems that a Christian minister could see his way clear to conduct the funeral of a Witness’ unbelieving relative—or even of one who, in a condition of extreme despondency or mental derangement, had taken his own life. And fellow Christians could extend comfort to the bereaved Witness by attending.
Another good purpose that a funeral service can fulfill is that called to our attention by Solomon. Remember, he said: “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.” (Eccl. 7:2) The fact of death gives us cause for reflection on the transitoriness of life. It should also help us to appreciate what a blessing life is. In death there is no consciousness, no feeling, no communication, no joy, no accomplishment.
Among some ancient peoples a funeral was an exceedingly sad affair, symbolizing defeat. It was therefore held at night. While it is true that Christians do not sorrow as do others who have no hope, nevertheless it would seem that at a funeral or memorial service, or in the presence of the deceased at home or at a funeral parlor, there should not be any hilarity or jocularity, as though one were at a picnic or a feast. There is a time for every affair, and the time of death is not the time for noisy laughter.—Eccl. 3:1, 4.
And further, when a service is held for a deceased faithful servant of Jehovah God, the occasion could well be used to note that one’s integrity-keeping course in spite of all manner of obstacles. (2 Sam. 1:26) True, as Mark Anthony said in his famed funeral oration: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” So our purpose is not to eulogize or extol creatures, but to consider their example as one to be imitated. As the apostle Paul put it: “[Do] not become sluggish, but be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”—Heb. 6:12.
FUNERALS OF DISFELLOWSHIPED PERSONS?
However, suppose the deceased is a disfellowshiped person, someone who has been expelled from the Christian congregation for one reason or another. In “Questions from Readers” (The Watchtower, 1961, p. 544) the position was taken that a funeral for a disfellowshiped person was improper. The comment was made: “We never want to give the impression to outsiders that a disfellowshiped person was acceptable in the congregation when in truth and in fact he was not acceptable but had been disfellowshiped from it.” Are there no exceptions, in arranging a funeral for a disfellowshiped person?
Before answering that question it would be well briefly to review the matter of disfellowshiping. That it has a Scriptural basis can be seen from First Corinthians chapter 5, in which the apostle Paul commands the disfellowshiping of an immoral man. However, it was not until 1952 that Jehovah’s people of modern times acted on the growing urgency along this line. With strong zeal for righteousness and a hatred for what is wicked, they set guidelines for those taking the lead so as to keep congregations spiritually, doctrinally and morally clean.
Through the years Jehovah’s people have come to see the matter of disfellowshiping ever more clearly. Not only were details spelled out, but more and more it was seen that wisdom and love, as well as justice, have come into play. They saw the need of showing mercy to truly repentant erring ones, and of considering extenuating circumstances and any evidence of sincere sorrow. In quite recent years it was also pointed out that there is a difference between the way Christians should conduct themselves toward a notorious sinner or an aggressive apostate and toward one who is viewed as “a man of the nations”—to whom the common courtesy of a greeting may be extended.—Matt. 18:17; 2 John 9, 10.
It would seem that this distinction could even be observed in connection with the funeral of a disfellowshiped person. A Christian congregation would not want its good name besmirched by having it associated with any to whom 2 John 9, 10 applied, even in their death. But suppose a disfellowshiped person had been giving some evidence of genuine repentance and had been coming to the meetings and manifesting a desire to be reinstated in the congregation. Then, if the elders felt that it would not disturb the peace and harmony of the congregation nor bring reproach upon God’s people, there would be no objection to an elder’s giving a talk. How are they to know whether Jehovah has already forgiven him or not, since there is some evidence of repentance? Properly, the elders may have been waiting, wanting to make sure that his seeming repentance was sincere. Obviously, each case being different, it would need to be judged on its own merits. Of course, if a funeral talk is given, care would need to be taken not to dwell on personal matters nor to make any positive statements about whether he will be resurrected. But a fine Scriptural presentation and witness could certainly be given.
Moreover, we should not overlook two of the cardinal reasons for disfellowshiping a wrongdoer. One is to jolt him to his senses if possible. The other is to protect the congregation from his bad influence. Neither of these would apply now, since the disfellowshiped person is deceased. Even where a disfellowshiped person has continued as a mere “man of the nations,” so to speak, a Scriptural funeral talk can serve more than one good purpose, even as previously noted: It can provide comfort for the bereaved and a witness to outsiders. The very fact that a fine witness is given can be a comfort and consolation to the bereaved ones regardless of the circumstances.
We alone of all earth’s creatures were made in God’s image. Because of this we have the capacity to appreciate what death is all about. That is why we also have the capacity to mourn another’s loss of life and the desire to comfort bereaved ones. Is not our heavenly Father truly “the Father of tender mercies and the God of all comfort”? Surely! So in the matter of mourning and funerals we let his principles of wisdom, justice and love dictate our feelings and actions, even as they should in all other affairs of life.—2 Cor. 1:3, 4; 1 Cor. 16:14.
The Uniqueness of Man, edited by J. D. Roslansky.