Is Your Course of Life Death-Oriented?
MAN desires to live. Yet death is a feature of present human existence. This single fact profoundly affects the way that people live their lives, and their view of life itself.
Even those who deny a religious attitude often try to pack as much living as they can into their short life-span. They live under the shadow of death. Many religiously oriented persons, believing that humans possess an immortal spirit soul, hope that death will give them an escape from the physical existence into a spirit one. This is why so many cultures are death-oriented, and practice some form of honoring the dead, whose souls are thought to be in conscious existence in a spirit world. On the other hand, the hope of life that the Bible holds out is not based on the idea that the soul survives after death.
WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES
The Bible identifies the living man as “living soul,” comprised of the body and the “breath of life.” (Gen. 2:7) The Bible also speaks of a spirit in both animals and humans. (Ps. 104:25-30; Eccl. 3:19, 20) This spirit is the force of life in each cell of the body. It is sustained by the oxygen-rich air and food that God has provided. At the time that God made the first human pair, he provided all the conditions that would make it possible for them and their offspring to continue living forever, if they remained obedient to their Creator. Disobedience would produce death.—Gen. 2:8, 9, 15-17.
Death is the opposite of life as a living soul. For this reason, after Adam sinned by disobedience, God told him: “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and took to eating from the tree . . . In pain you will eat . . . all the days of your life . . . until you return to the ground, . . . For dust you are and to dust you will return.” Because man did not measure up to God’s requirement for life, the days of his life ended and he returned to the dust from which he was taken. He died.—Gen. 3:17-19.
The Bible consistently presents this view of death. Regarding the effects of the flood of Noah’s day, the record says: “All flesh that was moving upon the earth expired, . . . all mankind. Everything in which the breath of the force of life was active . . . died.” (Gen. 7:21, 22) ‘Eight souls were carried safely through the water.’ (1 Pet. 3:20) The Christian writer of the book of Romans confirmed that “the wages sin pays is death.” (Rom. 6:23) He agreed with the Bible’s declaration that “the soul that is sinning—it itself will die,” and that the soul ceases to have a conscious existence at death: “In that day his thoughts do perish.”—Ezek. 18:20; Ps. 146:4.
PRACTICES BASED ON A DECEPTION
However, the Bible teaches that a spirit realm exists. “God is a Spirit.” (John 4:24) He created other spirit persons long before man or the animals were made. (Job 38:4, 7) Some of these, including the one now known as Satan, rebelled against God and have been ostracized from enlightenment in God’s family of faithful angels. (Gen. 3:1-15; 6:1-7; 1 Pet. 3:19, 20; Jude 6) They have become deceivers, intent on convincing people that man survives death in spirit form. (Rev. 12:9) They are the ones that impersonate the dead and produce manifestations that make people believe that they can have contact with the spirits of the dead. This is why some form of worship of the dead is practiced in all parts of the world.—Isa. 8:19.
For example, in many parts of Nigeria it is believed that, after death, the soul enters into a dormant state, where it remains until a first and a second funeral ceremony have been performed. The first ceremony is the burial of the body of the deceased. The second, a sort of memorial service, is a spiritual funeral to release the soul from the region of the dead and to permit it to enter fully into the land of the spirits. For this reason, to many Nigerians, the memorial services that are held in the churches a week after the funeral are equivalent to a second burial.
Other customs such as “wake-keeping” have developed as an effort to keep malignant spirits from interfering with the corpse, or to prevent the spirit of the deceased from returning to this world. These customs often involve complex and expensive ceremonies designed to show publicly that the deceased is highly honored. Also, it is hoped thereby to gain his favor.
A Nigerian burial ceremony was recently broadcast on television, showing expensively dressed mourners weeping at the graveside. Some were even attempting to throw themselves into the grave. As soon as the burial of the dead man was completed, a great celebration followed, with much drinking, eating and merrymaking. Some estimate that this funeral cost about ₦5,000 ($7,500, U.S.). In most parts of Nigeria, mourning and then rejoicing at the funeral of an aged person expresses the belief that he has successfully completed his life as a human and is prepared to enter the spirit life.
The honor paid to the dead is further illustrated in a letter that was written to one of the Nigerian newspapers. The writer told of a friend who could not make the time to visit his sick father and could only afford to send ₦20 ($30, U.S.) to pay for providing medical attention. Yet, when the old man died a month later, the same son was able to get leave from his work, and borrowed more than ₦580 ($870, U.S.) “to meet the expenses of the burial ceremony.” Further expenses were also met by other relatives. The writer of the letter commented: “When the man was ill, he got just ₦20 to take care of himself, but when he died, his remains—the useless lifeless body—was joyfully put away . . . at nothing less than ₦2,000” ($3,000, U.S.).
In many cases, the close relatives of the deceased shave their hair, cut their fingernails, make marks or cuts on their body or wear special beads or small sacks containing seeds or concoctions. All of this is really special protective “medicine” against the spirit of the deceased. Such things were not practiced by worshipers of Jehovah and are condemned in the Bible.—Lev. 19:28.
NATURAL TO FEEL SORROW AT DEATH OF A LOVED ONE
It is natural for humans to feel grief and sorrow over the loss of a loved one. God’s servants have expressed such sorrow and shown their grief by weeping and by sober dress. (Gen. 23:2; Deut. 34:8; John 11:33, 35, 38) In pre-Christian times they dressed in sackcloth and sometimes had prescribed periods of mourning for grief in connection with other disasters, apart from death. (2 Sam. 14:2; Esther 4:1) Mourning had no connection with any appeasement of the dead. It was a demonstration of sadness brought on by a personal or a community tragedy.
In like manner, Christian worshipers of Jehovah do not give in to excessive mourning, and the Bible gives the reason: “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) Christians view their dead as being unconscious, “sleeping” in hope of a resurrection, and having no need for rituals of appeasement or atonement.—John 11:11-14.
The hope of the resurrection is based on the provision that God made in order to cancel the effect of sin and remove the condemnation of death. He lovingly provided a ransom for mankind through the death of Jesus Christ. This has opened the way for God to resurrect the dead and give them the opportunity to live again in the future, with the prospect of gaining everlasting life.—John 3:16; Matt. 20:28; John 11:24-26.
KEEP FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS WITHIN SCRIPTURAL BOUNDS
Therefore, Christians must avoid becoming infected with the erroneous customs of people around them. They must shun all practices based on the idea that the soul survives into a spirit world. There is no need for complicated funeral rituals. Normally, bodies are disposed of by being buried in the ground. Other methods of disposal, such as cremation or burial at sea, are also used. If the corpse is washed before burial for the sake of cleanliness, there must be no association with the unscriptural ritual of preparing the deceased for life ‘in the next world.’—Acts 9:37.
Wise King Solomon counseled: “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) This counsel makes two things plain in connection with funerals. First, banqueting or a showy display is inappropriate in connection with mourning for the dead. Secondly, it is proper for sympathizers to visit and comfort the bereaved.
In making such visits, those from nearby areas visiting to express their condolences to the family should show considerateness in making their visit brief and in not obliging the family to provide them with food. Such provision may be made for sympathizers from afar if the family chooses. This would be showing hospitality. On the other hand, all visitors should want to show consideration by not selfishly acting in such a way as to add to the expenses that the family is already incurring in preparing for the funeral. Instead, it would be a fine thing for them to offer to help the family in taking care of household duties or in running errands.
As to funerals conducted among Jehovah’s Witnesses, a service can be held at any appropriate location, such as a funeral home, the Kingdom Hall, the home of a member of the family or even at the burial ground. A respected male member of the congregation can be asked by the family to conduct the service. A simple Bible-based talk would be given, providing a Scriptural explanation of death and of God’s purpose to restore the dead to life by a resurrection. After this service, the body would be buried, without ritual.
The Bible shows that there are instances where worshipers of Jehovah took the body to the place of burial by a procession. It was at the time of such a procession that Jesus resurrected a young man. (Luke 7:12-16) It is to be noted that this was in connection with carrying the body out to be buried. It was not a ritual march around the city. In fact, simplicity is the outstanding feature of Christian funerals. The descriptions of the burial of Jesus and of pre-Christian worshipers of God show that there was just a simple, respectable disposal of the body. (Matt. 27:59, 60; Gen. 25:9, 10; 49:29-32) Such simplicity fits in with the simple truth that the dead “are conscious of nothing at all. . . . Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished.” (Eccl. 9:5, 6) Further still, in the conducting of funerals, Christians would not join with religions who hold false beliefs about the dead.—2 Cor. 6:14-17.
After the burial there is nothing more that can be done for the dead. Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 tells us, “ . . . neither do they anymore have wages, . . . there is no work nor devising nor knowledge” in the grave where the dead go. Thus the dead can do nothing to change their own situation, nor can they interfere with the living. This also means that the living cannot accomplish anything for the dead. So “second burials,” wake-keeping, memorial services that have the nature of homage or appeasement, sacrifices and offerings, special prayers for the peaceful repose of the soul—“R.I.P.”—based on belief in the conscious existence of the soul in purgatory or elsewhere, are valueless and are based on false ideas.—Ps. 49:6-9.
In place of a preburial funeral service, a memorial service may properly be held at a convenient time shortly after the burial. Such service would not be for the benefit of the dead, or out of fear of the dead. It would provide an opportunity for comfort to the surviving relatives and close associates during the period of their grief, inasmuch as it takes time to overcome grief and the feeling of loss. This very fact also indicates that Christians would have no justification for holding memorial services annually or at other regular intervals for dead relatives. The Bible authorizes doing this only in remembrance of Jesus Christ, who gave himself in sacrifice for mankind to provide deliverance from the condemnation of death.—Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24, 25.
Although we must accept death as a feature of present human experience, there is no need to view it with morbid fear or undue reverence. The hope of the resurrection will protect us from excessive grief. “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,” by means of a resurrection. (1 Thess. 4:13, 14; Rev. 21:4) For this reason the life of Christians is not death-oriented. They look forward to the future with the hope of life. They direct their life toward helping the living.
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Should the dead be honored more than the living?