Do You Honor the Dead?
HAVE you ever felt the keen loss that attends the death of a loved one? Many bereaved individuals feel overwhelmed by the finality of death and the resulting sense of helplessness. Often there is a desire to compensate for this through acts intended to honor the dead. Due to belief in an immortal soul, funeral rites frequently include ceremonies thought to appease the dead and invoke their favor, or to help them in the spirit world.
It is natural to hold the memory of a loved one in honor. Normal human feelings demand the providing of a “decent burial.” The same feeling creates the desire to carry out the last wishes of the deceased, so long as this would not violate the person’s conscience and his sense of what is right. Similarly, most persons refrain from acts that would be disrespectful of the dead.
However, those desiring to be governed by God’s standards will make sure that their practices are not motivated by a belief that the dead are aware of what is being done. Why is this? Because such belief is based not on truth, but on superstitions that have spread from ancient Babylon. It is also founded on the deceptions of demons who impersonate the dead.
Physical evidence supports the Bible’s teaching that death is a cessation of all life and that man has no immortal soul capable of surviving into the spirit world. Man himself is the soul, for we are told in the Scriptures: “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.” At death, humans return to dust and their thought processes cease.—Gen. 2:7; 3:19; Ps. 146:4; Ezek. 18:4.
Of course, there are beliefs that run counter to this. But how can we uphold truth by our actions toward the dead? And how can we do this in regard to expressions of grief at the loss of a loved one?
HOW DO YOU SHOW GRIEF?
Giving way to grief has the effect of releasing emotional tensions, but emotions cannot be allowed uncontrolled expression without producing emotional imbalance. So it is wise to control expressions of grief.
God’s servants of the past expressed sorrow when loved ones died. (Gen. 23:2; Deut. 34:8; John 11:33) Yet they were forbidden to engage in acts suggesting belief that the dead survived in a spirit world. Jehovah’s people were not to corrupt their religion by copying the nations in actions reflecting a wrong attitude toward the dead.—Lev. 19:28; Deut. 14:1; 18:10-12.
Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus and foretold that his followers would fast out of grief after his own death. (John 11:35, 38; Mark 2:20) But he also said that they should fast so as to be noticed only by God and not by men. Their expression should be from the heart, not for outward show. (Matt. 6:16-18; compare Joel 2:12, 13.) Jesus told his disciples that they were no part of the world. And, of course, he did not desire that they seek the approval of the world by acting contrary to truth.—John 15:19.
All of this discourages Christians from copying the custom of wearing black garb as an external sign of mourning. However, at a time of grief due to a death, godly persons likely would wear dignified clothing in public, as it would not then be in good taste to dress in a casual way.—Eccl. 3:1, 4.
Would this also rule out the practice of wake keeping? As followed by various religions, often this custom is accompanied by mournful singing and weeping throughout the night. It creates a gloomy and depressing atmosphere for the bereaved family. Wake keeping apparently originated in the fear of the dead, and the practice was designed to appease the deceased and ward off malevolent spirits. But since the Bible shows that the dead are “conscious of nothing at all,” such a practice is based on a falsehood and so cannot be reconciled with true Christianity.—Eccl. 9:5, 10.
However, it would be proper to visit a bereaved family. This can be done even if the body of the deceased has not yet been removed from the home, although a Christian would not participate in a traditional wake based on unscriptural views and practices. Naturally, sitting around in an atmosphere of gloom would not provide comfort or lessen grief. Nor would it be thoughtful to place on bereaved persons the financial burden of furnishing a great quantity of food for visitors. It would be considerate to avoid a prolonged visit, unless you are a member of the family or a close friend. But it would be uplifting to offer assistance and to “speak consolingly to the depressed souls.” (1 Thess. 5:14) Perhaps you could help with some housekeeping or shopping or could contribute meals that need to be provided.
How, though, do you express your grief if you are the bereaved? Christians do not give in to excessive mourning and do not fear the dead. Nor do they think that the deceased need help from the living. Rather, Christians have a hope that the dead will be restored to life, for the apostle Paul stated: “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) Hence, Christian sorrow is tempered and balanced by hope.—John 11:24; Acts 24:15.
If you have lost a loved one in death, this hope of a resurrection will help you to overcome feelings of loss and grief. It will aid you to make the best of your present circumstances and will strengthen you to help others. For example, you can tell other bereaved persons about your hope in a resurrection and thus help them to cope with their grief.—John 5:28, 29.
WHAT ABOUT FUNERALS?
A Christian funeral provides for disposal of the body in a way that meets legal sanitary requirements and is socially acceptable. It furnishes an opportunity to give comfort to the bereaved and a message of hope to all in attendance. No, a Christian funeral is neither a sacrament to obtain the supposed repose of the soul, nor an act of appeasement toward the “departed spirit.” Also, Christians do not consider it possible to “consecrate” the dead by the manner of burial. Since the dead are “conscious of nothing at all,” actions taken toward them cannot either benefit or appease them, or influence their standing in God’s eyes. (Ps. 6:5; 115:17) However, the funeral (or a memorial service, as when the corpse is not present) does comfort the surviving relatives and demonstrates the esteem in which the dead loved one was held.
Yet, of how much value would an elaborate funeral be if the deceased had not been treated with esteem while alive? Some have argued that an elaborate funeral and associated feast are needed to show respect and express appreciation for a well-lived life. But such appreciation would be more valuable if it were shown during the person’s lifetime, when he or she could see and benefit from it.
While there can be thankfulness that a deceased individual has completed a good life, death is an enemy. (1 Cor. 15:26) It is a time for sadness, not rejoicing, a time to reflect soberly on the importance of using life in harmony with God’s will.—Eccl. 7:2; 9:10.
These points can profitably be considered when deciding how far to go in showing respect for a deceased loved one. On the other hand, since the dead are unconscious and can do nothing, prayers or offerings for or to them not only are futile, but are wrong. (Isa. 8:19; 38:18) For example, King David prayed and fasted while his ailing infant was alive. But when David realized that the child was dead, he discontinued his praying and fasting.—2 Sam. 12:16-23.
HOW IS THE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION AFFECTED?
If the individual who has died was associated with the Christian congregation, it would be normal for that congregation to be asked to conduct the funeral. In fact, the deceased may have expressed that wish, and it would be appropriate for surviving children or other members of the family to honor it. Of course, family responsibility reasonably extends to the making of funeral arrangements. However, while taking care of the expenses, and the legal and routine work involved, the family can ask the congregation, through the elders, to conduct the funeral.—1 Tim. 5:8.
Yet, if a real need exists, the congregation may assume certain funeral responsibilities for a faithful Christian who dies destitute and without relatives capable of caring for these matters. (Compare 1 Timothy 5:9, 10.) This would be something for decision by the local body of elders. Naturally, if unbelieving family members take over the funeral arrangements, the Christian congregation is not obligated to arrange for some sort of joint funeral service and thus risk becoming involved in interfaith.—2 Cor. 6:14-17; Rev. 18:4.
In all matters pertaining to the services for the dead, it is vital to conform to what is true. Hence, Christians avoid anything that even remotely resembles ancestor worship or a belief in “departed spirits.” Godly persons manifest faith in the resurrection and determination to praise Jehovah by engaging in worship that is not defiled by any form of falsehood.—John 4:23, 24; Jas. 1:27.
Jesus Christ said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that exercises faith in me, even though he dies, will come to life.”—John 11:25
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Do you fill a house of mourning with gloom? OR
Do you encourage mourning ones with hope based on God’s Word?