Questions From Readers
◼ When someone dies, is it proper for Christians to give flowers to the family or to send flowers to the funeral home?
In some lands it is customary to do so. But using flowers at funerals has at times had a religious meaning. So let us examine the matter in some detail, especially since there are other customs that may seem to have similar links to false religion. Note comments from The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987):
“Flowers are connected to the sacred realm through their association with gods and goddesses. Flora, the Roman goddess of springtime and flowers, brings beauty and fragrance to blossoms . . . Deities may be appeased and worshiped . . . through the offering of food and flowers.
“The association of flowers with rituals of death occurs all over the world. The Greeks and Romans covered the dead and their graves with flowers. The souls of dying Buddhists in Japan are carried upward on a lotus, and the gravestones in cemeteries may rest on carved lotuses . . . Tahitians leave bouquets wrapped in ferns by the body after death and then pour floral perfume over the corpse to ease its passage into the sacred afterlife . . . Flowers may also be present at sacred times in the form of incense or perfume.”
Aware that flowers have been used in connection with false religion, some Christians have felt that they should not give or send flowers for a funeral. Their feeling may also reflect a desire to avoid worldly customs, since Jesus’ followers are to be “no part of the world.” (John 15:19) However, relevant Bible texts and local sentiments have a bearing on the matter.
Flowers are part of God’s good gifts for the living to enjoy. (Acts 14:15-17; James 1:17) His created floral beauty has been used in true worship. The lampstand in the tabernacle was decorated with “flowers of almond . . . and blossoms.” (Exodus 25:31-34) Engravings in the temple included garlands and palm trees. (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32) Clearly, pagan use of flowers or garlands did not mean that true worshipers always had to avoid using them.—Acts 14:13.
What, though, about the broader issue of following customs, such as funeral customs? The Bible refers to many customs, some improper for true worshipers, others followed by God’s people. First Kings 18:28 cites the “custom” of Baal worshipers of “calling at the top of their voice and cutting themselves”—a custom that true worshipers would not follow. On the other hand, Ruth 4:7 suggests no disapproval of “the custom of former times in Israel concerning the [manner of exercising the] right of repurchase.”
Customs acceptable to God might even develop in strictly religious matters. When God outlined the Passover ceremony, he did not mention the use of wine, but by the first century, it was customary to use cups of wine. Jesus and his apostles did not reject this religious custom. They found it unobjectionable, and they followed it.—Exodus 12:6-18; Luke 22:15-18; 1 Corinthians 11:25.
It is similar with some funeral customs. Egyptians customarily embalmed the dead. The faithful patriarch Joseph did not automatically react, ‘This is a pagan custom, so we Hebrews must avoid it.’ Rather, he “commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father,” evidently so that Jacob could be buried in the Promised Land. (Genesis 49:29–50:3) The Jews later developed different funeral customs, such as bathing the body and burying it on the day of death. Early Christians accepted such Jewish customs.—Acts 9:37.
However, what if a funeral custom is viewed as having a meaning based on religious error, such as belief in an immortal soul? Recall from the encyclopedia that some “leave bouquets wrapped in ferns by the body after death and then pour floral perfume over the corpse to ease its passage into the sacred afterlife.” That there might be such a custom does not mean that God’s servants must shun anything similar. While the Jews did not believe in “passage into the sacred afterlife,” the Bible says: “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 12:2-8; 19:40.
Christians should avoid practices that conflict with Biblical truth. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18) Still, all kinds of objects, designs, and practices have, at some time or place, been given a false interpretation or have been linked with unscriptural teachings. Trees have been worshiped, the heart shape has been viewed as sacred, and incense has been used in pagan ceremonies. Does this mean that a Christian must never use incense, have trees in any decoration, or wear heart-shaped jewelry?a That is not a valid conclusion.
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.
If it is well-known that a custom (or a design, such as the cross) has a false religious meaning, avoid it. Christians would thus not send flowers in the form of a cross, or a red heart if that is viewed as having religious significance. Or there may be some formal way in which flowers are used at a funeral or at a grave site that has a religious meaning locally. The Christian should avoid that too. That is not to say, though, that simply providing a bouquet at a funeral or giving flowers to a friend in the hospital must be viewed as a religious act that must be avoided.b
On the contrary, in many lands the custom of providing flowers is widespread and is viewed as an appropriate kindness. Flowers can contribute some beauty and can make a sad occasion more pleasant. They also may be a gesture of sympathy and concern. Elsewhere the custom may be to manifest such sentiments by a generous act, such as providing a meal for ill or grieving ones. (Recall the affection felt for Dorcas because she expressed her interest in and concern for others. [Acts 9:36-39]) When doing so is not clearly linked with false beliefs, some of Jehovah’s Witnesses are accustomed to providing cheerful flowers for a hospitalized friend or in the case of a death. And individually they may further express their interest and feelings by practical acts.—James 1:27; 2:14-17.
a Pagans have long used floral incense in their ceremonies, but it was not wrong for God’s people to employ incense in true worship. (Exodus 30:1, 7, 8; 37:29; Revelation 5:8) See also “Are They Idolatrous Decorations?” in Awake! of December 22, 1976.
b The wishes of the family should be considered, for some make it known that anyone wishing to send flowers should instead make a contribution to the congregation or to a certain charity.