Christian Funerals—Dignified, Modest, and Pleasing to God
THE air is filled with the sounds of grief. Mourners dressed in special black garments wail, frantically throwing themselves to the ground in sorrow. Dancers sway to the rhythm of pulsating music. Yet others are eating and celebrating with loud laughter and merrymaking. A few lie on the ground, intoxicated from the free flow of palm wine and beer. What is the occasion? In some parts of the world, these are typical features of a funeral where hundreds of people gather to say their farewells to the dead.
Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses live in communities where relatives and neighbors are highly superstitious and fearful of the dead. Millions of people believe that when someone dies, he becomes an ancestral spirit with the ability to help or harm the living. This belief is interwoven with numerous funeral customs. Of course, grieving over a person who has died is normal. On occasion, Jesus and his disciples mourned the death of loved ones. (John 11:33-35, 38; Acts 8:2; 9:39) Yet, at no time did they exhibit any of the extreme expressions of mourning that were common in their day. (Luke 23:27, 28; 1 Thess. 4:13) Why? One reason was that they knew the truth about death.
The Bible clearly states: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . Their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished . . . There is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [mankind’s common grave], the place to which you are going.” (Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10) These inspired Bible verses make it clear that when someone dies, he is no longer conscious. He cannot think, feel, communicate, or comprehend anything. How should understanding this important Bible truth affect the way Christian funerals are conducted?
“Quit Touching the Unclean Thing”
Regardless of their ethnic or cultural background, Jehovah’s Witnesses strictly avoid any customs associated with the belief that the dead are conscious and can influence the living. Such customs as wake keeping, funeral celebrations, funeral anniversaries, sacrifices for the dead, and widowhood rites are all unclean and displeasing to God because they are linked to the unscriptural, demonic teaching that the soul or spirit does not die. (Ezek. 18:4) True Christians “cannot be partaking of ‘the table of Jehovah’ and the table of demons,” so they do not share in these customs. (1 Cor. 10:21) They obey the command: “Separate yourselves, . . . and quit touching the unclean thing.” (2 Cor. 6:17) Taking such a stand, though, is not always easy.
In Africa and elsewhere, it is widely believed that unless certain customs are followed, spirit ancestors will be offended. Failure to comply is considered a serious offense that could result in a community curse or misfortune. Because of refusing to participate in unscriptural funeral rites, many of Jehovah’s people have been criticized, insulted, and treated as outcasts by their village communities or extended families. Some have been accused of being antisocial and disrespectful of the dead. At times, unbelievers have forcibly taken over Christian funeral arrangements. Therefore, how can we avoid confrontation with those who strongly insist on adhering to funeral customs that displease God? Even more important, what can we do to keep ourselves separate from unclean rites and practices that can damage our relationship with Jehovah?
Make Your Stand Clear
In some parts of the world, it is customary for clan elders and relatives outside the immediate family to have a say in the burial of the dead. A faithful Christian must therefore make it clear that the funeral will be organized and carried out by Jehovah’s Witnesses according to Bible principles. (2 Cor. 6:14-16) What happens at a Christian funeral should not disturb the consciences of fellow believers or stumble others who know what we believe and teach about the dead.
When a representative of the Christian congregation is asked to conduct a funeral, the appointed elders can offer helpful suggestions and provide spiritual support so that all the arrangements harmonize with Scriptural guidelines. If some non-Witnesses desire to introduce unclean practices, it is vital to stand firm and courageously explain our Christian position in a kind and respectful manner. (1 Pet. 3:15) But what if unbelieving relatives still insist on introducing unclean rites into the arrangements? Then the believing family may decide to withdraw from the funeral. (1 Cor. 10:20) When this happens, a simple memorial service may be held at the local Kingdom Hall or at another suitable location in order to share “comfort from the Scriptures” with those who are sincerely saddened by the death of the loved one. (Rom. 15:4) Even though the body of the deceased is not present, such an arrangement would be dignified and entirely acceptable. (Deut. 34:5, 6, 8) Unkind interference from unbelievers may add to the stress and sorrow of the occasion, but we can find comfort in the knowledge that our determination to do what is right does not go unnoticed by God, who can give us “the power beyond what is normal.”—2 Cor. 4:7.
Put Your Position in Writing
When a person has put in writing his personal instructions regarding his funeral arrangements, it is much easier to reason with non-Witness family members, since they are likely to respect the wishes of the deceased. How the funeral should be conducted, where it should take place, and who should have the sole authority to organize and hold it are important details that need to be put in writing. (Gen. 50:5) Most effective is a document that is signed and witnessed. Those who look ahead with insight and wisdom based on Bible principles know that they need not wait until they are very old or terminally ill before they consider taking this step.—Prov. 22:3; Eccl. 9:12.
Some have felt uneasy about putting such instructions into a written document. However, doing so is evidence of Christian maturity and loving concern for others. (Phil. 2:4) It is much better to set these matters straight personally than to leave the settling of such arrangements to distressed family members, who may be pressured into accepting unclean practices that the deceased neither believed in nor approved of.
Keep the Funeral Modest
In many parts of Africa, there is the widespread belief that a funeral must be large and impressive so as not to anger the ancestral spirits. Others use funerals as an opportunity to make a “showy display” of their social and economic status. (1 John 2:16) Much time and effort as well as many resources are devoted to giving the deceased a “proper” burial. To attract as many people as possible, large posters bearing a picture of the deceased are placed in different locations, thus publicly advertising the funeral. T-shirts bearing a portrait of the deceased are produced and distributed so that they can be worn by mourners. Elaborate, expensive coffins are purchased to impress onlookers. In one African land, some go to the extent of constructing coffins that resemble cars, airplanes, boats, and other objects designed to exhibit wealth, grandeur, and luxury. The corpse may be removed from the coffin and displayed on a specially decorated bed. A woman may be clothed in a white wedding dress and adorned with large amounts of jewelry, beads, and makeup. Would participating in such practices really be fitting for any of God’s people?
Mature Christians see the wisdom of avoiding the extremes indulged in by people who neither know nor care about godly principles. We are aware that immodest and unscriptural customs and practices ‘do not originate with God, but originate with the world that is passing away.’ (1 John 2:15-17) Great care must be exercised so that we are not drawn into an unchristian spirit of competition, trying to outdo others. (Gal. 5:26) Experience shows that when fear of the dead is at the heart of local culture and social life, funerals often become large and difficult to supervise and can therefore quickly get out of control. Venerating the dead can easily inflame unbelievers to the point of unclean conduct. At such funerals, there may be loud and unrestrained wailing, embracing of the corpse, talking directly to it as if it were alive, and attaching money and other items to the body. If this were to happen at a Christian funeral, great reproach would be brought upon Jehovah’s name and his people.—1 Pet. 1:14-16.
Knowing the true condition of the dead should certainly give us the courage to conduct our funerals without any trace of worldliness. (Eph. 4:17-19) Although Jesus was the greatest and most important man who ever lived, he was buried in a discreet and modest manner. (John 19:40-42) For those who have “the mind of Christ,” there is no disgrace in such a burial. (1 Cor. 2:16) Surely, keeping Christian funerals simple and modest is the best way to avoid what is Scripturally unclean and to maintain a calm atmosphere that is dignified, tasteful, and fitting for those who love God.
Should There Be Rejoicing?
After the burial, it may be the custom for relatives, neighbors, and others to gather in large numbers to feast and dance to loud music. These funeral celebrations are often associated with heavy drinking and acts of immorality. Some people reason that such merrymaking helps to take away the sadness of death. Others feel that this is just part of their culture. However, many believe that such revelry is a necessary rite of passage that must be performed in order to honor and praise the dead and to release the soul of the deceased to join his ancestors.
True Christians see the wisdom of the Scriptural exhortation: “Better is vexation than laughter, for by the crossness of the face the heart becomes better.” (Eccl. 7:3) Moreover, they know the benefits of quietly reflecting on the shortness of life and the hope of the resurrection. Indeed, to those who have a strong personal relationship with Jehovah, ‘the day of death is better than the day of their birth.’ (Eccl. 7:1) Therefore, knowing that funeral merrymaking is associated with spiritistic beliefs and immoral activity makes it most inappropriate for true Christians to organize or even attend such celebrations. Being in company with funeral revelers would demonstrate a lack of respect for God and for the consciences of fellow worshippers of Jehovah.
Let Others See the Distinction
How grateful we are to be free from the morbid fear of the dead that is so common among those in spiritual darkness! (John 8:32) As “children of light,” we express our sorrow and grief in a way that reflects spiritual enlightenment, a way that is modest, respectful, and tempered by the sure hope of the resurrection. (Eph. 5:8; John 5:28, 29) Such a hope will prevent us from being carried away by the excessive displays of grief often seen among those “who have no hope.” (1 Thess. 4:13) It will give us the courage to take a firm stand for pure worship, not succumbing to the fear of man.—1 Pet. 3:13, 14.
Our faithful compliance with Scriptural principles will give people the opportunity to ‘see the distinction between those serving God and those not serving him.’ (Mal. 3:18) One day, death will be no more. (Rev. 21:4) While we await the realization of that grand promise, may Jehovah find us spotless, unblemished, and completely separate from this wicked world and its God-dishonoring practices.—2 Pet. 3:14.
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Putting in writing our personal wishes concerning funeral arrangements is the course of wisdom
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Christian funerals should be modest and dignified