“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” With these words we began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday. They are hard words to hear. As Christians, we are unashamedly pro life. We believe that human life is a gift from God and should be cherished and treated with dignity and respect. We should never fail to fight to preserve the sanctity of human life. However, we cannot use a pro life culture as an excuse to avoid the reality of death. In the United States we are free to talk about all sorts of things publicly, but the topic of death remains a taboo among Christians and non-Christians alike. Have you ever noticed how we can't even say the word? We have a hard time saying something like, "Jack died last night." Instead, we say things like, "Jack passed away," or "He is no longer with us." Even when I worked in a hospital as a chaplain, the medical staff would refer to people as "expiring" rather than "dying."
Nowhere is the taboo of death more evident today than at funerals. In fact, we rarely even have funerals any more. Instead, when a loved one or friend has "passed away," we attend a "celebration of life." I had the opportunity to go to one of these a number years ago at a large church in Colorado Springs. A young man who had done a lot of work on our church building when we first moved in had died tragically in a climbing accident. The "celebration" was like nothing I had ever seen before. Since the young man enjoyed going barefoot, people in attendance were encouraged to do the same (I insisted on wearing a suit and clerical collar with my shoes on). A slide show of his life played on the giant screens throughout the service and various people spoke and told stories about their time together. There was even a woman on the stage who painted a picture. Finally, the pastor got up to speak. My guess is that he hadn't done many funerals, because he literally didn't know what to say. He told those gathered together that he had no answers, that he couldn't explain what had happened or why it had occurred. And that was it. Game over.
Now don't get me wrong, I don't think there is anything wrong with celebrating the life of a person who has died (yikes, I used the word!). It is an important part of the grieving process for all of us. And there is certainly a time and a place to do that. But I would argue a church service is not the time nor the place. In the Anglican Church we do not do "celebrations of life." We read the Burial Office, because while a "celebration of life" focuses on the life a person had, the Burial Office celebrates the new life they have received in Christ. It is forward looking rather than backwards looking. It is an Easter service, a feast of Resurrection life. A wonderful example of this truth proclaimed can be found in the prayer of committal, which reads:
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace. Amen.”
Notice that this prayer looks to the future, and not the past. This is why we don't do eulogies at Anglican funerals. This is why we don't show slide shows. Our Christian hope comes not from what has come before, but rather from what lies ahead. The entire point of the Gospel message is that this life is not the end. Not only will our souls go to be with Christ after death, but our bodies too will one day be raised in glory to live with Jesus in his Kingdom. So while we fight tooth and nail in this world to preserve life, and while we mourn our loss when a loved ones dies, we must also remember not to be afraid of death. Jesus Christ won victory over death on the cross so that we might have eternal life with him. And that is a truth that is worth celebrating, even in the midst of sorrow and despair.
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The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.