YouTube told me I ought to watch a clip from a recent episode of America’s Got Talent. After all, who doesn’t like to see some unknown person make it or blow it on the big stage? In this case the young man did a tremendous job of imitating Frank Sinatra and, of course, received thunderous applause for his effort. When the cheering had subsided he was told by the judges that his dear grandmother must be looking down from heaven aglow with pride. Somehow that kind of clichéd syrupy sentimentality is just what people want to hear in those moments. It got me thinking about some of the absurd statements I’ve heard over the years, and especially the ones I’ve heard at funerals. Here are a few things I sincerely hope no one will say about me at my funeral or any time thereafter. In fact, I hereby forbid it.
He is looking down on you. The Bible gives us little reason to believe that the dead keep an eye on the living. And, frankly, I rather hope they don’t. When I am dead I will finally, blessedly be more alive than I’ve ever been because I will be free of sin and its consequences. I can’t help but think that the very last thing I’d want is to look down (or up or sideways or whatever direction earth is in relation to heaven) and have to witness more of sin and its effects. I love you all plenty, but I don’t particularly want to kick off forever by watching you sin. Not only that, but there’s no earthly or heavenly reason you’d want or need me to. Surely you aren’t indicating that God’s watchful eye is insufficient and that it somehow needs to be supplemented by mine, are you? No, I’m not looking at you. I’m looking at Jesus as he’s looking after you. You’ll be fine.
He’s with the angels now. This one gets me. Listen, I’m eager to meet some angels and to learn what they are all about. I’m especially eager to meet the angel who comforted Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. What I wouldn’t give to know what words he spoke in that moment! But here’s the thing: When I die I won’t be with the angels. I’ll be with Jesus. To say I’m with the angels is like watching a man walk into Buckingham Palace and saying, “He’s with the queen’s secretary now.” While that is strictly true, it’s also completely missing the point. He’s with the queen! And when I’m no longer with you, I’ll be with the king.
God needed another angel. Please don’t say this. Please don’t say this because if you know me you know that I’m no angel. But even more, don’t say this because it completely misrepresents both men and angels as if human beings aspire to evolve or transform into some kind of supernatural being. Angels and humans are completely different orders of being! Iguanas don’t die and become giraffes and men don’t die and become angels. I’m a human being now and will be a human being for the rest of eternity.
He was a good man. He is now, but he wasn’t always. He is good now that he’s in that place where he has been perfected by an instantaneous act of God. He is good now that God has transformed him to take away all desire for ungodliness and unholiness. He’s good now, but he wasn’t on this side of the grave. Frankly, he could be kind of a jerk at times. He could be moody and arrogant and self-centered. He was bad. But he was also forgiven and battling to kill his love of sin and desire for sin. He was learning and growing and displaying God’s grace. But he wasn’t good. Not like he is now. Not like God had created him to be.
He wouldn’t want you to cry. Go ahead and cry. You don’t need to cry for me, of course. But I wouldn’t tell you not to cry at all. Every funeral is an opportunity to consider the harsh reality of human mortality and the treasonous acts that made this mortality inevitable. There is no virtue in a stiff upper lip. There is no virtue in suppressing grief. There is no virtue in thinking that the joy of one man entering heaven ought to dispel the grief of those who are left behind. Funerals are a perfectly appropriate time to mourn—to mourn for the one who died, to mourn for others you miss, to mourn your own mortality, and to mourn the One who died so we could live.
We’re not having a funeral; we’re having a celebration. Why pit the two against one another as if only one can be true? We are having a funeral and it is a genuinely sad occasion. Yet we do not, can not, must not mourn as those who have no hope. A Christian funeral marks both a departure and an arrival; it provides an occasion for both grief and joy. As the poet says, “One short sleep past we wake eternally, and death shall be no more.” A sunset brings cold darkness but also the warm hope of dawn. Death brings the end of a very short life and the beginning of a never-ceasing one. It’s as wrong to refuse to mourn as it is to mourn without hope.