Society’s attitude toward death changes, it seems, with every generation. Our Victorian forebears were obsessed by it, but today death is almost an embarrassment in a secular world which regards itself as sophisticated and advanced, and people often seek to deal with it by making light of it in one way or another. Evidence of this can be seen in how funeral services are conducted, both in funeral homes and some churches. Hymns are being replaced by the deceased’s favourite pop songs, Bible readings by poems and prose, and preaching (weak and meaningless as much of it is) is minimised or cut out altogether to allow for a series of tributes which are often based on humorous anecdotes and banality. Of course, the unsaved are much more comfortable in this type of scenario for it dims their senses and helps them to cope with the grim reality of death. In some ways, the removal of all religious trappings would be a more honest approach, for there is something incongruous about people who have rejected Christianity using churches for baptisms (or “christenings” or “getting the baby done”), marriages and funerals. Some time ago, I attended a humanist funeral in a funeral parlour which actually was probably a more honest event than many a religious funeral, but there was irony in it all for, as the coffin was being lowered for cremation, the deceased’s favourite song was played over the speakers. It referred to walking the lonesome valley and mentioned the Bible and faith.
What is more worrying is that, as so often happens, the world’s standards are slowly but surely creeping into funerals held in evangelical churches. Such change is less radical and more subtle but it is happening nevertheless. It should go without saying that a funeral service is a solemn event, for we are brought face to face with the fragility of life and the certainty of death. It should certainly not be an occasion for light-heartedness and jokes, but it presents evangelical preachers with a unique opportunity to present the Gospel to people who rarely, if ever, darken a church door. The funerals of God’s saints are obviously sad occasions in many ways, but there is also comfort in the midst of tears, for the deceased has gone to be with Christ, and that point alone enables the preacher to highlight the good news of the Gospel. Indeed, all who are believers will want the Gospel to be proclaimed at their funeral, and, rather than have themselves eulogised, they will want the name of Christ to be lifted up before all who are present. Sadly, the centrality of the preaching of the Word is now being seriously undermined at far too many funerals in evangelical churches, and precious time is taken up with tributes, poems and eulogies. In some ways, it is symptomatic of the sidelining of the preaching of the Word in worship in general. We need to do all we can to halt this trend in our churches. Tributes to the deceased have their place, but let us not forget that, in the very presence of death, what is needed most of all is for mourners to be challenged about their own spiritual standing and to be told about Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of sinners, who says to them “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”