listening at funerals

Image from an Alexander family funeral a couple of years ago

Friday morning Rebekah and I drove over to Chapel Hill to attend a funeral service for the mother of a church friend. The mass was held in the beautifully designed sanctuary at the Catholic Community of St. Thomas More.

The front of the church featured a huge bank of tall windows, effectively connecting us with the trees and the sky, flooding the space with natural light, and pulling our spirits into God’s life-saturated creation.

FUNERALS: Other than the few folk from Wake Forest, I didn’t know any of the 200 or so people in the building. But, as I looked around, I couldn’t help but wonder about what it is that calls so many people to take the time to attend so many funerals. People of faith, people who doubt, people with no beliefs at all; family, friends, friends of friends, associates, neighbors, even complete strangers.

Each year in the USA, two and a half million people – give or take – come to the end of their life. That’s a rate of around 8 deaths per 1,000 population, per annum.

In 2011 (according to government statistics) the leading causes included:

  • Heart Diseases – 780,213
  • Cancer – 574,743
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases – 138,080
  • Accidents -120,859  (Motor Vehicle Accidents 35,332)
  • Alzheimer’s – 83,494
  • Diabetes – 69,071
  • Influenza and Pneumonia -50,097
  • Drug-Induced Deaths – 40,393
  • Suicide – 38,364
  • Chronic Liver Disease and Cirrhosis – 31,903
  • Firearms – 31,672
  • Alcohol-Induced Deaths -25,692
  • Parkinson’s Disease – 22,032
  • HIV – 8,369
image from Alexander family funeral
image from Alexander family funeral

SO WHAT? I’m not publishing these statistics to alarm anyone, but because death is such a huge part of life. It occurred to me today that there has to be a reason why so many people go to so much trouble to attend so many funerals.

The reason – I believe – is that death is not the end of anything at all. Death, like birth, is one more transition; and a funeral (or a memorial service) is one of those occasions where we experience the awareness and the reality of both wolds.

For the Christian, the experience of transition comes with a profound sense of assurance and confidence. Why? Because when we become – as Paul writes – a new creation in Christ, that relationship is not interrupted by death. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17

Jesus – Paul also wrote – is “The second Adam” (1 Corinthians 15). What he meant was that when Jesus defeated death, he did something more profound and far-reaching than simply coming back to life; Jesus actually became the firstborn of that “New Creation.”

“Death has been swallowed up in victory!” he continued, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul was able to write this because death has no jurisdiction in the New Creation.

The kind of life that Jesus invites us to participate in transcends the limitations of these oh-so-mortal bodies, this physical frame that eventually breaks down and runs its course.

And I believe that – in addition to honoring the life and the memory of the deceased – so many people go to so much trouble to attend so many funerals because – sometimes only deep in their subconscious souls – they know this to be true; they know that the Spirit of God is calling them, and they come, in a sense, to listen.

But Jesus answered, “It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” – Matthew 4:4



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