Faith & Spirituality

Funeral ≠ Celebration

A friend of the family passed away recently. A day or two after his passing, another friend forwarded me an email containing a newspaper article with his obituary and information about his “Celebration of Life” service.

It may be none of my business what people want to label their significant life events, but calling it a “celebration”, instead of a “funeral” or “memorial service”, just sits wrong with me for some reason.

It makes little sense, in my mind, to link the word “celebration” with the thought of losing a loved one. It’s a sad thing. It’s not something we celebrate, if we’re going to be honest.  When I think of celebrating, I think of anniversaries and graduations and weddings and especially birthdays. Old-age qualms notwithstanding, a birthday is a happy occasion. That seems to me like the right time to celebrate someone’s life (or at least their life so far). Why wait to do it until after they’ve died? Shouldn’t you do special things for them that they’ll enjoy and appreciate while they’re alive? (“Don’t send me flowers when I’m dead”, the song says.)

“Well,” you say, “but the funeral or memorial service isn’t really for the person who died. It’s for the loved ones who remain, for closure and the support of their family members and friends and all of that.”

To which I say, true enough. And in that case, I see even less of a reason to call it a celebration.

Not that I don’t understand the reasoning behind it; I do. We want to keep the focus on the good thing that we had — the person’s life — instead of mourning what we’ve lost. Those of us who are believers in Jesus take it one step further.  For us, the celebration aspect encompasses not only the person’s life on this earth, but also the new life they’ve entered into in heaven.

And yet in all of this I wonder if we have taken the apostle’s admonition “Do not grieve as those who have no hope” and turned it into “Do not grieve.” Or, if you must grieve, then do so as if you were ashamed of it, with lots of disclaimers to the effect that “this is also an occasion for rejoicing” and so forth. No, take the time to actually grieve, and be real about it. Some stories end sadly, and so do some chapters (and people) of our lives. Acknowledge that. Feel it; express it. And if it really helps you to think of the memorial service as a celebration, then go ahead and do that.

But for heaven’s sake, please don’t put that in the newspaper.

[Originally published May 2012]

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