My parents believed in bringing us to funerals. So at young ages, my siblings and I saw a lot of grieving families, heard homilies, eulogies, and a couple of us even rode in the hearse with the funeral director from the church to the grave (only when Dad did the service). One of my earliest funeral memories is being in line to view a body. I was so short that my eyes were below casket level, and I did not want to be picked up. It seemed off to me that adults would stand in line to see a corpse.
Every culture has strong traditions and customs surrounding death and grief. In east Asia, mourners traditionally wear white; in many African countries, family and friends prepare, guard, and bury the body themselves; in Brazil, I’m told that funerals happen quickly and quietly.
What we think is normal for funerals is simply our normal–what we in this time and place have become comfortable with. And the western world is not comfortable with grief, so it limits it to funeral homes. Death reminds us that the party ends, and we can’t take our toys with us. Joan Didion said that our culture obligates us to be happy all the time. Grief interrupts the good feeling—the aura of celebratory consumption—that 21st century North America tries to keep going all the time. When we grieve, we’re not keeping our cultural obligation of cheerfulness, so we try and carry on as normal. Some groups have even started calling funerals celebrations of life, instead of seeing them as a focal point of the grief of separation that death brings. That’s not healthy.
We sneer at the Victorians, with their rigid social codes for grieving: what to wear, how long to wear it, how many weeks to stay at home, where to go when you come out, etc. But these very codes, which sometimes became cumbersome and impractical, did give widows, widowers, orphans of every age, bereaved parents, and others the social space to mourn. They could stay at home and cry, visited only by close family and friends, with no obligation to go anywhere and do anything except find a new normal. Their very clothing told everyone around them, “I have recently lost someone I love. Please give me space and be gentle with your words.” There is something very healthy about that.
Even our Christian sub-cultures in the States have a long way to go before we come closer to a biblically healthy, but a few things might help us to acknowledge and process our own and other’s griefs.
We could take our kids to funerals. My siblings and I became accustomed to funerals at young ages. They were part of life, the sad counterpoints to the dozens of thankful baptisms and joyful weddings that we attended. They were another ceremony that pointed to the preciousness of the gospel in a world where death is a reality because of sin. Children who are sheltered from this aspect of life are being robbed of something deep. They are also less prepared to grieve at their own first loss. If a person has been exposed to strangers’ deaths and their families’ grief, they will be better equipped to cope with the loss of a grandparent, sibling, or parent.
We also need to give people space to grieve. Don’t think that someone who is torn from someone who loves them is emotionally recovered the next month, or next year. We have heard stories from grieving believers having to deal with completely insensitive comments from other Christians. To a widower in the church parking lot: “Are you still sad? It’s been a year, hasn’t it? I thought you’d be over that by now.” If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Bring them a meal, give them a hug, don’t be awkward if they cry. Let them be sad. Covering up or ignoring it denies the preciousness of the relationship lost.
Also, it is helpful to remember that death is awful because of the process and because of the grieving people who are left behind. Grief is for the separation, not the state of the dead Christian. It is the family in the pew that is sad, and to be pitied and comforted for their loss. For the believer who is laid out at the front of the church, death is a great thing! They are done their earthly work. They’ve finished the race. They’ve won the fight with sin. They’re not grieving. They are rejoicing. And that is why Christians don’t grieve like the pagans, pretending that we are celebrating life or just deploring our mortality. We grieve with hope, because in Christ, we will one day join the person that death took away. Our grief is balanced by Isaiah 57:1: God takes away the godly to spare them from evil.
Christian grief can take on many different cultural expressions. People can still wear white, or care for the body (if that’s legal), bury the body quickly with a small, quiet ceremony, or have open casket visitation. But the way that Christians process the death of another believer will always be informed by biblical standards, patterns, and truths. We can and should grieve, given space by the church community to mourn, and to learn in deeper ways how to hold in tension the truths of mortality and eternity.