Who does a funeral benefit? This last week, I took some time off from work and school to be with my family as we buried my grandfather. It was a difficult but rich time, remembering and learning more about a man who was one of my heroes. Prior to this week, I had always thought that the funeral was solely for the benefit of the loved ones left behind—a way for us to remember the deceased in the best light possible, and to garner comfort for our loss by gathering together and mourning communally. Even though the memorial service was centered around the life of the deceased, I imagined that its purpose was to give comfort to the living, not necessarily to benefit the dead themselves. How could the deceased receive any benefit? They cannot be present at their own funeral.
Obviously, all this is true—the deceased is not present to enjoy the service, and the family left behind does receive comfort and closure from the funeral. But this week, I realized that my previous conceptions of funerals are not entirely true. Benefiting the dead or the living is not an either/or option.
There is a sense of duty which accompanies the family planning a funeral. It feels extremely important that everything go well: that the eulogy praises and appreciates the person’s life, that the coffin or urn is beautiful, that we sing songs the deceased loved or relate memories that honor them. In many ways, this part is like planning a surprise birthday party without the knowledge of the recipient—we want everything to be perfect, not for ourselves, but for the guest of honor. This is why it means so much to the family when friends attend the funeral, even if they were not close to the deceased. Their presence supports the family, but it also honors the dead when they make it a priority to come.
And the deceased is the guest of honor at a funeral, even though they are not physically there to witness it. In a way, the funeral and burial are the last acts of service we can provide for the loved one who has passed away, and because of this, we act as though we are benefiting the person through the service.
This is right. We really can benefit the dead by honoring their memory. When I speak well of someone, I am respecting them, even if they are not within hearing. I constantly tell people how wonderful and smart my boyfriend is—and often, he doesn’t hear a word of it. But just because he is not present to appreciate my words of affirmation does not mean that those words are insubstantial. I do not simply say them to feel good about myself, but to respect and cherish him, in or out of his hearing.
My grandfather was a wonderful man—he lived a life that truly glorified God through his family leadership and vocation as an artist. I benefitted greatly from attending his funeral, both by remembering the man I knew, and learning about other aspects of his character through the eyes of others. We put on a beautiful service in his honor—a service he deserved. This week, when I heard my grandmother say things like, “This is for him,” and, “I want the best for him,” I realized that her words are perfectly appropriate. We benefitted my grandpa by honoring his incredible life. Yes, his service was a blessing for those of us who will miss him, but it was also a blessing for him, and I feel privileged to have been part of it.
This post originally aired at Evangelical Outpost on November 11, 2013.