'Celebration of Life' Services Deny the True Nature of Death

Humans were never intended to die. In fact, death is the tragic consequence of sin and is the ripping asunder of the soul and the body. God made humans to reflect Him, both body and soul. But humans introduced sin into the world and death is now the end result for all humans.

That tragic consequence was first revealed by God in the Garden of Eden. From Genesis all the way through to Revelation, the Bible clearly reveals that death is antithetical to God, and that death and sin are the enemy. Thankfully, the Bible also reveals that God in His mercy sent a Savior to pay the price for sin and defeat death. Through his life of perfect obedience to the Father, his substitutionary death on the cross, and his resurrection from the grave by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus conquered death. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ states that all those who repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus will one day participate in the final destruction of death upon the physical return of King Jesus. Sadly, many Christians have fallen into the trap of denying the nature of death and the importance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through a “celebration of life” service in the place of a funeral.

Funerals are hard. I get that. Ten years ago last month, I buried my mother who died in her mid-sixties from cancer. She was a woman who had devoted her life to telling kids about Jesus and she loved her Savior dearly. In fact, her faith leading up to her death is one of the things that the Holy Spirit used to grow and strengthen my faith in the sovereign God of the Bible. Although I rejoiced at the fact that she was in the presence of Jesus, my mom’s funeral was difficult. And that’s right and appropriate.

Many, however, have begun turning traditional funeral services on their head and hosting celebration of life services instead. Usually, the point of a celebration of life service is to honor the deceased through mementos, shared memories, and laughter. Often, the stated desire is to circumvent mourning. One website opens its advice on turning a funeral into a celebration of life service with the attestation that, “The next time you attend a funeral, don’t be surprised if it more closely resembles the last wedding you went to than the somber farewell you bid your grandfather 20 years ago.”

As Christians, it’s true that we mourn with hope, but we still mourn. We mourn because death and, hence, funerals remind us that sin is still wreaking havoc on God’s good creation. We mourn because humans were never intended to die. Celebration of life services reveal the human tendency to ignore sin and sin’s devastating effects. Further, sin should never be celebrated and death is the direct result of sin. How individuals respond to death reveals a lot about their view of sin.

Christians, of all people, should be the first to treat death as the enemy that it is. Jesus openly wept at the funeral of his friend Lazarus, and he did so knowing that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus wept because he understood, better than anyone, what death actually is. Jesus grieved over sin and death, and so should we.

Also lost in celebration of life services is that funerals should be a place where God’s salvation from death is explained and offered. But if the rough edges of funerals are all hewn off in order to celebrate life, there is little reason to hold out the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those still facing eternal death. If friends and family are encouraged to laugh and remember all of the good times without being confronted by the extreme ugliness of death,  they will have a harder time seeing their need for salvation from sin and death.

For those who understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the death of a loved one is not something that should be celebrated. Funerals should reflect the gravity of sin and death; this, in turn, will make the salvation found only through faith in Jesus Christ the only reason to celebrate.