Celebrating life

This year, I’ve had the privilege of officiating at two memorial services at our church. And when I say “privilege,” I’m not just being polite. I mean it. It was a joy to be there and to have a part to play in the celebration of lives that had been lived well and faithfully in the company of others.

I have sometimes mused that these days I get called to do more funerals than weddings. On the surface of things, that might sound a bit depressing. After all, wouldn’t you rather be at a wedding than a funeral? Wouldn’t you rather celebrate beginnings rather than endings?

Sure. But it’s a question of what we’re really celebrating and why.

The very idea of celebrating endings may sound odd to some, perhaps even borderline inappropriate. Aren’t people grieving? Shouldn’t the mood be somber? Wouldn’t it be insensitive to smile and laugh?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we put on party hats and ignore the tangible gut-punch of loss that the family and others may be feeling. Some of it depends on the circumstances of the loss. Was it tragic and unexpected? That’s a different burden to carry than the situation in which someone dies after a long and difficult illness — in which case, frankly, the family may feel that an enormous burden has been lifted. And we shouldn’t ignore the resilience of families: it is both normal and expectable for people to cycle through a whole range of emotions, positive and negative. Imposing a somber mood can be just as inappropriate as imposing a blindly carefree one.

But the question is not just psychological. It’s theological to the core.

In the previous post, we noted the different ways of thinking about the phrase “eternal life.” There is the quantitative sense of life “everlasting” that continues on into eternity. But there is also the qualitative sense of a life that even now is lived in a way that points us toward the truth of the gospel and the presence of God’s kingdom.

That’s what can make a memorial service a true celebration.

It so happens that the two men whose lives were memorialized at these services were both people with a wacky and infectious sense of humor. They liked to make people laugh, and one was an inveterate prankster. The stories told at the service were priceless, worthy of being captured in a book.

But they were also men of deep faith, who loved Jesus and the others around them. Some of the stories were told simply because they were funny. All of the stories, however, were told in celebration of the person being remembered: this is why we loved him; this is why we will cherish his memory still.

By their very nature, memorials look backward into the past. But in faith, memorials also point us to the future. What we remember is a life that has already been penetrated by eternity; what we look forward to is but the glorious extension of that reality.

That’s worth celebrating. It’s not just an ending, it’s a new beginning. Better yet: perhaps we would do well to celebrate the evidence of eternity in people’s lives now.