I was driving the kids home from school when I saw something you don’t expect on an arterial road heading into a major city. It was a horse-drawn carriage, taking up the left-hand lane, slowing the traffic to a crawl.
As we stopped at the traffic lights, I looked more closely, and realized it was a hearse pulled by two dappled grey horses with black feathered plumes nodding on their heads, looking incongruous against the bare concrete wall of our local shopping centre. On the high seat behind the horses perched two cheerfully chatting black-suited men—one bare-headed and balding, the other in a top hat. The hearse was topped with a plain wooden cross worthy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its sides boasted ornately decorated glass so you could see the glossy mahogany coffin within, boasting a huge floral display and brass fittings.
Behind the hearse drove three cars in tasteful pale metallic green. The first car was filled to the brim with floral arrangements. The second and third cars—stretch limousines with darkened windows—were, no doubt, filled to the brim with well-dressed mourners.
It all seemed a little excessive, this ostentatious panoply of death. But perhaps that’s what is left when you die without Jesus. Like a glamorous wedding, a funeral becomes an opportunity for extravagant theatre, for it’s the closing scene in the all-important story of ‘me’. Such a funeral displays the forlorn hope that death, in all its horror and finality, can be placated with pomp and held off with ceremony.
For Christians, death still brings sorrow. But we don’t grieve “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). We weep, but we also rejoice. When Jesus died and rose again, he defeated death and overcame its power (Acts 2:24; 1 Cor 15:54-57; Heb 2:14). In a Christian funeral, instead of despairing ceremony and exaggerated eulogy, there is comforting simplicity and praise for the one who has freed us from the fear of death.
As the lights changed and we drove past the hearse, I flicked over to the song ‘It is not death to die’1 on Come Weary Saints, the CD that was playing on my car stereo then. It’s a song that sums up the Christian attitude to death: there is no despair in leaving this weary life and exchanging it for heaven’s joys, for Jesus has conquered the grave.
I’ve always sworn that I’ll never say, “I want such-and-such at my funeral”. But I’ve broken my promise to myself. When I got home, I told my husband (and now you!) that while I certainly don’t want an elaborate funeral cortege, I do want this song sung at my funeral. I want people to sing and remember, through their tears, that it is not death to die.