At a Funeral
There are many reasons why you might hope for a life after death: you might feel that only the threat of everlasting punishment is enough to keep other people, and maybe you too, from behaving very badly; if your life had been seriously blighted, you might feel that there must surely be something better to look forward to; you might find it hard to get your head around the idea that people you have loved and who have died really are no more; you might be uncomfortable with the idea that you will soon be forgotten by those who will go on living after you die. And if for any of these, or for other reasons, you do believe in life after death, you might then worry about what it would be like; in particular you might worry that it might be very uncomfortable because you believe that it would involve punishment for the shortcomings of a lifetime.
insisted that adherents to his new religion of Christianity could make the after-life better for themselves, and thus overcome their fear of death, by believing the right things and living a life that is congruent with those beliefs. St Paul
But if you didn’t believe there was the possibility of any kind of life after death, and thought rather that at death a person completely ceases to exist in any meaningful sense, you would have nothing to fear about your own death. Certainly you might not relish the process of dying, you might fear losing someone you love, and you might worry about how those you love will cope with your own death, but those are quite different from the fear of death itself, the fear of being dead.
Paul’s reassurances about life after death being nothing to fear are needed only if you already believe in life after death, as many of his contemporaries did. He has little to say to those who do not believe in life after death.
Jesus no doubt believed that there would be a life after death both for him and for everyone else; it was, as I have said, a commonplace belief in his society, and there is nothing to suggest that he didn’t fully share it. That in itself is no reason why we should make an effort to believe in life after death if, really, every sense we have is telling us that at death we cease to be. But Jesus’s good news, unlike
Paul’s, does not depend on our believing in life after death. His Beatitudes in particular suggest that there is a better reason for behaving well than the fear of everlasting punishment or the desire to be everlastingly rewarded; Jesus points out what we can see around us: that people who live well are makarios – happy, blessed. They live within, contributing to and benefiting from, a web of relationships that is supportive to those who mourn, that honours those who make peace. Even if at death we cease to be, the Beatitudes point out how we may truly flourish in the meantime. Then there is Jesus’s parable about a manager who cooks his boss’s books in his own favour before he is sacked; maybe the solution for a blighted life is a similarly bold and even socially challenging seizing of the opportunities that we have here-and-now to balance life’s books, rather than hoping for accounts to be settled for us in a putative hereafter. As for letting go of the dead, Jesus’s brutal advice to ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead’ seems to urge us to move on, to go back to living vigorously when loved ones have been mourned. So if we see things in the way Jesus suggests, we have no need to hope for a life after death, and therefore no need to seek ways of making that life more comfortable. We need not fear death.
That does not make a funeral a happy occasion. To lose someone who means a lot to us, even if that person has suffered a long, painful and undignified last illness, is never easy. We have somehow, over a period, to adjust to the simple but huge fact that this person who has been so built in to the fabric of our lives is no longer there to be cared for, to receive our little comments about life, to hear us tell them what they mean to us, to kiss or hold hands, to exchange those meaningful glances with. This process of adjustment, this letting-go, can be greatly facilitated by the support and consideration of family, friends and the wider community, and part of the purpose of a funeral gathering is to demonstrate that support and consideration. But there can be a sense of celebration in a funeral too, celebration that the person who is no more lived a life characterised by just those things that Jesus extolled in the Beatitudes and in his parable about dealing boldly with life’s challenges. Such a celebration gives us the opportunity to recall with gratitude and joy those legacies that live on in us, as treasured memories of shared moments, as wise insights, as examples of how to live well. It would be dishonest to try too hard to celebrate a life that in truth cannot properly be celebrated; there are funerals when, sadly, we might well wish for a life after death in which the dead person might have a second chance to live blessedly. Such unrelievedly sad funerals remind us that if, now, we wish to be living lives that can rightly be celebrated when we die, we need to be taking the necessary steps today. We might usefully begin by taking seriously the teachings of Jesus about living abundantly.
Towards the end of a full life, we may well be weary, and feel that, however loving is the care we are receiving, that it’s time to go, having seen all we needed to see in order to learn what we needed to learn. We can be at peace when we reach this final stage in life’s journey, and prepare to lay life down with understanding and gratitude, and also perhaps with relief. This natural sense doesn’t need the assurance that our life will be continuing everlastingly in another place. And what we who mourn today need is not the assurance that someone we loved is now living happily somewhere else; we need to know that they are no longer troubled by anything that happened in their lives and, above all, that what they gave to us remains alive in us. In that sense, they do have a life after death: it’s us.