Pastoral Perspectives

A Witness to the Resurrection

“It’s more for the living than the dead.” This is something people often say about Christian wakes and funerals. This certainly rings true in our multi-religious Singaporean context. When we look across at Buddhist and Taoist wakes and funerals, we see that their funerary rites are always conducted for the benefit of the dead. The living participate in them as led by monks or priests with the purpose of aiding the transition of the deceased person’s soul to a new phase of afterlife. For example, in Buddhist funerary rites, sutras are often chanted to aid the transmigration of the soul to a higher spiritual realm (超渡, chao du). Similarly, in Taoist ones, priests chant and perform ritual actions to guide souls into the afterlife. Such rites that are meant to affect the post-mortem state of the deceased is conspicuously absent in Christian wake and funeral services.

That is because we believe that once a person dies, they are in God’s care—and God is almighty and sovereign. The living simply commend the deceased to God in sincere prayer. Attention is turned to the bereaved to provide them with adequate pastoral care in a time of grief. Ever since Swiss psychiatrist Kübler-Ross’ five-stage grief model (denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance) entered mainstream consciousness, there has been a strong concern to help the bereaved work through the process of grief. We want to make sure they can cope with their loss and process their feelings to reach a state of acceptance. Hence, Christian wake and funeral services become regarded as a rite of passage to aid the transition of those who have experienced loss—they focus on guiding troubled souls to find peace. This is why people say such services are “more for the living than the dead.” This is certainly true.

However, the statement is not entirely accurate. It is true as long as we only ask ourselves if such services are for the living or the dead. To be very precise, Christian wake and funeral services—as long as we consider them services—are not really for the living. They are for the living insofar as the living participate in them, but they are not for them. Rather, they are for God. God stands at the centre, as the almighty in whose hands belong the living and the dead, and to whom is due all worship. As Job confessed, “Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” At the service, the believing community gathers alongside the bereaved to worship, to support them when they find it hard to stand, to lend their voices when they find it hard to sing.

Being God-centred does not mean that it the service will be less pastoral. On the contrary, it is only when God is at the centre that the service becomes properly pastoral to everyone present. As former bishop of the United Methodist Church William H. Willimon testifies,

How helpful it is to a grieving family, shocked, bereft, and speechless, to be brought into a funeral that is a true service of worship and to be encouraged to rise to their feet and join the congregation in singing something strong like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” or “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” As a pastor, I have been deeply moved by seeing a grieving family rise to their feet during the affirmation of faith and, with tears streaming down their faces, not believing yet believing, not understanding yet hoping, joining with their fellow Christians in saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

Perhaps this is where the world may find Christians odd. To an onlooking world, a group of Christians singing Amazing Grace at a void deck wake service is ludicrous. A death has occurred so where is grace? If the God whom Christians believe in is almighty, then why death? Why praise him in the midst of death, of a death that surely he could have prevented?

It is interesting that the prayer book of the Presbyterian Church of USA refers to the funeral service as A Service of Witness to the Resurrection. This is a redundant title since every Christian service is really a witness to our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection. According to St Paul, there is no need for Christians to gather if Christ has not been raised from the dead. Yet, I suppose the editors of the prayer book felt a need to underscore this aspect at wakes and funerals. Why? That is because when Christ died and rose to life, he had destroyed death and became the source of eternal life to all who believe in him. By entering into death and bursting forth from it in new life, Christ had destroyed death from within, rendering it powerless to hold humanity captive. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting” (1 Cor. 15.55)? Now death no longer has a hold on whoever believes in Christ for they have the hope of resurrection in Christ.

How often we capitulate to the influence of the world and see death as the hopeless limit to life! In a world captivated by and captive to death, it is all too easy to despair in the face of death. It is through rightly worshipping God that the Holy Spirit reorients us to the truth of the resurrection and transforms the way we perceive death. When Christians gather to sing of God’s grace at wakes and funerals, it is a defiant protest against the intrusion of death into God’s good world and a testimony of God’s mighty work of defeating it in Christ. Now death is no longer what it seems to be—Christ has defanged death and transformed it into a doorway to life.

Hence, St John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the church, can say this in a homily:

What then? says some one, ‘Is it possible being man not to weep?’ No, neither do I forbid weeping, but I forbid the beating yourselves, the weeping immoderately. I am neither brutal nor cruel. I know that our nature asks and seeks for its friends and daily companions; it cannot but be grieved. As also Christ showed, for He wept over Lazarus. So do thou; weep, but gently, but with decency, but with the fear of God. If so you weep, you do so not as disbelieving the Resurrection, but as not enduring the separation. Since even over those who are leaving us, and departing to foreign lands, we weep, yet we do this not as despairing. And so do thou weep, as if you were sending one on his way to another land.

Our loss is temporal but our reunion will be eternal. Glory to God in the highest.

Pr Png Eng Keat

May 15, 2022