Points to Ponder Funerals and the Meaning of Life
by Pastor Dennis Whitmore
As a pastor I have conducted over 80 funerals; many of them for people I did not personally know. Some people think that must be incredibly difficult. Actually it usually isn’t that hard to do; in fact it is one of the most interesting aspects of my ministry. I often come away from such a service with two distinct impressions.
One is a sense of awe. I learn about the individual through the testimonies of the people who knew and loved them. It is incredible how many so-called ordinary people are out there among us doing extraordinary things. I find it awe-inspiring to learn of a father who is considered a hero by his adult children; or the mother who, despite the loss of her husband at an early age, rose to the challenge and found ways to provide for her children and raise them to be responsible adults who now “rise up and call her blessed.” (Proverbs 31:28)
Through an unfortunate and seemingly premature death, I have come to know recovering alcoholics. Their bodies were worn beyond their years by the effects of their former habits, but in the final years of life, these men and women had found the Lord and gained the motivation to turn their lives around. At death they had been living productive, highly influential lives. Tears flowed as coworkers and acquaintances stood at their services to share about this wonderful person’s presence and strong character. I find myself listening to these things and regretting that I had never met the deceased.
The second impression I come away with is a deep in the heart reminder of my own mortality. I always bring it up in my funeral messages, that we will all attend at least one funeral in our lives: our own. The Bible tells us to remember this fact.
“Come now, you who say ‘today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)
Does it bother you to read an article about funerals, death, and dying? I actually find most funerals to be somewhat uplifting and inspiring. Burying my father was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Keeping the tears back to get through the eulogy was painfully hard. I think it was Queen Elizabeth who said that grief is the price of love. In those most painful moments of embracing and facing the end of my father’s presence in my earthly life, I came in touch with the greatness of his person. It was something I had never fully realized or (I am ashamed to say) appreciated while he was alive. It occurs to me in funerals, as much now as it did at my dad’s service, that life is brief and living it well is the true purpose of living it at all. You may never know in this life how much you really mattered, but it is of the utmost importance that you live as one who does matter.
When we face the death of those we know and love we have an opportunity to remind ourselves of the higher purpose for living. The higher purpose is not to just be a “nice guy” who would help anybody who needed it. I have heard those testimonials and they are fine, but it is not enough. The highest purpose of life is to be a tool in the hand of God.
God told young Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born I (set you apart).” (Jeremiah 1:5) There are other biblical examples of those whom God knew and had plans for before they were even conceived. I do not think these were the exceptions and everyone else ever born was an accident. In Acts 17:24-28, the Apostle Paul speaks of how each one of us is created to be born at a certain time and in a certain place for the express purpose of coming to know God, “to grope for Him and to find Him. Though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being...” (v.27-28a)
To come to know God and to live your life for Him, that is the ultimate purpose. Everything you do and the reasons for which you do them should be rooted in that one desire and one purpose. There are many temporal things we live for (career, raising a family, building a house, etc.); but when you breathe your last breath, you have nothing. Someone else gets your job. The family moves on without you and splits up your stuff (or splits up itself fighting over it), and the house goes to another. The only thing that lives on here after your body dies is your name, your character, and the seeds of influence you planted in others.
These are not deep theological statements, just simple truths. If you do not know the Lord, what do you know that REALLY matters in the long run (the longest run)? If you are not seeking and living God’s will for your life, what are you seeking, and for what are you living? If you have been feeling that your life is pointless, maybe you are finally getting it. There is an eternal purpose. You in Him and He in You (Read John 17). To know the Lord and to focus your daily life on walking with Him and being a tool in His hand will open before you a sense of satisfaction and peace that can not be limited on earth or squelched by physical death.
As I stood at the grave of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, I noticed this profound truth: here lies a great man who has been dead longer than he had been alive. Who knows what was pressing or vitally important to him and his schedule during those final days and weeks of his earthly life? It died with him. This is how it will be for each of us. It is a pressing reminder and motivator. Life on earth is brief. Eternity is forever. For whom and for what are you devoting the limited time you have here?
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Whitmore serves God at the First United Methodist Church in Laurel, MD.