A biblical understanding of death and funeral rites
Funerals and memorials are solemn events where we gather to remember, grieve over and bury the dead. Many times, funerals also involve unbiblical beliefs and practices. How can we honour the family of the dead without dishonouring Jesus, who conquered death on our behalf through His resurrection?
1 Corinthians 15:55,57 ESV “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us first start by looking at what God’s Word says about death.
Physical death and spiritual death
God created everything and sees all human beings as His sons and daughters. When our hearts refuse to remember and follow our Creator and Source of life, our willful insolence and sinful rebellion only bring on spiritual death. In His immense love, however, God sent His only Son, Jesus, to be sacrificed as a pre-payment for our sins so that we may be granted eternal spiritual life through faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ.
Deuteronomy 32:18-20 ESV You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. “The Lord saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.
John 3:16-17 ESV “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
- God is Spirit | John 4:24 ESV God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
- We are alive only because God’s Spirit breathed life into our physical bodies, which predominantly comprise carbon matter (dust) | Genesis 2:7 ESV Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
- Like tents, our physical bodies “house” the spirit that God gave us | 2 Corinthians 5:1 ESV For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
- We will all die a physical death once | Hebrews 9:27 ESV And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment
- Our bodies decompose and become dust again … | Genesis 3:19 ESV By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
- … while our spirits return to God… | Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
- … to be judged by Jesus | 2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
- Followers of Jesus Christ will enjoy eternal life with Jesus (spiritual life) | Philippians 1:23 ESV I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
- Those who never truly loved and obeyed God are destined for eternal torment (spiritual death) | Revelation 20:15 ESV And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
- The dead never return back to earth or become mortal again | Job 7:9 ESV As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up;
- The dead know nothing and cannot help the living | Ecclesiastes 9:5 ESV For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing…
Ungodly beliefs and ideas about death
As we can see, physical death is merely a “shedding” of our physical bodies. Our spirits no longer have any contact with the physical world nor can we come back to “make things right”. We simply wait in our spiritual forms in a place called Sheol (Job 7:9) for judgment by Jesus.
The world, on the other hand, upholds a number of beliefs and superstitions about death and funerals that contradict God’s Word. Here are some of them.
1. The souls of the dead remain on earth i.e. become ghosts
- The dead may re-visit their old homes
- The dead or spirits can follow you home after a funeral
- The dead may appear in your dreams to send you a message
2. The dead are reincarnated
- The dead are reborn as people or animals in a “cycle of life” until they reach enlightenment
3. The dead must be revered
- Send the dead off with offerings, gifts, chants, and loud shows of grieving during funerals
- Bow before the dead
- Return to the grave periodically to honour the dead
4. The dead can help the living
- Seek comfort, protection, and advice from dead family members
- Make offerings to the dead regularly and they will bless you
- The dead can speak to spirits on your behalf
5. The dead can be given a second chance at salvation
- Pray and ask God to forgive the soul of the deceased
- Make offerings to God to be lenient on the dead
- Pray to saints or various deities to save the dead
6. Death brings “bad luck”
- Hold funerals on “auspicious” dates
- Follow certain funeral procedures to avoid bad luck
- Don’t attend celebrations in the same month as a funeral
Our deaths are occasions for celebration
As followers of Jesus Christ, our physical deaths mean that we get to be with our Saviour, where there will be no more pain or suffering. The apostle Paul said that this is far better than life on this earth, but that he would rather remain alive so that he can continue to share Jesus’ good news of salvation from eternal spiritual death (Philippians 1:23-25). For believers, death will be a time of rejoicing because being with Christ is “far better.” We do not need to “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.“
Revelation 21:4 ESV He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Philippians 1:23-25 ESV I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 ESV Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
Attending funerals of other beliefs
For unbelievers on the other hand, death often brings fear and anxiety.
What can we do when we are invited to attend funerals that do not uphold the same beliefs?
1. Empathise and pray with the family of the deceased
Death often brings people together in times of mourning. Jesus wept at the funeral of Lazarus. We too can show Jesus’ compassion and love by praying and weeping with those who weep, even if they have been unkind to us in the past. With death comes unique opportunities for reconciliations, as we put the past behind us.
John 11:33-36 ESV When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Romans 12:14-16 ESV Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
2. Provide practical help
Death can often disrupt a family’s lives. This is where we can show God’s tangible love by helping a grieving family in practical ways, such as by running errands, providing financial support and seeking legal estate advice etc. Often, simply being around can itself be comforting to those who grieve, not just for the funeral period but for many months afterward as they continue to grieve. What is not helpful is giving advice or empty words without true empathy and love.
Philippians 2:4 ESV Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
3. Do not live in fear of ghosts
We must be careful not to give evil spirits undue power over our minds and hearts by fearing the return of “ghosts” to our homes, particularly if we used to live with the deceased person. This is a lie from the father of lies, Satan. People’s spirits cannot return to their earthly abodes. Fear is not from God.
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
If we are unsure if the deceased person had practised anything that might have given evil spirits an entry point into their bedroom or home, we can simply pray to cleanse the place and remove any idolatrous objects, such as altars, lucky charms, pornography, new age books, mythical toys etc. that belonged to him or her. Here is a sample prayer to cleanse our homes.
4. Avoid participating in idolatrous funeral rituals
Many funeral rituals and traditions have evolved from ungodly beliefs and idolatrous practices. Because every culture is different, they are too numerous to list.
God’s Word, however, makes it clear in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 that we should avoid such practices and be separated from them. It even calls us to avoid touching spiritually “unclean things” so that we do not sin or offend God.
2 Corinthians 6:14-17 ESV Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you,
5. Pray to be cleansed from anything that dishonours God
Because what is “unclean” spiritually may not always be obvious to us, it is worthwhile to pray to cleanse ourselves after participating in any funeral, as 2 Corinthians 7:1 says. If we were pressured into tacitly watching non-biblical funeral rites or bowing before a coffin, for instance, we should certainly pray to repent. Moreover, we should also consider praying after the funeral to break ungodly soul ties with the deceased, the funeral home, ceremony masters and perhaps even the people who attended. See Ungodly soul ties must be cut.
2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
Romans 12:1 ESV I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
6. Share the good news about salvation from spiritual death
Most of all, let us pray that those who have lost their loved ones will open their hearts to the good news of eternal life, and share our living testimonies of eternal life with them.
Jesus once told a parable about a sinful rich man who died and begged to have someone warn his brothers who were still alive about the impending spiritual death and torment ahead of them too. He was not able to go himself because no one has the ability to return to earth after death (except Jesus). God’s Word shows us that whatever the belief of the deceased persons may have been, they would want us to witness and tell their living families about the promise of Jesus Christ.
Luke 16:22 ESV The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’
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