by Rob Martin
Funerals have a way of bringing life itself into sharp relief. The first one I ever attended, I preached. It was for a teenager of just 17 who had died of cancer. The best his friends would say of him was that, “He was always ready to party.”
Before he got really sick, he was a roadie for a garage band. My friend—the one who asked me to preach the funeral—was his cousin, and she had led him to faith as he lay in the hospital three weeks before he died. She did the same for his father in similar circumstances three weeks before his death three years earlier. Apparently, she was not too popular with this branch of her family because of her actions, but since she was the only one who had taken a deep interest in life beyond death and seemed to know what she was doing around the topic, they asked her to arrange the funeral with one non-negotiable demand: they didn’t want a religious service with a pastor.
This is where I came in. I neither knew how to do a “religious” service of any kind nor was I a pastor. In fact, I wasn’t much of anything. However, I was facilitating a kinship group that my friend attended. The family didn’t care about that, they were just satisfied that I wasn’t a “preacher.”
If they gave God any thought at all, I assumed they were probably mad at him. And that made me nervous. So nervous that I felt paralyzed as the morning of the funeral drew near and I struggled to fall asleep the night before. I was consumed by the thought of “How could I comfort this family?” The obvious answer had escaped me. At 4 a.m. I was awakened with a jolt, thinking I had to read 1 Corinthians 15. I opened the Bible at my nightstand and read about Jesus’ resurrection. It dawned on me then, of course, that the only deep and abiding comfort in this life is the gospel—God’s grace and forgiveness of sin. Confident, at least in what needed to be said, I headed out.
I was greeted at the funeral home by a director who looked like a character right out of the film Nightmare on Elm Street. He gave me a box of single song cassettes to sort through when I gave him a blank stare as an answer to his question of what music I wanted. That’s when I noticed the garage band had set up behind the pulpit. I then saw that this boy’s death had deeply impacted his high school classmates as they had filled every seat and were jammed along the walls and even out the door of the funeral home’s small auditorium.
The service began with the band in a nice bit of God-ordained symmetry (see 1 Cor. 15:47) playing a passable version of the 1970s Kansas rock group’s song, “Dust In The Wind.” The family sat to the side in a private alcove while I faced his classmates. It may be my imagination, but it felt as if the mother was boring a hole straight into my head while I read excerpts of 1 Corinthians 15 to the kids and began to explain what it meant in the context of the lives they were living.
There were audible sobs as tears streamed down the faces of both the boys and the girls, especially when I told them that their friend wanted them to understand his joy at knowing he was saved. I don’t know if I ever understood fully how powerful the essence of the gospel was until that moment.
Now that I am an old man, I’ve been to a lot of funerals. I find I often leave them deeply cautioned or inspired by the service honoring the life that had been lived by the deceased. I remember two in particular. In the first, the crowd consisted of just me, the son-in-law of the man who had died, his immediate family, and the HR officer of the man who died, who was there to give some insurance papers to his widow. The stark loneliness of a man who apparently had no friends was overwhelming. Another funeral I attended had an alter piece made up of a half-empty whiskey bottle, a crushed pack of cigarettes, an ashtray full of butts, and a pack of cards. The ironic humor helped cut the effect of the grief, but really it just added to the confusion of understanding his life. Both of these funerals filled me with sorrow for the deceased.
On the other hand, funerals of Christian friends and family seem to always fill me with joy through my tears. The homegoing of the deceased is evident. Their life, simple or celebrated, testifies to the powerful effect the gospel can have on a life and those whom that life touches.
There is no more stark contrast than the good news at a time of deepest grief. The story can be told to those who haven’t heard it in endless ways, but the ending is always the same. The hearers must know that a life eternal and abundant can be theirs if they only yield to Jesus, the one offering it. Funerals are helpful places for this to happen. It’s obvious.
Rob Martin is a partner with the First Fruit Institute, serving ministries and colleague foundations as a coach on a variety of organizational issues. He also serves as senior associate for global philanthropy with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.