Last week I received a phone call that a man I’ve known for many years suddenly passed away. He was young. He was strong. He was skilled at his job. He loved his family, and now—without a moment of notice, he’s in eternity.
We know the script of such stories. They never get any easier. Sad goodbyes are full of pain. So, today, I stood before the grieving family and sought to point them to their hope in Christ. I preached from Mark 12:28-34 and pointed out the sad ending of a man who didn’t finish well. His story is one that should shock us. We read in the text that this scribe approached Jesus with a question, and how Jesus responded to the man is sobering.
It was passion week and Jesus would soon be nailed to a cross on Friday. He had entered Jerusalem on Monday and the streets were lined with Jews proclaiming that their Messiah had come. Yet, by mid-week Jesus was continuing to field questions from skeptics and teachers of the law. Their agenda was to entrap Jesus and find a reason to have him executed. Jesus played along with their game and turned the tables on their questions. In this scene, Jesus was asked a very important question and Jesus provided a very important response.
“Which is the greatest commandment?” That is the question the that came from the Scribe. Immediately Jesus responded by quoting the Shema from the Old Testament. Jesus said:
“The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
When the scribe heard this he responded by complimenting Jesus as the “teacher” who spoke truth. However, the scribe failed to see that Jesus is God in human flesh—the Messiah of Israel. How Jesus responded at this juncture is sobering indeed. Jesus said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” At that moment, nobody else brought a question to Jesus.
It’s very possible for a football game to be lost by inches. Many athletes have gone home in defeat after being tackled inches from the goal line. Many baseball players have longed for the win only to be thrown out at the plate. Many race car drivers led the final lap of the race only to lose by a couple of inches at the line. Many horse races have ended with one horse losing the race by a nose. It’s very possible to be close and yet lose everything.
The same thing is true, yet far more important, in life. It’s very probable to have religious knowledge just as this scribe did—yet finish life close to the Kingdom but an eternity away. It’s very possible to believe Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead, and still die and go to hell. It’s very possible to attend church and to profess to be a Christian and yet to die and wake up in hell with a lot of knowledge about God—yet without true saving faith.
The sad ending to this scribe is forever recorded in the pages of Scripture. It’s very possible that this man who was asking Jesus questions on Wednesday (not far from the Kingdom) was also among the crowd crying out for Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday. He wasn’t far from the Kingdom, but he is likely in hell today.
What about you? Do you have religious knowledge but lack saving faith? If so, I encourage you to call upon the name of the Lord for salvation. The Lord not only will hear your prayer, but he will save your soul.
When was the last time you attended the funeral service for a young person? The funeral home was most likely swarming with people of all ages—young, old, and middle aged. This is the typical pattern for such funeral scenes. However, it’s not terribly uncommon for you to walk into the funeral service for a 90-year old church member and find the funeral home nearly empty. Where is the disconnect? Where are all of the young people from this person’s local church? Sure, school is in session and work is not stopping for the majority of the church—but what message are we sending to our children when we check them out of school for the funeral service of a 16-year old who died in a car accident but we miss the funeral service of a 90-year old man who finished his course well for the glory of God?
In our present culture, it’s almost as if we expect the older generation to die—so attending their funeral isn’t really that important. As we consider such matters, I want to urge you to reconsider the importance of being present for the funeral service of older Christians in your local church. Sure, you may have to miss work and your children may have to miss some school on that particular day, but it’s worth it in the long run.
Children Need to Hear Godly Eulogies
Far too many funerals contain ungodly music, shallow meaningless stories, and often shower praises upon people who were rather ungodly and loved the world more than God. The word eulogy is derived from a Greek origin “eulogia” meaning praise. The English word means—high praise. Your children will attend far too many funerals that do not honor God and do not have Godly eulogies. Your children will witness people receiving high praise who certainly do not deserve it. Our culture is notorious about lavishing praises upon the dead even if they didn’t deserve it.
As young people grow up in our spiritually confused culture, they will hear people being praised and preached into heaven who had no desire for God in this life. With all of the confusion that abounds, young people need to hear solid eulogies that make sense (Rom. 12:2). They need to hear older people highly praised for a life well lived for the glory of God (Ps. 116:15). As they sit and hear good eulogies that are directly connected to verified lives of older saints who go before them in death—it builds up and strengthens their faith. The children in the local church need to hear examples of faithful saints who served and invested their lives in the ministries of the local church. They need to hear 1 Corinthians 6:11 testimonies that emphasize the past tense of loving sin contrasted with a present tense love for God that never ended.
Children Need to See Faithful Church Members Finish Well
Voddie Baucahm, in his book, Family Driven Faith, shared some startling statistics. He said, “70-88% of teens, who profess Christianity, walk away from their faith by the end of their freshman year of college.” There are many factors that lead to such tragic statistics, but one thing to remember is that children from a very early age need to witness older Christians finish their course well—persevering to the end in the faith (Phil. 1:6). Children will see too many people enter the church and drop out, fall away, and prove their faith wasn’t genuine (1 John 2:19). Young people need to see real Christianity put on display in relentless and faithful perseverance (Luke 13:24; Heb. 4:11).
Sure, it’s a horrible tragedy when a student is suddenly taken in a car accident. Such funerals are worthy of attending and can provide numerous teaching opportunities. However, consider the value of putting before your children faithful older Christians who refused to deny the faith, stayed the course to the end, and died as faithful followers of Jesus after walking with Jesus for many years. That’s worthy of missing a half a day of school—right? Young people who are bombarded with a constant stream of the trivial and temporary need examples of faithful people who looked beyond this life to a city whose maker and builder is God (Heb. 13:14; Heb. 11:10).
Children Need to Learn to Honor the Seniors
As a pastor, it grieves me to see many church plants that look like a Millennial coffee club rather than a local church. Where are the aged? Are they needed to plant churches too? Younger Christian parents—you want your children to have other examples to imitate in the faith besides you (1 Cor. 11:1; Heb. 6:12; Heb. 10:36). I’m afraid that we often devalue the older generation in our local churches. We place a great deal of emphasis on youth, young families, and reaching the younger generation while at the same time overlooking the goldmines of knowledge and wisdom who sit near us on the Lord’s Day during worship (Job 12:12). Sure, they style their hair differently (what hair they still have) and wear clothing that is not suitable for the younger generation, but they have a treasure chest of experience as older Christians to share with the church—if we allow them into our lives.
One way to teach the younger generation the importance of missing the second half of the school day to attend the funeral of an older church member is by spending time with such members before they die. Look for ways to teach young people to honor seniors beyond pressing them to read and understand 2 Kings 2:23-24. Look for opportunities to overlap in life, ministry, worship, and fellowship (see Titus 2). Consider bringing such church members into your home for lunch after church and providing intentional opportunities for your children to know the older generation in your church. Face it, when we want our children to excel in a specific sporting event—we often put good examples before them on YouTube or ESPN. We should desire for our children to learn to value the older Christians in our local church in such a way that they will cherish the opportunity of honoring them on the day of their funeral. The next time a 90-year old faithful Christian within your local church dies—take the day off and take your children to the funeral with you.
Funerals do matter, and after preaching my 35th funeral, I took time to reflect on the good, bad, and ugly through the years. As you make your plans for retirement and how you want to spend your time and money, it would be a good idea for you to consider the structure and details of your own funeral. If you don’t plan it, someone will, and it might not be up to your specifications.
Have a Funeral Plan (hint: plan ahead)
Do you want your casket to be open or closed? Do you want the most expensive casket or something more economical? What about cremation? These are all decisions that someone will be forced to make on your behalf, unless you specify a good plan before you die.
It should go without saying, but we’re all going to die. It could be sooner rather than later, so it’s extremely important to plan ahead. I’ve preached the funeral service for many people who were unprepared to die. Although they were prepared spiritually, it was obvious that they had not given time to thinking through their funeral service. In some cases it was because of the sudden strike of death, and although young and healthy, they were suddenly gone. On other occasions, I’ve watched people procrastinate and die without any plan in place. Take time to write down your plans, requests, and desires for your funeral and put it with your will, perhaps in a safe, or have it in an e-mail that’s sent to your specified executor. A good plan is key to organization and success.
Location, Location, Location
Do you know where you will be buried? Selecting a lot is one important factor to consider. Just because you happen to be a member of a church with a cemetery doesn’t mean that everything is covered. You need to make your plot purchase and have it specified with your other important documents so that your executor (loved one or friend) will have the proper information when that time comes.
Do you know what funeral home you will use for your funeral service? Each funeral home and funeral director is different, so it would be wise to think carefully through this process and make your decision wisely.
Do you want your service to be held in your church sanctuary or in the funeral home chapel? Some people prefer the chapel to the church, but that’s not always the case. Location does matter, and you should take time to consider the factors carefully.
Unless you’re in hell at the time of your funeral service, you should choose something other than I Did It My Way by Frank Sinatra to be played at your funeral. As you think about your funeral service, the music for the service says much about the person, unless there was no plan in place and someone unqualified made the choice on your behalf. I’ve sat through funeral services where good theologically rich hymns were followed up by carnal songs that certainly didn’t have any place in the service. The goal of the Christian’s funeral should be to honor the person who has died while at the same time pointing people to Christ. If worldly music is chosen for the funeral service it will detract from the God glorifying goals of the funeral service.
Choose Your Speaker(s) Carefully
Do you want an open microphone at your funeral where people will come up and speak and provide memorable stories? I’ve seen this turn into a disaster in funerals, so I would be cautious. Who is charged with selecting the preacher? Do you want more than one preacher to speak? What text of Scripture should the preacher use in your funeral? I attended a funeral years ago where the preacher never preached the gospel. He told people to be good and try hard and they would one day see their mother again in heaven. That’s certainly not what you want said in your funeral service. The messenger and the message at your funeral are important, so think through your selection carefully. Make sure you ask the one charged with preaching your funeral to point people to Jesus Christ and to proclaim the gospel.
As you consider the person who will speak at your funeral, what will that person say about you, your character, your life, your legacy, and your faith? Yes, selecting a preacher is an important thing to consider, but you should likewise consider your own life and legacy now before the time of your funeral arrives. The message of the preacher should be centered on the gospel at your funeral, but you will be the central illustration. How will your life assist in pointing people to Christ?
Choose Burial Rather Than Cremation
As you can see, your funeral will be filled with many decisions. If you don’t make those decisions now, someone will make them for you once you die. One important decision that you should consider is regarding burial and cremation. As a Christian, I would urge you to approach this decision through a spiritual lens rather than a financial lens. It may be cheaper to be cremated, but I would caution you to not go against thousands of years of Christian tradition in the burial practices of God’s people (see my article on this subject here). When a body dies and goes through a burial process in the ground, there is a promise of resurrection that all of God’s people look forward to with great anticipation.
Cremation involves the burning of the body, and this is something that pagan people have practiced for centuries. The people of God practiced burial, and looked forward with anticipation to the day when Christ would return resulting in the resurrection of believers to receive their new bodies. Can God bring together the ash and dust of cremated people in like manner? Certainly He can and certainly He will, but the decision must be made not based on God’s sovereign ability, but based on the most God glorifying option. Remember, the number of cremations would drastically disappear if the cost exceeded burial. For the majority of people, it’s a decision based on cash rather than doctrine. I would urge you to pay more in the end – it’s worth it.
In life we learn to make important decisions carefully. The decision regarding college, cars, the purchase of your home, and who you will marry are all great decisions. How did you approach those decisions? Did you take your time or did you rush through it? Did you weigh out the differences with wisdom or did you ask someone else to make the decision for you? In like manner, with wisdom and caution, you should make the plans and requests for your funeral. Don’t waste your funeral, make it count for the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31 – So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Should I talk to my dead relative? This is a common question that I hear as a pastor. Death is often a very difficult finality in this life. We’re faced with the reality that we will not see our loved one again on this side of eternity. The moment of last words, good-byes, and that final embrace is often extremely painful. As a pastor, I’ve stood beside many caskets as family and friends passed by the body of their loved one for the final time. I’ve watched Christians endure their final moments with great assurance. I have also watched unbelievers lunge into the casket and pull the body upwards in one last outburst of grief. Death is a painful enemy to endure.
After the funeral ends and you return to your loved one’s grave site, should you talk to your dead relative? Will your father or mother hear you when you speak to them? Is it possible to consult with the dead who are already in eternity? While it may be tempting to try to reconcile with a relative or pay respect to a close friend by communicating with him, it’s actually unbiblical and a practice that you should refrain from engaging in. Consider the following reasons why you should not talk to the dead.
People are not Omnipresent
God is able to hear the prayers of the entire world’s population at once. How is this possible? God is not limited by geographic location. In fact, God is not limited by anything. God is in the presence of people in Zambia and Iowa at the same exact time. That same attribute of God is not transferable to people. When people die, they still retain certain limitations. In other words, a person cannot be on earth and in heaven at the same time. When a person dies and goes to heaven, they are unable to hear conversations that you may desire for them to hear as you stand over their grave or lie in your bed in the late hours of the night.
Demons are Deceitful
As a boy, I recall going to a friend’s home where he had a ouija board. I had never had any exposure to something like this, so naturally I was skeptical and intrigued at the same time. My friend made several attempts to get a response from a dead relative. When I told my father about this, he schooled me on how this was not unbiblical. I still recall him saying that it’s possible to get a response, but it wouldn’t be from his relative – it would be from a demon.
As we know, the devil is called the father of lies (John 8:44). As the deceiver of this world, we can rest assured that when people seek to channel spirits and communicate with the dead, a response will often come, but it will not be from their friend or relative. Demonic spirits are alive and have a strong presence in this world. It would be wise to refrain from such practices.
God’s Word Forbids the Practice of Talking to the Dead
All throughout the Bible, we see clear warnings issued to God’s people about consulting mediums and talking to the dead. Consider Leviticus 20:5-7, the Law of God opposed such practices and clearly warned the people to pursue holiness. God’s people were to be set apart from the rest of the world. Once again, in Deuteronomy 18:10-14, the people of God were commanded to abstain from sorcery and all such practices.
In the New Testament, we are encouraged to test the spirits because not every spirit is from God (1 John 4:1). We must be alert and on guard when it comes to the spirit realm. God desires for His people to pray and communicate with Him, but to pray to a dead relative, friend, or as some suggest – a saint – is forbidden in Scripture. No person has greater access to God than Jesus Christ and He alone is our mediator between us and God the Father (1 Timothy 2:5).
Although death may seem overwhelming and can create great loneliness, we are encouraged to seek comfort and peace in God alone. We should direct our prayers and concerns to Him. If you are tempted to talk to your dead relative or friend, just remember, if your loved one was a Christian, you will see this person again if you too are a child of God. Death will not separate God’s children. Death has been defeated. Find your hope and your ultimate healing by communicating with God rather than your loved one who has passed away.
Isaiah 8:19-20 – And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.
As a pastor, I often receive questions about cremation. Interestingly, these questions have become more common in recent years than they were when I first became a pastor. Early in my ministry, I rarely had questions about cremation, but in recent years, I’ve noticed a perpetual uptick in the questions and practice.
For years the practice of cremation has been debated. To bury or to burn? So, is cremation sinful? I don’t think it’s sinful. However, before you sell your burial plots and pick out a nice urn for your ashes, I would take time to think about the idea of cremation from a distinctly Christian worldview.
The Christian Practice of Burial
We read in Genesis 15, God spoke to Abram in a dream and informed him about the Egyptian captivity, the land of promise, and then spoke of Abram’s burial (Gen. 15:15). As we continue to read through the Old Testament, we see Abram’s name was changed to Abraham and according to Scripture, he “buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan” (Gen. 23:19). When it came time for Abraham to die, Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:9). Likewise, Jacob buried Rachel on the way to Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19–20) and Joseph made his sons promise to bury his bones in the land of Israel (Gen. 50:25; Exod. 13:19; Josh. 24:32).
The fact is, from the earliest roots of Christianity, the children of God have always buried their loved ones. They viewed the body to be sacred and they likewise believed in the resurrection. It’s not that the body doesn’t decay and that God isn’t able to resurrect ashes sprinkled in the dirt or the sea, but that the body was created by God and is sacred. According to Francis Schaeffer, if you wanted to trace the spread of Christianity across the Greco-Roman world, you could do it by focusing on the burial practices of the people. According to Schaeffer, “the Romans burned their dead, the Christians buried theirs.” 
The Rabbis of Judaism viewed the practice of burning a corpse as an idolatrous practice and often would not officiate a funeral of someone who chose cremation rather than burial. As we survey the New Testament, we see that Lazarus was buried. Jesus appeared at his tomb and that’s where the resurrection took place. When Jesus spoke to Lazarus’ sister, she spoke of her hope in the future resurrection (John 11:23-25). She had no idea that Jesus would resurrect her brother on that particular day. We also must note that when Jesus died, He was buried – not cremated. There was this forward looking aspect of resurrection for the Christian who buried their loved ones in Christ.
The History of Burning the Body
Pagans often burned corpses for various reasons. For some, it was a common practice of burial. The Greeks and Romans practiced cremation as a normal and preferred practice for their dead. They likewise opposed Christianity and viewed it as a weak religion. To them, the gospel was utter foolishness. For others, it was a practice of pagan worship. The cult of Moloch was practiced by child sacrifice which involved passing the child through the fire (Lev. 18:21, 20:2–4; Deut. 18:10).
Beyond the time period of the Old Testament, we find in more modern times, the tragic rule of Hitler and his practice of cremation. Survivors of Auschwitz often spoke of their memory of the chimney constantly smoking as corpses were incinerated. Historic records reveal that some of Hilter’s crematorium facilities were capable of burning over 1,400 bodies in a 24 hour period. Hitler hated the Jews, but more importantly, he hated God. One of the ways that he dishonored God was by starving and burning the bodies of people created by God.
Is It Really About Money?
When you consider the care and preparation that went into the burial practices of the people of God throughout history, it seems normal to kiss the cheek of your loved one and say goodbye through a burial process that honors the dignity of the body. The imago Dei of the human being is not limited to the human body, but David Jones makes a good point as he writes, “The dignity of the human body is also demonstrable by the incarnation of Christ. While ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24) and thus has no body, in his incarnation, Jesus took on human flesh.” 
How much money do you save in the cremation process? Is it worth it? What message are you sending to others by your actions? Sure, you may not be thinking of the theological aspects in the moment and it really may be a financial issue for you. I don’t think it’s sinful. I don’t think you should be gripped with fear and regret if you’ve chosen cremation. However, I do think it’s worth considering beyond the potential financial savings. Perhaps if you downgrade your casket and cut other corners you could stick with the long line of Christian burial practices rather than cremation. Cremation doesn’t limit God in the resurrection, but consider the message we send to others when we bury our loved ones. We are looking forward to the resurrection. Just as Christ was buried and resurrected bodily from the tomb, so shall all of the children of God be raised in a glorified body to live with God forever.
- Francis Schaeffer, How Shall We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1976) 24
- David W. Jones, “To Bury or To Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation,” JETS 53/2 (June 2010) 335–47
Just across the street from our church campus is an old community cemetery that our church adopted years ago in order to better manage it and increase the appearance which has a direct reflection upon our church. On a regular basis, I walk through the cemetery on my way to the convenience store in order to buy a drink and perhaps a snack (Butterfinger).
This cemetery is where my grandfather, great-grandfather, and other family members are buried. Since my time as pastor of Pray’s Mill Baptist Church where I grew up as a boy, I have preached 20+ funerals. I have visited this cemetery many times through the years. As a boy, I would pass through with my bicycle to buy a pack of baseball cards on a hot summer’s day. In recent years, I have stood before a heartbroken family in my long black coat with an open Bible as they said goodbye to their loved one. Through the years, I have learned some important lessons in this old cemetery.
Death Is No Respecter Of Persons
As I walk through the cemetery, there is one plot where three small tombstones sit in a line that catch my attention almost every time I enter the gates of the cemetery. These tombstones commemorate three infant babies that were taken by death from one family years ago. Sometimes we forget that life is temporary and that death is no respecter of persons. As I walk through that cemetery to grab a candy bar, I often reflect upon my life. Am I prepared for my funeral? I could be buried in the old cemetery by the end of the week.
I often speak of the frailty of life in my sermons on the Lord’s day because I have learned what it’s like to preach to a person on Sunday and have their funeral on the following Friday. As a pastor, it is my duty to equip people to live and prepare people to die. What about you? Are you prepared to die?
It may be difficult to fully understand, but God is the One responsible for life and death. No person lives without God and likewise, no person dies apart from God. The elderly who go to their grave at 90+ years of age are governed by the same God who watches over the infant who dies a few days after birth. Every tomb in the old cemetery adjacent to our church campus represents a life that God gave and that God took away. As Job said, in all cases, we must learn to say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
People Need Hope In The Resurrection
Each time I stand before family members who are seated before a casket in those dreadful funeral home chairs, it’s a fresh reminder that we all need hope. I know what it’s like to look into the eyes of a child of God at the grave of a loved one and see their pain through their tear filled eyes. The hope they need to rest upon is the promise of Jesus’ return and the resurrection that will happen as Jesus reunites the souls of His children with their new bodies.
Likewise, I know what it’s like to look into the eyes of a lost person at the grave of their loved one. Their need is evident. Their pain is real. They have no hope and they need to find hope in the resurrection. In such moments, I have spoken of the spiritual resurrection that must happen at the new birth in order to find hope in the physical resurrection that will happen on God’s divine calendar.
In both cases – the resurrection of Jesus, the spiritual resurrection of the new birth, and the final physical resurrection of the new body brings hope to the broken hearted in a cold cemetery in January. Death has been defeated. Jesus will one day wipe every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more.
We Often Forget People
On my typical walk through the cemetery, I will stop and read a few of the tombstones. As I look at the names, occasionally I will recognize the family and start to make connections to the person. At that moment, I start to recall stories and connections the individual has to our church. Then I notice how the plot is unkept and obviously lacks attention. More troubling is the reminder that we often fail to remember the person, not just their cemetery plot. I often try to consider how many stories are buried in that old cemetery. Stories that would bring laughter and tears, good memories and tragic reminders.
As we press on through this temporal life, it would do us well to remember those who have gone before us. Their memory is important. Their legacy matters. For some, we can learn how to live. Others can teach us how to die. Still more can teach us lessons that will prevent tragic mistakes. Nevertheless, we should be diligent in trying to exhume the memories of friends and loved ones from the dirt of the cemetery.
As we continue learning how to live, we must prepare to die. May our legacy be so bright and full of Christ that nobody could bury it in the ground. Perhaps a man will be walking through the cemetery to buy a candy bar one day and stumble across your name on a tombstone. Hopefully your legacy will point to Jesus Christ!
John Owen reminds us, “We cannot enjoy peace in this world unless we are ready to yield to the will of God in respect of death. Our times are in His hand, at His sovereign disposal. We must accept that as best.”