Celebration vs. Comfort: A Guide for Mourners in a Time of Grief

These days, there is a lot of talk about “celebrations of life” as an alternative to the traditional funeral or rite of Christian burial. Many times, Christians conflate “celebrations of life” and the funeral service. Are they the same? Should a Christian have a “celebration of life” with a funeral, in place of a funeral, or at all?

When speaking about the difference between funerals and the “celebrations of life,” we must first speak of the purpose of such things. Funerals or the rite of Christian burial, are to preach both Law and Gospel to the bereaved, especially focusing on the connection between sin and death and the hope of the bodily resurrection. This is where true comfort is found.

What then is the purpose of the “celebration of life?” Here is the definition that I am working with: “a celebration-of-life is more concerned with telling the story of the deceased. Celebrations-of-life are just that: a time people come together more to celebrate the unique personality and achievements of the deceased than to merely witness or mark the change in their social status.”[1]

From this definition, we see that “celebrations of life” are antithetical to justification by faith alone, the foundation of Christianity. The Gospel, the good news, tells us that we have a gracious God for Christ’s sake and that this gracious God freely forgives us our sins because Christ stood in our place and made satisfaction for all our sins on the cross.

The “celebration of life” does not focus on the Savior, but on the deceased’s story. It seeks to find meaning and validation in the deceased’s achievements, in his personality, and in his value to others. How can this not lead to white-washing the life of the dead? How can this not lead to a smug self-righteousness in the bereaved, both for their dead and for themselves? How can this not lead to works righteousness?

“Celebrations of life” cannot be done by Christians, for they are not only non-Christian; they are anti-Christian. They stand opposed to the gospel, which focuses on the work which Christ has done in our stead.

The objection may arise: can we not give thanks to God for the life of the dead and for their good works? Of course! The funeral service recognizes this fact in the sermon and in the prayers of the church. No doubt, “their works follow them.”[2] The recognition of good works in the Christian is necessary, for it is necessary that Christians are “bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will.”[3]

But just as the sacrificial aspects of worship are subordinate to the sacramental, so too are the good works of Christians subordinate to the Gospel. The Gospel must predominate, for “what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”[4]

Just as “celebrations of life” do not proclaim but rather militate against the gospel, so too they do not proclaim the Law rightly. “Celebrations of life” deliberately ignore the fact that “the wages of sin is death.”[5] Because of Adam’s sin, death entered the world. And because of the corruption of original sin and the pervasiveness of actual sin, life here on earth is described in very unflattering terms.

Job says: “Is there not a time of hard service for man on earth? Are not his days also like the days of a hired man?”[6] Does not the Preacher proclaim: “For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity?”[7]

And even Luther’s explanations of the catechism proclaim this fact: “when our last hour shall come, grant us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to Himself into heaven.”[8] This world is described as a place of tears, sorrow, and the like. Is that something to celebrate?

“Celebrations of life” deliberately ignore the Law’s accusation, and militates against the Gospel. Many faithful Christians have been duped and attempt to hybridize funerals and “celebrations of life.” These should be gently and lovingly instructed because a little leaven leavens the whole lump. We desire that their loved ones clearly hear the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation.

A Caveat: I find the Lutheran Service Book funeral rite rightly proclaims the gospel; however, the Law is decidedly lacking. While such a lack may be remedied in the readings and hymns, I believe that this does reveal a lopsided presentation of the Law and the Gospel. I will have a future article comparing and contrasting the funeral rites of TLH and LSB.

[1] http://www.ellisfuneralhomes.com/funerals-vs-celebrations-of-life.html

[2] Rev. 14:13.

[3] AC VI, 1.

[4] 1 Cor. 4:7.

[5] Rom. 6:23.

[6] Job 7:1.

[7] Eccles. 2:22-23

[8] SC, Seventh Petition.

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