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.


Celebration vs. Comfort: A Guide for Mourners in a Time of Grief — 11 Comments

  1. There is no Funeral Service in TLH. I like the service in the LSB.

    I don’t attend celebrations of life.

  2. @John M. #1

    There is no service in the hymnal, but the service, called the burial of the dead, is found in TLH Agenda, pgs. 67-102. I look forward to engaging as I continue to write on this subject.

  3. If my observations are correct, a key issue in “Celebration of Life” rituals is that there is an inherent “denial of death”. It’s not even that the focus of such celebrations is on “goodness” or “works” but rather that it is a type of neo-gnosticism, where the disembodied individual(free from his/her earthly/bodily fetters) lives on in our hearts and memories and looks down on us from above.

  4. @Weedon #4

    You are right, of course. However, Luther does say that the corruption of our nature cannot be understood by reason alone, but by the revelation of Scripture. (SA III, I). The Law, though written on the human heart, is effaced and must be preached. But thanks for the comment. This gives me a bit of a direction to go in my next article.

  5. Pastor Berg – A great piece. Pastor Weedon – as always, a great insight!

    In terms of Luther’s comment needing to be “effaced and (must) be preached” . . .

    There is no better illustration of Romans 6:23 as Scripture “for the eyes” than the casket. I always did my level best to call to my mind what the family saw when their gaze went from casket to crucifix and to the pulpit as I did funeral sermons. And I likewise tried, best I could, to put myself in their shoes – not by minimizing/minimalizing what was right before them and grievously wounding their hearts, but by addressing the very heart of that Romans passage.

    Got put in that position and more even after retirement doing the funerals of my brother in March of ’16 at the early of 55; and my wife (63) a scant 9+ months later (she passed on Holy Innocents Day in ’16). Sigh.

    How can one not try to convey all that is the Cross at such moments? There is nothing else – I know that was all I had. While I had the certainty of faith that both were with the Lord already, I was staring at all I did and preached and taught for many years – in its stark reality – in my own family and home. It was crushing. There was no celebration possible at that moment in each – but only, the statement of the reality before us, and the call of faith in the fullness of the Incarnation as the only hope.

    The family meals after both funerals were quiet reflections of all they meant to us, as if to reinforce yet again the nature of the family in Christ and the Church.

    I will speak only for myself in these next words . .

    The dead body before us is a reflection of the Cross itself – there was zero joy among the disciples and the women at Calvary. Even the very “tone” of the Scriptural accounts of the Crucifixion were straightforward and matter of fact. Death up close and personal – the wages of sin. No celebrations, no sense of joy, but the very grief of God Himself at the death of one of his saints. That God views it as “precious” casts a holy solemnity over it all, not a sense of celebration. Celebration comes with the Resurrection – that of Christ, and for us, on “That Day!” as Luther put it. We are not “there” yet.

    We moderns have, in many ways, as we lost much of any respect for life, have also lost the respect for death that God Almighty Himself displays.

    In my humble opinion, a funeral and graveside service should be moments not of celebration, for we are still in this vale of tears and still putting the bodies of saints into the ground. Rather, they should be sober reflections of our own true situation, and yet another reminder of “ashes to ashes – dust to dust.” The hope of Christ must be preached in that particular setting without affectation.

    Death is real. Christ is real. Both are real.

    For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    And He shall stand at last on the earth;
    And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
    That in my flesh I shall see God,
    Whom I shall see for myself,
    And my eyes shall behold, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me!

    (Job 19:25-27)

  6. Thank you to everyone for your comments and thank you Pastor Berg for the article; I look forward to the next one!

    I have never attended a “celebration of life” ceremony; they are suspect to me. Now I know why: a denial of death and putting the emphasis on the deceased’s life rather than on Jesus Christ and his work for our salvation. I am even uncomfortable with eulogies during the funeral service.

    Blessings in Christ Jesus,
    Ginny Valleau

  7. Thank you Pastor Berg for a great posting. While I enjoyed Pastor Weedon’s typically insightful and remarkably pithy comment; the substance of the original post and it’s tone were both needed and well received by this sinner, saved by the blood of Christ. I had never heard of the “Celebration of Life” before moving to the West Coast in 2007. Granted that most of the people that I knew well “back east” were at least nominally Christian and I was blessedly free from many untimely deaths in my peer group. Nevertheless I was surprised when I attended a few “celebrations of life” on the west coast and realized that the end of someone’s earthly existence was summed up without any recognition of the afterlife and any mention of a second death or life everlasting in Jesus. Or even any other false understanding of the next step. God have mercy on us.

  8. @Ginny Valleau #7

    A eulogy, in the sense of a brief summary of the life of the deceased, is often interesting if you only knew them at one part of it, as happens now that we move about more often.

    I read an obituary the other day, designed to tell me what a wonderful life the deceased had led and how many nice places they had visited, subsequent to my seeing the couple very often.
    I found out later that church had not been one of their ‘nice places’ for quite some time and was sad. I would not want to hear that kind of “eulogy”.

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