4 Bad Things to Say at a Funeral
A person who wants to make sense of death will say lots of different things in order to wrap their grief in a reasonable package. Here’s a few things you may have heard or may have said at a funeral, things people say in order to help comfort the ones who are suffering. It’s stuff people have created to make sense of the human predicament.
“God needed another angel.”
This phrase seems really understandable. God just needed another someone up in heaven to help God out. This misstatement seemingly gives a tragic and unreasonable death some higher purpose. You may hear this phrase at the funeral of a child.
Be wary, however, because underneath, this says that God kills innocent children, that God, who gave this child life and breath, can suddenly take it away. Do not for a second believe that God is like that. No sir, no ma’am.
Jesus himself tells us, “The thief, Satan, comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,” [John 10:10]. God does not need any more angels. God already has a whole army of angels, [Psalm 103:21]. Jesus gives children blessing not death [Matthew 19:13-15]. Jesus died to rescue us all from death. Therefore, stay away from this phrase.
“It was his/her time.”
Another reasonable statement on the surface. This one you may hear when someone lives a fairly long life. It makes sense, “she’s had her time and now its over.” This statement can also be seen as somewhat compassionate, especially if someone’s death brought an end to intense suffering.
God, however, has not put little countdown timers over our heads, each person with his or her specific allotment of life. God does not want to limit life. Death is not God’s purpose for creation. God created us for life and in the end, God will destroy death forever.
“[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” [Revelation 21:4]
“Everything has a reason.”
This relates to the “angel” and “it was her time” responses in that people are trying to find purpose in someone’s death. This misstatement again puts the blame on God as if God has some specific plan in mind to have this particular person die at this particular time in this particular way and God’s reasoning for this, alas, remains mysterious to us.
The mistake here is misunderstanding the radical brokenness of the whole cosmos. People die because the universe itself is corrupted by sin. All of humanity is enslaved to senseless death.
“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over him and he is gone, and his place remembers him no more.” [Psalm 103:15-16]
Even if you buy every safety device ever invented and install every security feature in existence you still could slip on a grape in the supermarket and break your neck. In the Christian tradition we call that human condition Sin. Not sins like cheating on your spouse or stealing. No, I mean the human tragedy of futility, always picking the lesser of two evils, always being stuck between a rock and a hard place. And that leads us to the next bad thing to say.
“Life is hard and then you die.”
This one is often phrased more colorfully. In many ways, this is true. Life does include suffering and death. St. Paul describes creation as “subject to futility” and in “bondage to decay,” [Romans 8:20-21] This statement, however, falsely concludes that suffering and death are the sum of life. God created life, gives it a “Very Good” rating and plans to redeem it. Therefore, we wait expectantly in hope for the day when God will release all creation from captivity to death, [Romans 8:21-23].
5 Good Things to Say at a Funeral
The holy scripture is full of people weeping because of suffering and death. Stating your heartfelt sorrow succinctly lets another know you care. It communicates your compassion and solidarity.
“Weep with those who weep.” [Romans 12:15]
“I wanted to be here with you.”
Sometimes you do not know what to say or do. You simply feel compelled to show up. That is just the right thing. Be present with someone who is grieving. When Job lost his children, his wealth, his house, and his health, his friends came over and sat quietly with him for a week.
“When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” [Job 2:12-13]
“You’ll be together again.”
God promises to raise the dead with everyone else to be with the Lord forever together.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]
“God has a place prepared for him/her.”
When Jesus was preparing the disciples for his own death and departure they were quite alarmed. Here’s Jesus response:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” [John 14:1-3]
“She/he is with Jesus.”
Jesus descended into death to bring the dead back to life. When questioned about the status of those who had died Jesus replied,
“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” [Luke 20:38]
Ultimately God’s final word on death is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s response to death. God raised Jesus Christ from the dead so that when you die in him, God will raise you up to eternal life as well. And nothing can separate us from his love.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:38-39]
Thank you for the helpful words to say and not to say at a funeral. I liked your references to the Bible.