It Tolls For Thee

The trouble with eulogies and the way we talk about heaven.

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (John Donne, 1572-1631).

When I was ten, my grandfather died. Our family was still in Holland. I remember the open grave, lowering the casket and taking my turn pitching dirt into a deep black hole. Adults said Grandpa died in the assurance of faith and the hope of the resurrection. It comforted me; my Grandpa was a child of God. There was no talk of Grandpa happily reunited with Grandma in heaven. 

Six years later in Vancouver, my father died, aged 51. He spoke memorable words. To us children: “Do not think God needs me to look after you; he will do that without me.” To the young preacher: “Do not mention my name at the service.” Dad was not prohibiting eulogies because no one in our sheltered world scheduled eulogies, then. Dad did not want boasting about his good deeds, not at his funeral. He wanted a service about God, grace and the resurrection. I do not remember that we talked about Dad being in heaven. We surely would not have had Dad happily re-united with kinfolk. The influence of North American evangelicalism was still in the future.

Gold stars for good behavior?
Today, funeral services have morphed into memorial services and celebrations of life. Today, dying is not about assurance of faith and the hope of the resurrection. Today, after death we are in heaven re-united with loved ones for a domestic life of easy comfort. Where do such ideas come from? The Bible does not state that we go to heaven upon death, nor does it promise we will recognize others. The Bible says the dead have fallen asleep, await the resurrection and afterward “. . . to reign with Christ over all creation” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 12). We know little about heaven and what happens exactly upon death, but heaven as blissful domestic life is not a picture from the Bible. That picture gained currency in 19th century USA, following the Civil War. Yet every service tells the recent American innovation, not the Bible’s version.

Something else has changed. Today, the main features at end-of-life services are eulogies listing, mostly, achievements of the departed. Such tributes can be deeply moving, inspiring, grateful recognition of God’s grace evident on earth in the life of a departed loved one. And yet, I am not so sure! How appropriate is a performance account for an end-of-life service? Is Heaven a prize for the perfect, a reward for good behaviour? More importantly, does listing earthly successes help us understand and experience death? Eulogies feature family and career, but Jesus instructs all who would follow him to let go of family and jobs. Is the essence of death not also “letting go”? What is worth considering at death – performance or the “letting go” part? Reviewing a life lived can be significant and instructive for those that remain, but why do this in the church service?

Resurrection hope
Much of life is about seeking approval of others to feed the ego. Death stops that. Death is suffering, woundedness, vulnerability, emptiness. Death is loss of control, powerlessness, dependency. Yet it’s necessary! Like seed in the ground, life is not possible without death, proclaims the Gospel. If God’s pattern in nature, in the Bible and in the life of Jesus specifies that no resurrection is possible except through self denial, the cross and death, why sanitize the death experience? Why no casket? Why so little lament and grief and mourning? To experience God in death, do we need to recount accomplishments, or the opposite – give voice to our emptiness?

To die in the hope of the resurrection is profoundly different from going to heaven. Going to heaven is puny, too small. In the Bible the resurrection is the renewal of all creation, the uniting of heaven and earth, God’s glory and presence revealed to all flesh. It is life as God meant it to be – no more evil, no more death. Today, we say heaven is our promised inheritance. Wrong! Our inheritance is the resurrection; it is bigger, grander, encompassing the whole renewed, restored creation. That is a hope worth living and dying for.

Words of grace and hope
Faith is accepting that we are accepted. It is not about performance but letting go. Should an end-of-life service not empty us, to then be filled by the hope of the resurrection? What service would I want upon falling asleep? My preference is a funeral service with a casket in church, much singing, many scripture readings, lament and mourning for the woundedness of life, then words of grace and hope, hope in the bodily resurrection, hope to see God’s glory revealed, hope to serve creation with Christ. No eulogies! Whatever you think of my preferred service, do not think you are heaven-bound. The end of life is not heaven; the end of life is to bring the life of heaven to earth. The eternal human task is to bring healing to the world, not to escape it. Is that not the message of Easter!?

  • Nick is an occasional contributor, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly and long-time CC supporter. He lives in Richmond, B.C.

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