There was no eulogy at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.
Some would say there was no good word to be spoken about her, but that was not the reason. Rather it was the funeral of a woman, not the celebration of her life. And a funeral is not a celebration.
Over recent decades there has been a steady movement away from traditional funerals in black to celebrations in colour. Instead of mourning our loss we are celebrating our loved one’s life. Instead of a casket we have a photograph. Instead of a burial we release balloons and doves. Instead of a sermon we have a eulogy. Instead of the congregation singing hymns, the sound system plays the deceased’s favourite songs. Instead of the Bible we read a poem.
Death is a dreadful thief. It is not just that it reduces us to dust and ashes, it also robs us of nearly all that we value. It not only takes our health, strength and our life, it also destroys the people we love. It destroys our friendships and family, it brings such sorrow and grief which can even be experienced as physical pain.
Our culture’s pursuit of happiness does not prepare us well for pain, grief, or mourning. We anaesthetise ourselves against all discomfort and disappointment. We are in denial about the ravages of death – with collagen to keep our skin taught and steroids to keep our muscles bulking we research the possibilities of anti-aging medicine and if all else fails; cryonics. Generally we will not discuss death or dying except to promote euthanasia – yet another attempt to avoid reality. Animals are no longer killed or ‘put down’ now they are ‘euthanased’.
So, when the reality of death is finally upon us, we try to accept it by muttering the formulaic inanities: “He had a good innings”, “It was her time to go”, “She put up a great fight”, “He’s better off now”. We know we have to say something but we do not have much to say, in the face of manifest failure and defeat. And we are busily creating new rituals to deal with the pain. Funeral directors in white (I wonder whether they dress in black for Chinese funerals?), mourners in bright colours, no sign of a coffin even in the crematorium, and happy people rejoicing in the life well lived.
However, none of this really works. It just postpones the grieving for another day when there are no friends around with whom to cry. Furthermore, it denies the reality – not just of death but also of life; for it minimises what we have lost in the death of one so dear to us. Talking up how wonderful he or she was only heightens how sad we should be feeling – but we are not allowed to feel sad because we don’t want to break the mood of the balloons and doves and puerile jokes; we don’t want to upset other people.
Grieving does not finish with the funeral or the celebration; it goes on for weeks and months and even years. Death is awful and our loss of relationship, love, intimacy and friendship should never be minimised. We mustn’t be made to feel guilty because we have difficulty putting our life back together again when one of the most important parts has been removed, never to be returned, never to be spoken to or heard from again.
Funerals confront death and our loss and help us process what is happening to our world. The coffin and disposal of the body show the reality of death and remind us of our own mortality. We need to hear from God about life and death; eternity and the resurrection. The Resurrection can lighten the colour of black so that we do not mourn as others who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13ff). Yet it does not remove mourning and grieving – it only enables us to face its reality without flinching. Death has been defeated at Calvary but death still continues to rob us of life and of each other. The Lord Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the grave, yet in his love for his friend he still wept (John 11:35).
Confronting death is only one part of grieving. We also need to have some way of talking about the one we have lost. Most people want to remember together the person who has died and to share with each other the loss they are now feeling. This is not the same as a funeral. In fact, in some ways, it is the opposite of the funeral, which is why eulogies are so counterproductive at funerals. It is the celebration of life or as Christians would say a thanksgiving for the life – for unlike those who face death without hope we have somebody to thank for the life we are celebrating.
In years gone by the refreshments after the funeral gave family and friends the time and opportunity to talk and laugh and cry together. But in the busyness of life, people don’t want to go from church to graveside, let alone return to somebody’s house for sandwiches and a cup of tea after that. Now we want everything done quickly in one gathering, so we can get back to work or to the superficialities of living.
I suspect we need to have two gatherings not one: the funeral shortly after death to dispose of the body and face the reality of death; the thanksgiving some weeks later, to honour and remember with gratitude the life, love and work of the person whom death has stolen from us. And in both of these gatherings Christians have the word of God, for in life and in death we can honour our saviour just as ‘neither death nor life’ can separate us from his love (Romans 8:37f).