Death & Dying In the Church

It’s a strange feeling to attend three wakes of the loved ones of my church friends / youths within the span of two months; stranger still to go for a wake three days after a wedding dinner, and see the same faces on both occasions. (I have a great deal of respect for pastors, who do this so often, and who might very well be called upon to speak at a wedding, at a baby baptism, and then a funeral in 3 consecutive days.)

But there is a kind of beauty in that rhythm of life and death and joining and separation and celebrating and mourning and hope and sorrow, and perhaps these things are precisely what makes the church the church.

J. Todd Billings, a fairly-young seminary professor with incurable blood cancer, makes the surprising statement that death and dying are a gift of the church in his book ‘Rejoicing in Lament’ —

The congregation is the only place (that I can think of!) in Western culture where we develop relationships, celebrate our faith and life together, and also extend those same relationships all the way through dying and death. A place of employment, a hospice — they have indispensable roles, but in neither is a community life that celebrates the birth of babies among the young and the old, and extends those same relationships all the way to death.

It’s a gift, really. It’s a marvellous gift that the church who baptises and celebrates new life in Christ also does funerals, mourns with the dying, and celebrates the promise of resurrection in Christ. For some young people, the church is one of the only places that they are exposed to death in a real, personal way — where someone they know has died. And I think that is a gift of the church.

(…) We can walk the path of life and the path of dying as one path because they share one hope: that in ‘body and soul, in life and in death’, we belong to our ‘faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ’ (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1). While death is the final enemy to be defeated, it’s a good thing that death and dying are not pushed to the margins in the Christian story. Death and dying are included in the journey that congregations make together week by week, year by year, as testimony to their identity in Christ.
‘In Christ Alone’ was one of the songs sung in today’s wake. It’s one of my favourites, but today these lyrics really hit me — No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand. What a cause for rejoicing! Even death, the final enemy, cannot snatch God’s elect from Him, but instead serves as transport to Him. The next few times I sing this song, I will see in my mind that hall, packed to the brim with grieving yet joyful people, mournful for their loss yet certain of their hope. Today I am so incredibly thankful for the church.

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