Life only known in Death

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. Ecclesiastes 7:2-3

In His providence, the Lord has brought to pass that I take part in officiating in my first funeral this week. For some reason, this was not covered in any of my Bible College or Seminary courses. But to be fair, I never majored in Pastoral Studies. Nevertheless…

In trying to prepare myself I read through funeral liturgies in the Lutheran, Episcopal, and Orthodox traditions. Towards the conclusion of the Orthodox service for the dead, these words are sung:

Now is all life’s solemn triumph of vanities destroyed. For the spirit has vanished from its tabernacle; its clay groweth black. The vessel is shattered, voiceless, bereft of feeling, motionless, dead: committing which unto the grave, let us beseech the Lord that he will give him rest.

What is our life like unto? Unto a flower, a vapor, and the dew of the morning, in very truth. Come ye, therefore,let us gaze keenly at the grave. Where is the beauty of the body, and where is its youth? Where are the eyes and the fleshly form? Like the grass all have perished, all have been destroyed. Come ye, therefore, let us prostrate ourselves at the feet of Christ with tears.

A great weeping and wailing, a great sighing and agony, and hell and destruction is the departure of the soul. This transitory life is a shadow unreal and an illusive dream; the trouble of the life of earth is a phantasm importunate. Let us, then, flee afar from every earthly sin, that we may inherit heavenly things.

These are hard words. Yet are there words that could be any more pastoral at a funeral? If at death we do not ponder the brevity and futility of life, when will we? If at death we cannot estimate the value of a life well spent or the anguish of a life squandered, when can we? Seemingly everything around us is meant to distract us from ultimate realities. What else but death can wake us from this shadow unreal and illusive dream?

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