Should a Christian attend a funeral of an unbeliever?
This question might seem unimportant to you, especially if you are a Western Christian. All funerals are the same, they’re no questionable rituals and your faith is not tried. But for most African Christians, attending a funeral of an unbeliever is not that easy.
In Africa, funerals test your faith, your patience, your love, your wisdom and knowledge of Christ. And your understanding of what it means to be Christ’s follower in the 21st Century.
Sadly, if you’re an African you probably failed the test several times. You skipped numerous funerals because an unbeliever had died, and sometimes it could have been even your own parents’ funeral. That’s pathetic but I don’t blame you.
You were taught that neglecting your parents’ funeral was an act of faith. You were taught it was more honorable to attend a church service than attending your father’s funeral. And you were taught that Matthew 8:22 justified your actions.
Is neglect to attend an unbeliever’s funeral a good example of following Jesus Christ in the 21st Century?
I Missed My Grandma’s Funeral. It Hurts and This Is Why
Funerals are the most important event in most African cultures. A child can be disowned by her family for missing a distant relative’s funeral. Yet I missed my own grandma’s funeral.
Grandma passed away in May. She was my only surviving parent from my mother or my father’s side. My mother passed away in 2001. And grandma became my default mother. We called her aMurefu because she was tall.
AMurefu’s death was heart wrenching. But I did not cry when I heard the sad news. I thought I was in a dream. A dream I silently wished would end but never did. And I haven’t woken up from the horrendous nightmare, even though it’s now two weeks since she passed.
I last saw her in 2011 a month before I went to the US. She lived to see her grandkids having their own grandkids. That’s why I assumed she would remain alive forever with her wit, kindness, big and warm heart. But I was wrong. And I missed her funeral busy preparing for my final defense and submitting my dissertation.
Grandma’s funeral was a classic example of an African funeral – a battleground of Christianity and African Traditional Religions. Since grandma was Catholic some relatives obviously thought it was appropriate to incorporate Catholic rituals. Others who did not believe in Jesus Christ wanted to include rituals that honor ancestral spirits.
Is it wrong to miss church for a funeral?
Several years ago I heard a pastor who said missing church for a relative’s funeral service is a sign of immaturity. There was no excuse for missing a church service, he said. I agreed with the preacher. “God should always come first even if it means being rejected by your own family,” I reasoned.
Here’s the truth.
I was wrong and the preacher was wrong too. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Jesus didn’t say when two or three are gathered in a church building. He said where and where can be at a funeral of an unbeliever.
The only reason why Jesus Christ was absent at your mom’s funeral is you were not there. You chose to be at a place where he will be even if you were not there. And you withheld Christ’s presence at a place where he was needed the most.
What did Christ mean when he said let the dead bury their own dead?
And this is where context matters. Jesus wasn’t saying people who attend funerals of non-believers are spiritually dead. If so, then all the pastors who conducted graveside services for unbelievers are spiritually dead.
If you read Luke 9, you will find the conversations Jesus Christ had from verse 57 to 62 summarized the whole chapter. And Luke 9:60 is the perfect summary of the whole chapter. It addresses physical death, spiritual death and what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
1. The first key theme in Luke 9 is Christ’s physical death.
When Herod heard about the signs and wonders Jesus Christ performed, he was confused. Some people claimed Jesus Christ was Elijah. And others said he was John The Baptist (Luke 9:9), “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?”
However, at transfiguration, Jesus stood with Moses, who was buried by God, and Elijah, who was taken up to heaven alive. And the Father declared Christ’s supremacy and preeminence to them both. Yet, Christ was going to die an embarrassing death on the cross.
2. The second key theme in Luke 9 is spiritual death.
Spiritual death is worse than physical death. It is marked by rejection of the good news of the grace of God. For example, Jesus instructed his disciples to leave any place the gospel was rejected (Luke 9:5). A village in Samaria rejected Jesus Christ probably because they were offended that ‘his face was set toward Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:52-56).
Another mark of spiritual death is failure to recognize the work of God. This is different to the spiritual blindness that Christ’s disciples demonstrated throughout the chapter, equating Christ to Moses and the prophets (vs 19, 33), underestimating Christ’s provisions (vs 10-17), misunderstanding Christ’s miraculous power (vs 49-50), and underestimating Christ’s grace (vs 51-56). Herod and the Samaritan villagers demonstrated spiritual death.
3. The third key theme in Luke 9 is proclaiming the gospel.
Proclaiming the gospel is a life and death matter. The message of the gospel has the power to resurrect a person from spiritual death. However, rejecting the gospel is a mark of spiritual death. Jesus Christ is the full embodiment of life, no one can live without him.
The message of the gospel is this: if anyone who is spiritually dead believes in Jesus Christ, who physically died on the cross and arose on the third day, they will become spiritually alive. However, proclaiming the gospel requires you to deny yourself, die to yourself, and take up the Cross of Christ.
So then, what does ‘let the dead bury their own dead’ mean?
Burying isn’t limited to the funeral but the whole process of waiting for a person to die and then physically bury them. This is especially true in most African cultures.
The person who told Jesus that he wanted to bury his father probably meant he could only follow Christ after his father died. In the meantime, he wanted to take care of his father’s business, which is temporal – it has an ending, physical death. Jesus Christ was therefore encouraging him to take care of the Father’s business, which is eternal.
For that reason:
And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9:60 ESV
5 ways to stay a Christian at a non-believer’s funeral
Here’s the truth.
Funerals of non-believers are a hive of idolatry, spiritism and ignorance. I witnessed this firsthand when my father died. I was only 9 but the weird traditions and practices are still perched on my mind like a tattoo.
1. Guarding against death
Shortly after my father died, my aunt cut part of my hair on my forehead. And she put a bracelet made from acacia back on my right hand. All of my siblings received the bracelet and had some of their hair cut. The bracelet was a seal to ward off the spirit of death, I was told.
Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Through believing the gospel, you and I are transformed from death to life. This is why Paul boasted, “Death, where is your sting?” Christ defeated death. And we’ve already received the best bracelet that can ward off the spirit of death, the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).
2. Consulting spirit mediums
At my father’s funeral, relatives brewed opaque beer. It wasn’t meant for consumption by mourners only. But some of it was for helping my grandmother to invite her familial spirits. She could speak to the dead and my paternal relatives wanted to know what caused my father’s death and what they had to do next.
For a child of God, you are not bothered by the causes of death. You know the ultimate cause of death. You know the dead no longer have an inheritance among the living. And you know Jesus Christ asked the Father to send you a Comforter who guides you in all truth.
3. A dead person as a cut branch
There’s a certain fruit tree that abundantly grew in my village. A big branch from this tree was cut and placed near the doorway of the hut were my father’s lifeless body lay. The cut branch represented his lifeless body. Since the branch could regrow because of the nature of the tree, it represented the hope of the afterlife.
There’s probably an excellent theology in this practice. I believe this practice offers a great opportunity to reveal Christ as the true branch prophesied in the OT. Like that tree, death fails to conquer it. After a few days, the tree is alive just as Christ rose from the dead.
4. The branch represent Christ
My grandfather pulled the branch to my father’s grave. They did this because they didn’t want his spirit to trouble us, his children. And my grandfather appointed his grave as his final resting place. After the branch became a tree and they cut another branch and brought it to the house. They said after a year, my father’s spirit was now settled and he was ready to protect his family.
We were robbed of a deeper meaning of the branch. Christ is the branch. No spirit of the dead has power to oppress a child of God. You and I are protected by the love of the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The cut branch that becomes a tree reminds us of the resurrection and Christ the hope of glory.
5. Dust to dust
I was asked to throw a pinch of dirt in my father’s grave. Seven years later, I was asked to do the same on my mother’s grave. And in all instances, the person conducting the funeral pronounced with finality, “From dust we came and to dust we return.” And they recited a list of people who died before them up to the last known great great great grandfather begging them to welcome my parents.
The first part is biblical and symbolizes the words of God to Adam and Eve. Death is a great reminder of the fall. Above all, it is a great reminder also of the victory Christ brought to those who believe in him. My dead ancestors will probably never welcome me when I die but Christ will. I can’t wait to meet up with him!
Following Christ in the 21st Century entails engaging our cultures with the aim of proclaiming the gospel. This means mourning with those who are mourning. A funeral of unbeliever can try your faith but offers a unique opportunity to demonstrate the message of the Cross to those who are perishing.
What are other reasons you think believers should attend a funeral of a non-believer?