Processing Grief: Making Sense of Funerals & Weddings

Among pastors a well-known maxim exists that funerals are better than weddings. While weddings can be destroyed by bridezillas and can be dissolved quicker than they can be planned, funerals universally succeed in their mission. No one pops out of the ground two years later, declaring that they never truly were in love with that piece of ground or that they found death to be a rather antiquated idea derived from one’s patriarchal forefathers. The above maxim transcends denominations for it rest upon the certitude and the inescapable finality of death. But for all its common sense, the maxim fundamentally fails to account for one basic reality of death: those saints left behind have every reason to envy those who have gone before.

Marriage, Singleness, and All That

I have never stood up for the bridal march and thought, “I wish I were the groom.” Sure, I rummage through the rhetorical questions that everyone asks such as, “Him and her…how; she’s seen his dumbo ears, right; and surely, he knows about the doll collection?” But, I never once wanted their relationship or their wedding.

Once while at a ‘seminary’ wedding, I had the good fortune of being seated next to two other former boyfriends of the bride. Seemingly, we all earned our invitation through having sacrificially feed and entertained the bride-to-be in the months leading up to her relationship with her soon-to-be husband. Though we collectively spent that wonderfully awkward afternoon mulling about as the seminary version of the lost boys, none of us objected to the marriage. None of us shared her desire to ‘redeem’ October 31 through a Christian marriage service. (Again, score one for the seminary bubble). But thankfully, the bride had found a man who did and rightfully became one with him.

And the three of us? We were all the better for their decision. You see, the glories of marriage depend upon the object of that marriage just as much as they do upon the institution itself.

Over the next few years, that conclusion became solidified in my mind as I watched poor marriages sideline men from ministry and women from the mission field. Few things prove more damming and destructive to one’s life than marrying poorly. In other words, what do those who trade their whole life for honeymoon sex or a ticket out of mom and dad’s house get in return for their sacrifice? Not much. As wise king Solomon noted a few thousand years ago, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house share with a quarrelsome wife (Pr. 21:9).”

Still the thought of being single and thirty seemed rather depressing to my very, single and aging twenty-something self at that time. In addition to adopting some very sad dating strategies, I also decided I would head off to the jungles of the pacific if I reached thirty with no wedding ring. In my mind, the solution to the loneliness of singleness was to maximize the usefulness of that singleness. As the missionary and martyr, Jim Elliot, famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Why not hold my single life loosely and give all for Christ or die trying? In one sense, that sentiment was a jest. But in another sense perhaps, it was more real than most realized.

Thankfully, I never reached that moment of decision as I encountered the glorious and very purplely April Gentry at the seasoned age of 27. I got that ring and a marriage far more wonderful than I could have ever imagined with more than 22 months to spare. God was kind.

But with the passing of my dearest love, the thought of seeking an opportunity where I might once again give all for Christ has become more appealing. My soul resonates with the idea of being a chaplain in the killing fields of Ukraine or of working discreetly in Afghanistan to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why not risk it all for God?

Of Puritans and Dying

The Puritan writers of old spoke of death as being a harbor from the of storms life…a kind of Ellis Island like portal to heaven. Indeed, those who have trusted in Christ at death get to leave their ships riddled with temptations and infected with the lust of the flesh. At death, the Christian exchanges all that misery to gain residence next to Jesus for eternity. As Thomas Watson noted, “Death…takes away a flower and gives a jewel.”

And what of you and me? We remain in the storm, bracing for the next wave of trials and temptations that is sure to come crashing over us. The choppy seas of sorrow churn without end.

While I would never swap places with any other soon-to-be husband no matter the bride’s looks, bank account, or character, I would eagerly trade places with any saint now at my Lord’s side no matter how impoverished their faith was in this life. The glory of heaven has one object, Jesus Christ. In other words, death contains a universal object while marriage has many ends. Thus, we have every reason to be envious of the dead for our path to heaven proves to be the same as there’s. To quote John Flavel, “[We] are yet rolling and tossing upon the tempestuous sea, but your friend is gone into the quiet of the harbor; desire rather to be there than that [she] were at sea with you again (71).” Oh, to be in the harbor with my late wife.

What Now?

Though I long for heaven, I suspect I still have a good many days left. I won’t be running off to the wilds anytime soon. The Father has lovingly anchored my life in the sholes of normalcy next to my three precious children and my loving church family. Said another way, my life will not be shaped through the extraordinary storms of bullets and bombs but through the ordinary storms of less-than-stellar family meals and full laundry hampers. I also suspect this route to be the harder of the two since my imagination projects the battlefield as being the path of least resistance. But alas, here I am.

Still, I concur with Thomas Brooks who said, “all the strange, dark, deep, and changeable providences that believers meet with shall further them in their way to heaven, in their journey to happiness.” While to die is gain, to live is Christ. I very much believe that new joys will continue to accumulate. New loves will come. To quote King Solomon again, “There is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecc 3:4).” And just as God guided David when he fought Goliath, I know he will walk with me as I make a mess of my girls’ hair for umptieth time in our quest for a new normal. My battle is the Lord’s just as much as was David’s. His steadfast love will guide me. Hope remains.

But the realities of the storm will also continue. New waves of grief, temptation, and sorrow will come. Funerals will still find me out. And when they do, I suspect I will once again leave envious of the saint in the coffin before me. Indeed, the end of the thing is better than the beginning (Ecc. 7:2; 8).