Funeral Rites and the Christian

by Rev Charles Seet as printed in Life B-P Church Weekly dated 24 April 2005
reprinted with author’s permission

Loneliness crept over Beng Hock as he stood behind the group watching the funeral ceremonies. He missed his Christian friends. His family had treated him like an outcast once he had refused to take part in the rites for his late father…

Kim Hua’s father had died that morning. It had taken Kim Hua by surprise, so he was not sure of his Christian stand concerning the coming rites. ‘Well,’ he reassured himself, ‘as long as I do not burn joss sticks to the gods, I suppose it will be all right to join in all the other rites…’

The funeral rites were in full swing when Heng Lee’s friends visited him. They found their Christian friend in the midst of performing the funeral rites clad in sackcloth, burning joss sticks, prostrating before the coffin and following the directions of the priest who was in charge…

These three stories illustrate three different responses to non-Christian funeral rites. What would you have done? Here are five Christian principles to follow:

1. Mourn for a Departed Loved One

"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Mt 5:4).

"Then David took hold on his clothes, and rent them; and likewise all the men that were with him: and they mourned and wept and fasted until even, for Saul and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the LORD, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword" (2 Sam 1:11,12).

"Rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep" (Rom 12:15).

Putting on sackcloth (but without participating in funeral rites) or a black cloth patch on a sleeve is a sign of mourning.

2. Honour the Dead with a Proper Funeral and Burial

Such acts are commended in Scripture. "Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair…Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of My burying has she kept this" (Jn 12:3-7).

"And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury" (Jn 19:39).

A Christian should therefore not avoid any involvement in the funeral and burial of his or her loved one.

3. Be Loyal to Christ above Everyone Else

Sometimes we may have to disobey parents, clan leaders and relatives. "But I said unto their children in the wilderness, Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their judgements, nor defile yourselves with their idols: I am the LORD your God; walk in My statutes, and keep My judgements and do them" (Ezk 20:18,19).

"Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5: 29). We must be ready to suffer for our loyalty to Christ!

4. Understand the Meaning of the Actions Involved in the Funeral

Something which may seem harmless to us, as a sign of respect, may actually mean much more to all the rest who are present. Many parts of non-Christian funeral rites are more than acts of filial piety. They are meant to prepare the deceased for the journey to "heaven," and "to enable him to overcome the ten different obstacles which he will encounter." They include the following actions:

• A pearl is placed in the mouth of the deceased – to ensure a bright journey.

• A stick is placed in the right hand – to beat away the dogs guarding the way.

• A ball of glutinous rice is put in his right hand – to feed the dogs.

• A fan is provided - for the great heat that will be encountered.

• Coins are put in his left hand – to pay the guardian spirits.

• Shoes are put on his feet – to prepare for the long journey.

• Tiles are broken – to ensure a safe journey.

• Family members must go round the coffin – also to ensure a safe journey.

• The eldest son must carry the urn of joss sticks and follow the priest – to represent the dead, being guided to "heaven" by the priest.

• Banners attached to long poles are presented to the family – to bid the deceased success in his journey.

• Prayers are chanted – to appease any spirits that seek to hinder the deceased on his journey.

• Gongs and cymbals are sounded – to announce the arrival of the deceased to the spirits of the other world and to bid them to welcome him into their midst.

• A lantern-like banner is carried by the eldest son – to invite the soul home.

• Prayers and incantations are made – to enable the spirits to cross bridges.

Some actions of the funeral rites serve the purpose of ensuring that the deceased actually departs and does not remain on earth, bringing disaster to the living:

• Placing the dead body to face the front door.

• Covering every mirror and reflecting glass in the home to prevent the spirit of the deceased from residing there.

• Making sure the parents of the dead daughter-in-law do not attend, or else she may attach herself to them.

• Closing the coffin lid with great care lest the deceased escapes.

• Burning the possessions of the deceased to transfer them to his possession. To show this, the eldest son must go around the coffin with a bamboo pole.

• Protecting relatives and friends who attend the funeral from misfortune by giving them red strings.

• Using geomancy and divination (feng shui) to determine the position and site of the grave, so that the deceased will be happy and bring blessings to descendants.

The author of all these rituals is ultimately Satan himself (2 Cor 4:4; 1 Cor 10:20; Eph 2:2). He uses them to lead men away from the true knowledge of the Lord and salvation. To participate in them is to support these beliefs and endorse them.

It is not enough to say that a Christian is free to participate if he himself has no religious feeling in the matter. He may participate only when others see in his participation no endorsement of the religious element.

Can we bow to the dead as an act of respect? Anyone who sees a Christian bowing to the dead at a non-Christian funeral will think that he is worshiping the dead, and not just paying respects.

Can we hold joss sticks as a sign of respect? Joss sticks are used to signify worship in ancestral worship and the worship of idols. It is not just a sign of respect. Christians should have nothing to do with joss sticks.

5. Be Brave but Sensitive toward the Unsaved

Do not be afraid to receive sharp criticisms from unsaved relatives and friends about being un-filial. Do not spring an unpleasant surprise by waiting until the last moment to make your convictions known to them. Talk to them before the event, to seek their understanding of your actions. You can also be sensitive to them by showing your filial piety in other ways, for example:

• Send flowers or wreaths dedicated to the memory of the deceased.

• While you cannot participate in any of the rituals, you should not be conspicuously absent from them either. Stand aside during these sessions with head bowed in silent meditation and memory of the deceased.

• Keep a framed picture of your loved one in your room to show that you care.

• Visit the grave to clean it and to adorn it with flowers, but omit the idolatrous practices.

• Insert a dedication in the newspapers to the memory of the loved one.

There is one final thing you need to do. As you take a firm Christian stand during funerals, the Lord may bless you with opportunities to bear witness to Him to your loved ones and relatives. Thus you should be ready to share the Gospel of Christ with them. "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Pet 3:15) –CS

"Familiarize the thoughts of the evil day to thy soul; handle this serpent often, walk daily in the serious meditations of it, do not run from them because they are unpleasing to flesh, that is the way to increase the terror of it. Do with your souls, when shy of, and scared with the thoughts of affliction or death, as you use to do with your beast that is given to goggle and start as you ride on him; when he flies back and starts at a thing, you do not yield to his fear and go back, that will make him worse another time, but you ride him up close to that which he is afraid of, and in time you break him of that quality. The evil day is not such a fearful thing to thee that art a Christian, as thou shouldst start for it. Bring up thy heart close to it, show thy soul what Christ hath done to take the sting out of it...." (William Gurnall)