Forgetting Sins at Funerals

By Bob Hiller

Have you ever been to funeral where people got up and spoke negatively about the deceased? Almost never. When friends and family gather to mourn the loss of those they love, they always speak well of the person. As you leave most funerals, you’d almost think that there is no such thing as sin in the world. The wages of sin is death, we’re told, so it is a true mystery to everyone present why this pillar of morality, joy, and laughter is about to be laid six feet under!

The reality is that the person in the casket is a sinner. And the even harsher truth is that his or her sin expressed itself in painful and hurtful ways. There are those they hurt and those whom they had failed to help. Often times, those are the people in attendance at these services. What is so surprising to me is that these who had been hurt and unhelped so often don’t bring it up in the eulogy or at the wake. Or if they do, they just kind of laugh about it and say, “That was Dad for you!”

I have to tell you, it drives me crazy! Why can’t we just be honest about the sins of the person? I suppose there are some psychological explanations. It may be a defense mechanism against the fear of sinful consequences. Theologically, perhaps it is nothing more than the inborn Pelagianism coming out. That is to say, at funerals we all want to believe the person who died ultimately did enough to “get in.” We know their sins, and we know our sins. So, we figure, if I’m a better person than that corpse and I’m able to find some good in them, then there must still be hope for me. Maybe we just want to remember the good times and not dwell on the bad. I don’t know. Theological psychology is above my paygrade. There could be any number of reasons for the idealization of the deceased’s life. But it just seems to me that, for one reason or another, we don’t remember anyone’s sins at funerals.

I’ve been bothered by this for some time. But recently, as I was sitting through another eulogy, it struck me: Maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong. What if we stopped thinking of the choice to forget or ignore the sins of the dead as misguided? What if these eulogies aren’t works-righteous pipe dreams, but rather echoes of the Gospel? Here are people who have been hurt and harmed by those they love, and at the end of the day, they don’t allow those sins to define the dead in their mind. Their love wins out. They choose to let their last word over this person in their life be one of love and forgiveness, of grace.

Isn’t that what our hope is as Christians as we anticipate standing before God on the day of judgment? That God won’t stand there and recount all our sins, but instead will say the most shocking words of all: “Well done good and faithful servant!” It is not that God is ignorant of our sins or that He is not aware of what we have done. But our hope is that He chooses to do something about them. And He has! He chose to forgive them. He chose to send His Son to have the list of our grievances read over His cross (Col. 2:14). Everyone in the room knows we don’t deserve a single word of kindness from our God. But instead He chooses to give us a word of mercy and forgiveness. He chooses to give us the Word made flesh! Jesus is the final and ultimate Word over your life, a Word of love and mercy.

So, maybe there is something to hope for in these eulogies. Perhaps they can remind us to pray like the Psalmist, “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!” (Psalms 25:7). To which, our God has chosen to say, finally, “Yes, dear child, it shall be done indeed, in spite of the devil and all the world” (Large Catechism, Intro to the Lord’s Prayer). After all, He is the One who promises for Christ’s sake, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).

Of course, funerals should not be a time to pretend that everything is fine and that the deceased was some sort of incarnate angel. But it is a time to point to the cross of Jesus, where all of this sinner’s transgressions were covered in the blood. It is a time to rejoice in the Baptism where Christ gave this person His perfect righteousness. It is a time to rejoice in the Jesus who will not list the sins of His sheep on the last day, but will graciously eulogize, “Well done, good and faithful servant…inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:23, 34).