Morticians, like the doctors preceding them, used to make house calls. Before the widespread burgeoning of hospitals in the 20th century, death frequently occurred in the home. And before the popularity of funeral homes, undertakers went to the deceased instead of the deceased being brought to them. In the home, the body was dressed, embalmed, and then casketed for a visitation in the family parlor room before the funeral service at a church.
Can you imagine hosting a visitation for a loved one in your home? Yet even 100 years ago, this was a common practice in America. This is why funeral homes were first called funeral “parlors” — that’s the room where visitations took place. It’s also why in 1910 the Ladies’ Home Journal began calling the gloomy “parlor” the “living room” instead. Ahh! How invigorating! Death was removed from the family home and placed in the hands of professionals. A handbook for funeral directors from this time period captures this shift of attitude well: “Anything we can do to lift the horrors of the old customs will be appreciated by our friends.”
With widespread removal of death from the home, paired with extensive improvements in lifesaving technologies available at hospitals, the American view of death became a denial of death. Death was no longer a common inevitability. Now it was a medical failure. Loved ones no longer died because they were mortal, but rather because the doctor failed at healing them. We live among home and family but die among strangers in a strange room. And so we assume death should not strike our home—death is out there, in the hands of other people.
Having removed death from our daily life, we tend to think of it only in materialistic and scientific terms: death is a natural process, just one stage in the life cycle of a biological organism. “Death is natural,” we assume, and attempt to comfort ourselves with that thought. But it’s curious that, despite the soothing reassurance that “death is natural,” it’s standard practice at visitations to make the embalmed body look as lifelike as possible, as if the deceased were merely sleeping and about to awaken, as if death were nothing but a placid and restful continuation of this earthly life. And I wonder how often our society uses cremation not only for its practical considerations, but also to serve as an avoidance of the reality of death by reducing the corrupted body to a manageable urn of ashes.
Please note that I’m not claiming these practices are themselves wrong. Both can be done to the glory of God in public confession of Christ’s resurrection of the body at His return. Rather, I wonder how often they’re employed because the dead aren’t allowed to show that they’re dead, and the living must attempt to comfort themselves by “dressing up” death to be something it’s not, denouncing it as a medical failure or entirely avoiding the fear and repulsion felt in death’s presence. Don’t these innate reactions to death betray an unheeded insistence that death should not, in an ideal state of nature, exist?
Though we may deny it and claim death is “natural,” holy Scripture affirms the opposite. When God finished His creative work and saw it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), death did not exist. God did not create it. So how and why did death appear in God’s perfect creation? Sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12). Sin “gives birth to death” (James 1:15) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
Death is wholly unnatural, impious, alien to God’s creation. We don’t die because we’re mortal and it’s natural for us to do so. We die and are mortal because we are sinful, and because of our sin, we deserve to die. Likewise, we don’t deny death just because it’s been removed from our daily lives. We also deny death because death is the clearest and most conspicuous evidence of our sin. No amount of death-with-dignity can fully assuage the guilty conscience in the face of such terminal condemnation.
But death is not what our gracious God desires. “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” God says (Ezekiel 18:32). Humanity was created for life, not for death (Genesis 1:28). For us, death is a personal tragedy, but for God, death is a cosmic tragedy—and one that His love for us would not let stand. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25).
Christ Jesus never denied or avoided death. When prophesying His own death, Jesus says again and again, “It is necessary.” Despite His agony unto death in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37-44), Jesus perfectly submits to His death when He must suffer it according to the Father’s will. On Good Friday, Christ dies so “that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The devil’s kingdom, built on our fear of death, is trampled into dust. In Christ’s death, the devil’s head is crushed (Genesis 3:15).
But God proves His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). On the cross, Christ shed His holy blood, the lifeblood so pure that it eats away and dissolves every spot of sin. In His holy death, Christ puts impious death to death so that the dead must come back to life (Matthew 27:52-53). How much more then does His Easter resurrection annihilate death by swallowing it up in eternal victory! Christ has put impious death to open shame, and so sanctified and purified it that it now is nothing less than our entrance into His loving arms in life everlasting.
In love for you, Christ “has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep….For as in Adam they all die, so also in Christ they all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 22). He went into the grave before you and so sanctified your own grave, and then shattered your death’s chains by rising from the dead. In your Baptism, you even now partake of everlasting life as your promised inheritance: “Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). In the face of impious death, we confess along with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68), and “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Rev. Jacob Kempfert