It could have been any of a hundred funerals at which I have officiated. The eulogy was given by her son, and he did a good job of capturing her life. We laughed as he reminded us of those quirky habits and familiar expressions that had marked her life for as long as anyone could remember. We wiped our eyes as he told a story of her amazing kindness, a story that reminded us of the kindness so many of us had received from her.
But there was one part of this mother’s life that her son simply did not understand: her abiding faith in God and her living relationship with Jesus Christ. He may have mentioned something about the woman’s Bible Study she had attended for years, but as the eulogy ended the best he could do was say that “now she’s in a better place.”
I hear of it so often, but still the “better place” of the closing words of a funeral eulogy seems hardly worth living for.
Saints and sinners, paradigms of virtue and paradigms of vice, we send them off to a better place. Oddly, that better place seems often be a place where vice and virtue continue; grandma baking chocolate chip cookies for Saint Peter or Uncle Joe at the celestial pub lifting one more for old time’s sake.
English adjectives come in three flavors: positive, comparative, and superlative. The positive is the adjective in its vanilla state. Let’s pick good as our example; a good place, we’ll say. When that good place is seen to have more of what makes a place good than some other place, we say that it is a better place; good in the comparative. When that place surpasses all other places in what makes places good, we have discovered the best place; good in the superlative.
When the funeral speaker refers to the better place where the deceased must surely be, we usually understand him or her to mean that the recent suffering of disease and old age or maybe the sorrow of a life of sadness has come to an end. We want to imagine that whatever is next must be less painful. Grandma not only is enjoying baking those chocolate cookies, but the arthritis that bothered her so much for the last twenty years bothers her no more. Uncle Joe enjoys the company of his friends at the bar but does not get mean drunk as the night goes on. Yes, that would be better. We can all rest in the comfort of a better place.
Christian hope won’t settle for the comparative, however; it insists on the superlative. The hope to be declared at a Christian’s burial and lived in a Christian’s life is not of something better. It is hope for the best. It is hope not defined by wishful thinking, but by deep confidence.
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister __________, and we commit his/her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we say at the graveside.
Christian funerals are a celebration of the best that can be; not a vague thought about a better place, but sure and certain hope of the best place, the very presence of the Living God we had come to know through faith in Christ.
Bound for the best place, the Christian is free to invest body, mind, and soul in making this good earth a better place. Burundi is not the best place on the planet, but it is a better place for the work that John and Jessica Cropsey are doing there. San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, is not the best place in Guatemala, but it is a better place for the work that LPC and our mission partner, PLM, does there. Hunting Park is not the best neighborhood in Philadelphia – far from it, but it is a better neighborhood because of Hunting Park Christian Academy is situated right in the middle of it.
Langhorne is a good place to live, maybe not the best, but really good. It is made all the better for LPC having been on the corner of Gillam and Bellevue for 126 years. Langhorne is better for LPC people living there: worshiping Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day; kids and adults gathering around Scripture and praying for one another; cans of food shared by the ton and words of life spoken clearly and carefully in homes and offices and over a cup of coffee at our little coffee shop and the corner of Maple and Bellevue.
Bound for the best place, we make our good world a better place. That’s the grammar of Christian hope.