“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. “ Ecclesiastes 7:2
As a few of us solemnly gathered around the shrouded body of a church member who had just tragically taken his own life, I was asked, “Did you drive here in your van?” I thought it was an odd question considering the circumstances. Less than an hour later, I found myself driving that same van with a corpse wrapped in my old car blanket and a grieving widow sitting beside me in the front seat, numbly holding her husband’s death certificate. This unusual scenario launched my initiation into performing my first funeral in Japan.
My immediate education began with assisting the undertaker in preparing the deceased’s body for burial. The body had to be washed, dressed and the face even shaved as hair continues to grow for a while following death. Rigor mortis had already set in, which proved to be a problem as the casket was a bit small, requiring us to manipulate the limbs to ensure the body would fit. While my attention was briefly diverted by a few important phone calls, a well-meaning Buddhist neighbor had convinced the deceased’s wife, who was also a Christian, to surround her husband’s body with things that he would like to enjoy in the afterlife. Even though I was inexperienced in such matters, this arrangement didn’t seem right. A quick phone call to a local Japanese pastor confirmed my suspicions and gave me the confidence to persuade them to remove such objectionable items.
The next few days were a blur accompanied by minimal sleep as I undertook a crash course in Japanese funeral protocol and vocabulary, made countless funeral arrangements, prepared messages, and comforted grieving family and church members. As a young and inexperienced missionary, I felt completely overwhelmed by the situation. While struggling to pull my thoughts together for a message that would somehow convey hope in the face of so much loss, I was led to a previously overlooked verse in the Bible where Solomon advises: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)
I lived in the house of mourning during those dark, distressing days. I mourned the loss of a member of my church plant who was under my care. I mourned my inadequacies as a missionary. I mourned my inability to comfort family and church members. I mourned my own sinfulness. If granted a choice, I would have greatly preferred to linger in the house of feasting, but that was not an option.
We live our lives trying to ignore the inevitability of death and its cold reality. We dress it up when forced to confront it at funerals. In our daily lives, we do our best to minimalize death and pretend it isn’t there, always waiting for us unseen around the corner. Some go out of their way to redefine death and somehow tame it with new age sentiment and terminology. But Solomon saw immense value in visiting the house of mourning in contrast to the house of feasting. For it is only when we come within proximity of death that we are able to gain a healthy perspective of eternity. In such moments, we are also given a glimpse of God’s heavenly purpose in whatever days He has allotted for us. While I reluctantly resided in the house of mourning, I was able to feast on who God is, what He has done, and most important of all, what He will someday do.