Here is the fact: We don't quite know what to do about death.
A couple of weeks ago a horrific tragedy occurred in the lives of some people I know up in Oregon. They lost their 18-month old daughter in a tractor accident. While I did not know the family well, the accident hit me really hard. It also brought out to me the reality that we as human beings waver between two extremes when it comes to dealing with death.
The first extreme is to avoid death. If I am honest, I practiced this in some ways. When I got the news (via facebook) I prayed for the family, but I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone. My wife and I didn't talk about it until a couple days later when she got the news. It was as if talking about it would make it more real. Talking about it brought the tragic nature of the event home in a way that made me really uncomfortable.
Many of us are similarly uncomfortable with death. We're afraid of it. We want to keep it as far away from us as possible. We avoid funerals. We respond with jokes when serious subjects come up. We do all that we can to disguise the signs of aging. Our fear drives us to denial and renders us incapable of dealing with the reality of death.
The second extreme is to sanitize death. We do all that we can to lessen the horror of death. We say things like, "She's still with us in spirit," and "Death is just a passage to the next life." We say that there is no reason to mourn at funerals; just celebrate the person who has moved on.
Neither of these extremes reflect the Christian perspective. Death should be neither avoided nor sanitized. It shouldn't be sanitized because it is a real enemy. It shouldn't be avoided because it is a defeated enemy.
In 1 Thessalonians 4 the Apostle Paul says that believers should not grieve as those who have no hope. He doesn't say that we shouldn't grieve. We should. Death is terrible. It separates us from love ones. And enough of the silliness of saying that they are still with us. They aren't. Death is horrible and grief is appropriate. Jesus certainly thought so; he wept and groaned with grief at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11). When we stand over the casket of a child (or the casket of anyone), we should hate death. We should sense the horror of it and be repulsed and grieved. But the grief is not that of an irretrievable loss. It is not a grief without consolation.
And, for the record, the hope is better than we give it credit for. In that passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul doesn't say that we can grieve hopefully because our loved ones are in a better place. He says that we can grieve hopefully because they will be raised. There will be a reunion. Life will win out over death for those who have embraced Jesus and his gift of life.
Death is a defeated enemy because of the resurrection of Jesus. But it still remains an enemy. Its sting in removed because it does not have the final word. But its presence still brings bitter grief as we experience separation from people we love.
Death is an enemy worth hating. When we grieve we appropriately demonstrate this. But we must never forget that death is a defeated enemy. When we have hope for resurrection and reunion, we appropriately demonstrate this.