Why is it important to remember the dead? We remember the dead for many reasons, as doing so unearths lessons from their lives to guide us in the present.
In the 1970s, forgetting the dead caused one nation to kill one fourth of its living.
It was the year 1975 in Cambodia. The Communist Khmer Rouge army, led by Pol Pot, emerged victorious in the nation’s civil war. Pot’s regime abolished money and private property and forced the nation into a collectivist, agrarian mold. They denounced industrial and educational influences as capitalist and Western. They burned books, shut down universities and hospitals, and purged Cambodia of educated people, including lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers, and clergy. They were clearing the way for a new beginning.
The year may have begun for Cambodians as 1975. After the takeover, the Khmer Rouge declared it “Year Zero,” a fresh start and a new shot at utopia.
“The Khmer Rouge declared it ‘Year Zero,’ a fresh start and a new shot at utopia.”
Except that none of this was new. The utopian ideals, the collectivist takeovers, the mass killings of dissenters had all happened before, for example, in Russia and China. To make these changes feel new and fresh, the Communists had to kill off the educated people who knew how this had played out in the past. While the Khmer Rouge held power between 1975 and 1979, roughly one quarter of the population (up to two million of eight million) were killed, whether executed in the prisons and killing fields, starved to death from human-caused famine, or killed off by diseases without medical care.
Year Zero doesn’t actually exist. And historical amnesia can be fatal.
Setting Aside Time to Remember the Dead
Healthy societies will take time to remember the dead. Have you ever paused to consider how many of our federal holidays encourage us to remember dead people?
For example, in Canada where I (Bobby) grew up, we remember Queen Victoria who died in 1901 (Victoria Day), and we honor those who have served in the Canadian armed forces in Remembrance Day, many of whom have died. In the United States, Memorial Day honors those who died in active military service. Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors the legacy of a slain civil rights leader. Presidents’ Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day—all of these include deceased people among those who are honored. Other nations also have holidays set apart to remember their fallen soldiers and honor their ancestors.
“Holiday” means “holy day.” As Christians, we ought to ask what is holy and right about remembering the dead. As we look through the Bible, we find ten reasons Christians do well to set aside time to remember the dead.
1. Remember the dead to mourn them.
Abraham mourned the loss of his wife Sarah (Gen. 23:2). Jacob mourned Joseph, the favored son he thought he had lost (Gen. 37:34). After Jacob and Joseph reunited briefly at the end of Jacob’s life, Jacob died and Joseph mourned him for a seven-day period (Gen. 50:10). The Israelite community mourned Moses’ brother Aaron’s death for thirty days (Num. 20:29), as they did for Moses when he died (Deut. 34:8). When King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle, David and his men tore their clothes, wept, and fasted (2 Sam. 1:11-12). David bitterly mourned the death of the son who had risen up to overthrow him (2 Sam. 19:1-2).
King Josiah was a godly king whose untimely death in battle shocked everyone. His death was not only mourned by his entire nation (“all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for him”), but the prophet “Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah, and to this day all the male and female singers commemorate Josiah in the laments” (2 Chron. 35:24-25).
As Ecclesiastes 3:4 put it, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
2. Remember the dead to honor them.
Famous people throughout history have been honored in various ways after death. Here are just a couple examples: In Buddhism, domed monuments (“stupas”) have been set up as burial sites, each with deposits of the Buddha’s ashes. In the Baha’i faith, founder Baha’u’llah was buried in a house (the Shrine of Baha’u’llah), with “paradise gardens” planted on the grounds.
Closer to home, I (Bobby) recently visited the historic home of Alvin York in Tennessee. York was memorialized in the 1941 movie Sergeant York. He received the Medal of Honor in World War I for leading an attack on a German machine position, killing 25 enemy soldiers, capturing 132 prisoners, and stopping 35 machine gun operations that were mowing down Allied soldiers.
York’s story is a narrative that I find personally meaningful in my life.
I have struggled with whether or not a Christian should kill people in war. In recent years, I have become a supporter of military participation for a Christian, but only if it is a just war and it is fought by just means. In a similar fashion, York was drafted just after becoming a devout Christian. He wasn’t sure that God wanted him to take up arms. He even stated on his draft papers that he did not want to fight. Through the mandatory draft, he felt he had no choice but to go over to Europe.
He got over to France, and after wrestling with God in prayer, he came to the conclusion that the war was a just cause. Once he satisfied his conscience, he gave himself to using his rifle to stop the Germans. His heroic actions in a key battle saved many lives, including German lives (because he captured and did not kill so many of them). His convictions came to him only after honest wrestling with how to live out his faith as a soldier.
Learning his story and why he has been honored helps me with my own story.
“Throughout biblical history, we see snapshots of honoring and remembering famous dead people.”
Throughout biblical history, we see snapshots of honoring and remembering famous dead people. The Jews leaving slavery in Egypt for the promised land remembered to take Joseph’s bones and bury them in the promised land (Joshua 24:32). King David recovered the bones of Saul and Jonathan to give them a proper burial in their ancestral tomb (2 Samuel 21:12-14). By the first century, there was apparently a tradition of honoring saintly people of old by building and decorating their tombs: “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous” (Matt. 23:29).
One caution though: It is possible to pretend to honor the dead with celebrations without actually honoring them with our lifestyle decisions, which is the situation Jesus was speaking into in the verse just quoted.
3. Remember the dead to know your story.
There are roughly 25 genealogical lists of people in the Bible (i.e., Person A begat Person B, etc.). We find genealogies in the first book of the Old Testament (Genesis) and the first book of the New Testament (Matthew) and all in between. We find genealogies leading from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5), from Adam’s son Shem to Abram (Genesis 11:10-32), from Abram to Jesus (Matthew 1:1-16), and from Adam to Jesus (Luke 3:23-38). The first eight chapters of 1 Chronicles are a massive genealogy tracing Jewish ancestry back to Adam for the post-exilic Jews.
Many of us are drawn to our own genealogies because they help us to make sense of our place in the storyline of our ancestors. It helps us to understand where our people came from and where we are going. As I (Bobby) have moved into my sixties, I am finding myself more conscious of my ancestors and my descendants. Recently I learned, from my father, about his grandfather and the line of Harringtons who came from Ireland to Ontario, Canada, during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. The more that I have learned about my father’s heritage, the more I have come to understand him. I am also aware of what my ancestors learned that I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren: the importance of family, family traditions, and a strong work ethic.
“I am aware of what my ancestors learned that I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren: the importance of family, family traditions, and a strong work ethic.”
In a similar way, genealogies helped the people in the Bible to learn and remember their own story. Genealogies ground our identities in history.
4. Remember the dead to impart faithfulness.
Remembering and retelling the stories of now-dead people was a major way the Israelites passed along stories of God’s faithfulness. The generation entering the promised land, after the initial Exodus generation had passed, needed to be reminded of these stories: “Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his mighty hand, his outstretched arm” (Deut. 11:2). The implication: Tell the next generation stories of people who have since died in order to underscore God’s faithfulness through all generations.
Reminding each other of biblical stories of God’s faithfulness during difficult times is so helpful in encouraging faithfulness in each other. This is one of the reasons we are given these stories in the first place. When we read the story of Joseph in the first book of the Bible (Genesis), we see how God used even bad things, over many years, for good. Learning his story can be very helpful especially when people do bad things to us. Joseph was able to tell his brothers that God was still with him amid the evil things they did to him. It is helpful to remember and reflect upon his statement to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”
Joseph’s story and other stories of now-dead people help us to be faithful to God when life is tough. God can use our difficulties for our good. In fact, Scripture promises that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
5. Remember the dead to gain wisdom.
Most of the wisest people you’ll ever read are dead. All the human authors the Holy Spirit inspired to write Scripture are dead. Remembering dead people, what they said, and how they lived can be a succession of master classes on wisdom.
Church history can be helpful here too. The perseverance of Athanasius in the AD 300s and how he stood up against so many church leaders for what was true gives us insight when we face similar challenges today. Although he felt that the “whole world was against him,” he ended up changing Christian history by his persistent courage.
“Remembering dead people, what they said, and how they lived can be a succession of master classes on wisdom.”
Or take the wisdom of Alexander Campbell, a Christian who lived in the 1800s and preached a unified Christianity amid sectarian disputes. He constantly urged his followers to pay attention to what the Bible teaches, including its words and their meanings. “We prefer to refer to Bible things, by Bible words,” he said, “for if the word is not in the Bible, the concept behind the word may not be in the Bible either.” Thoughtful Christians keep coming back to his wise advice on grounding our beliefs in the teachings of Scripture.
6. Remember the dead to avoid mistakes.
As Shakespeare’s Hamlet lay dying, he told his friend Horatio, “In this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.” There are many dead people in the Bible whose stories are painful but helpful to tell. The Israelites entering the promised land needed to remember how their ancestors had provoked God to anger: “Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the Lord your God in the wilderness” (Deut. 9:7). After recounting Old Testament stories of rebellion and sexual immorality, the apostle Paul says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:11a).
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.”
There are also plenty of lessons we can learn from mistakes made by our own Christian ancestors. For example, in the Western world, Christians in academia allowed a seismic shift to take place from a culture which claimed Christianity to a culture today which largely repudiates Christianity. The shift can be seen in the trajectories of America’s oldest universities—Harvard, the College of William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, etc.—from explicitly Christian, often for the training up of Christian ministers, to the secular state of the university today. Things started well, with God-honoring commitments in these universities, but theological compromises led to where all that remains of these schools’ clear Christian commitment is a chapel building here or a forgotten motto there, what one article calls “a fossilized artifact of the college’s Christian past.”
We want to learn from the people who have gone before us so that we do not repeat their mistakes.
7. Remember the dead to seek justice.
Sometimes we need to remember the dead because of the injustice committed against them and the lingering effects on their descendants still living. Vengeance isn’t ours (Deut. 32:35). Yet it is our responsibility to “act justly” (Mic. 6:8). Working for justice can mean remembering the dead, as we take our cue from a God who cares about justice: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).
Enough righteous blood had been shed throughout biblical history that Jesus framed the Old Testament with two examples of it: “the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (Matt. 23:35).
8. Remember the dead to face mortality.
Remembering dead people reminds us we too will die, so we must live in light of our impending death. As Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.”
When we are young, especially if we’re living in first-world countries with good medical care, we too often subconsciously think of our death as an abstract thing and something far off, not anything to worry about now. But death is the destiny of everyone. Jesus and his gospel show us how to face mortality (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) and to live in a way that we are prepared for the final judgment (Hebrews 6:1-3; Acts 17:31-32; 24:25).
“Jesus and his gospel show us how to face mortality.”
When we truly believe that we too are going to die, it becomes a sober yet helpful reality for us. We determine that we want to be like those who have gone before us and prepared for their deaths. The reality of death becomes a north star of sorts, guiding how we live in the present.
9. Remember the dead to find encouragement.
The stories told in Hebrews 11 were of dead people who had remained faithful to God, holding fast to their conviction that God would remain faithful to them through whatever they faced. The author of Hebrews calls these people a great “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before, lived the faithful life, and now cheer us on toward faithfulness.
The apostle Paul faced death in a way that we both find very encouraging. We want to follow in his footsteps, as he looked at his life as a sacrificial offering to God (as a drink offering) and as a marathon race that would end with God’s reward:
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim. 4:6-8)
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Paul’s words are inspiring and motivating. We want to internalize these goals as our own when we think about both life and death. History records that Paul died shortly after penning the words of 2 Timothy 4. He gives us great perspective, especially when we face challenges.
We want to be like those who have gone before us and lived lives of faith. Their stories tell us that we too can stay faithful and even be joyful amid difficulties:
“Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:12)
10. Remember the death that gives us life.
Central to the Christian faith is remembering a very important death. Scripture teaches that death is one of our greatest enemies (1 Cor. 15:26). And 1 Corinthians 15:54-56 tells us that, by his own death, Jesus defeated this enemy. What Jesus accomplished in the cross and resurrection emboldened Paul to address death in almost a taunt:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin….But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:54-57)
The earliest Christians would meet every Sunday and commemorate Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation to God’s right hand as King. Like the earliest Christians, we too meet regularly to remind each other of the sacrificial death of the resurrected Jesus through physical symbols: the bread that signifies his broken body and the cup that signifies his shed blood on the cross. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said (Luke 22:19).
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
We call this regular rhythm of the Christian life “communion” (because we are communing with each other and with Jesus), the “Lord’s Supper” (because our Lord Jesus gave us this ritual to practice the night before he died), or the “Eucharist” (a word meaning to give thanks). Since Jesus did not stay dead, this is more than a memorial of a tragedy that once happened. It is also a foretaste of the heavenly meal, the “wedding supper,” we will share with Jesus and with each other when he returns.
Scripture teaches that death is everyone’s destiny, but Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation as King are everyone’s hope. The gospel is truly the key to understanding everyone’s ultimate end. Revelation 19:14-16 describes Jesus’ future return to the earth. It teaches us in apocalyptic language that “the armies of heaven are following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean,” and, ”On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’”
“Death is everyone’s destiny, but Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation as King are everyone’s hope.”
So, each Sunday, Christians gather, not just to remember his death. Just as importantly, we remember how he conquered death and will return someday to welcome us into everlasting life.
 These stories are narrated in Section 1 of Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of the American Story (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 43-84.
 Samuel Joeckel and Thomas Chesnes, “A Slippery Slope to Secularization? An Empirical Analysis of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:2 (2010): 177-196.