The extensive media coverage of the recent funeral of boxing legend Muhammad Ali got me thinking about the culture of memorial services in the West. Have you ever sat in a funeral and looked at a big flower arrangement at the front of the sanctuary, and thought, “Wow, that must be $300 worth of flowers — that money could have been used to feed a whole lot of hungry people?”
Congratulations. You think just like Judas.
In a telling episode in John 12, but recorded in all four gospels, Judas rebukes Lazarus’ sister Mary for pouring perfume on Jesus, telling her that the valuable substance could have been sold to provide alms. Jesus then rebuts this logic, saying that what Mary has done is a beautiful thing that will be long remembered.
But this isn’t about spikenard, it’s about funerals — and flowers. As a sometimes reader of obituaries (I’m getting older, OK?), I can’t help noticing the number of requests for donations to charity “in lieu of flowers.” Now, I don’t mean to say that anyone who has done this after losing a loved one has made a wrong decision. But do you see the connection between “in lieu of flowers” and the Gospel story noted above? Judas would be the biggest advocate today of those “in lieu of flowers” requests. Hey, that money could do some real good (or, in the case of Judas, line his pockets).
The thing is, flowers can also do some real good. This may have partly been Jesus’ point. Beauty, besides being one of God’s primary attributes, adds real value to life. Have you ever thought how much a beautiful design adds to the value of a house over a merely functional or thoughtlessly unattractive design? The answer varies, certainly, but it is always a big number.
Our lives are unaccountably enriched by beauty.
Numbers aside, our lives are unaccountably enriched by beauty. This is why people plant flowers in the spring, year after year, and why we visit national parks, mountains, lakes and rivers. We long for beauty. We crave it. Sometimes we even pay real money for it. And, like human touch, we wither without it.
There is always a pragmatic argument for not spending resources on beauty. I can’t tell you how many unfortunate conversations I’ve been part of as an architect where anything remotely decorative has been stripped off of a project to hit a particular budget number. I can tell you the number of times the reverse has happened: once. “Hey, can we add something here on the front to make it nicer?” Yeah, once.
But Jesus seemed to be OK with paying for beauty, even if it meant 300 denarii not being given to the poor. I don’t think that was only because Jesus considered Himself worthy of a huge sacrifice on the occasion of His impending death — though He certainly was. I think it’s because Jesus understood the value of a beautiful thing, as evidenced in His praise of His anointer Mary, as well as His backhanded endorsement of “whitewashed tombs” in Matthew 23:27.
Which brings us back to funerals. Flowers at a funeral are not a wasted expense. They are an offering of beauty at a time of great suffering and loss. When you think about it that way, what do grieving people really need? In part, something that reminds them that beauty still exists in the world. Sending flowers is a beautiful act, one that will be long remembered.