I currently work for a parish that calls all of its services for the departed “A Celebration of the Life of X”. The same was true of my last parish. There have been plenty who have posted on what a terrible mistake that sort of language is, but today it is the death of Fred Phelps that has reminded me of what a mistake that language is.
When we die, it is not our life that allows us to celebrate, but the Resurrection of Jesus, i.e. his life. We have no right to such a celebration of our own life. When we gather for the burial of the dead, we do so “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life” (BCP, 501). That hope does not come from our worthiness, but from the promise made through Christ’s Resurrection.
As Paul wrote,
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8)
Fred Phelps, to my mind, was a miserable sinner. So am I. The burial liturgy works just as well for him as it does for me. That is because it is not rooted is his goodness or mine, but rather the goodness of a God who has won victory over Death. Our burial liturgy makes no sense if any of it depends upon the goodness of the person being buried.
I could not, nor could most Christians, celebrate the life of Fred Phelps. However, I (and most priests I know) would still bury him. In that burial service, I’d say the same thing I would say in any other:
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming (BCP, 499).