Please don’t let the title deter you. This is not a depressing post, no matter how darkly ominous the word “funeral” may sound to you. Going to a funeral is akin to going to the dentist for most of us. We shudder at even the mention of going, and yet, when it comes up you have to go. It’s an essential part of life, albeit a somber part.
Lately, my ministry has been saturated with funerals. It’s not always that way. Ministry, like life, happens in seasons. Last spring and summer, I swam through a sea of weddings. Since December, it seems I’ve had at least one funeral a week. (Oddly enough, there are several striking similarities between weddings and funerals that make both pretty arduous, but that’s banter for another post!)
I can’t say that I relish the thought of officiating a funeral. Yes, it’s a fundamentally necessary part of what I do as a pastor, and I’ve done many of them and could write a book about my experiences. But every time I get a call from a funeral home or a family that someone has died and needs my help for a funeral, I do a sigh and swallow. “Here we go again…”
It’s not death per se that I dread. I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ and have built my life on his resurrection. As a raised believer, I don’t fear death. It’s the grief of death that humbles me to the task. Grief is a mysteriously unpredictable creature that demands to fairly addressed with a solid reckoning. Grief cannot be tamed or sanitized.
Unfortunately, I have seen too many ill-fated attempts by well-wishing friends, family, and pastors to do just that. People either try to ignore the enormity of grief. Or in an attempt to be helpful, they toss flimsy Hallmark card religious sentiments at a bereaving person’s grief. “God needed another angel in heaven…” I wish I could permanently whitewash that out of our mouths.
People often remark to me that it must be so hard to lead a funeral, especially for someone I don’t know. Well, as you can expect, there is standard way I encounter any funeral situation. And then there are those variables I can’t reliably gauge that do make a funeral a difficult thing.
There are consistent things I rely on when working with a grieving family before and during a funeral. I have some standard liturgy and prayers I use. That provides a faithful foundation. They are time tested, and I make every effort to feel, own and personalize those familiar words when I use them.
When preaching, I gather as much information as I can about the deceased person and try to put all those pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle to summarize the character of that person’s life and the ways in which we can affirm the image of God in them. I do that so that their ones can hold onto both their beloved’s memory and God himself.
Emotionally, I have to walk a careful tightrope between engagement and detachment. I cannot own and embody everyone’s grief. That would render me drained and unable to be a shepherd. At the same time, I need to be present enough to understand and empathize with a family’s grief, as best as I can. Even then, as I try to walk this careful emotional tightrope, funerals do tire me more than other things.
And funerals do not leave me unaffected, either. That’s really the focal point of this post. Funerals have their own lessons to tell that have deepened my life and my ability to teach and preach about meaningful life in the here and now and in the world to come.
Lesson # 1: My legacy is what people will celebrate at my funeral. So live it now.
I’ve often told my congregations (and myself) that one day we will die, and someone, perhaps me, will have to step in and do your funeral. What will there be for me say? What would you want me to say? How well are you living that now?
This is not so much an attempt to pre-frame some grandiose legacy that people will write in their history books. This has more to do with values. What are my core, fundamental values? What are my priorities? How well do I embody them? If I were to die today, how enthusiastically would my wife, my children, my family, my friends, and my congregations describe those values? God help me from leaving people in a predicament of having to fabricate or exaggerate reality in order to describe my life in excellent terms.
Lesson #2: Funerals remind me of what’s truly important and that the great majority of things people fuss over have no ultimate importance.
I have never, ever celebrated someone’s 80-hour work week or the size of their home or the number of cars they have in the driveway. I don’t make much over their hobbies or toys. Somehow, “He was a guitar and gadget collector” rings really shallow compared to, “He was a loving, passionately dedicated father.”
Funerals have shown me what a sham the things people spend the majority of their waking hours pursuing really is. We fuss over money and possessions. We fuss over petty crap and petty people. But in the wake of death, all those things vanish. There is good reason why Jesus taught us to pursue treasure in heaven where vermin and rust will not destroy it and thieves won’t steal it (Matthew 6:20).
Lesson #3: There is a difference between grieving in faith vs. grieving in agnosticism.
I can’t quite capture the difference in words, but there is a marked difference between people of faith and people of no faith at a funeral. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone grieves. There are always tears and difficult goodbyes.
But people who don’t have faith seem to carry a shadow of fear and anxiety around death. Theirs is much more of a stabbing, leveling pain. There tends to be much more frantic tears and crying, even at the death of someone old, who has lived a long, meaningful life.
People of faith on the other hand, carry a serenity and sense of conviction with them in their grief. They mourn and cry, yes. But that is not because they feel betrayed, cheated, or attacked by death. Their grief is not panic stricken. Their grief has more to do with grappling with their own sense of loss, not that of their departed beloved.
Now, the only other people I have not mentioned specifically mentioned here are atheists. They indeed have a faith of their own: that there is no God. (I firmly believe this lens of reality devoid of God takes us much faith to hold as a belief in God.) They tend to behave much like people who trust in God because they have their own atheistic convictions about the nature of life and death. Interestingly enough, in my own times of grief, atheists have done as much to comfort me as believers. They just don’t mention God or prayer. But they can give hugs, offer their condolences, listen, and hold hands as well as anyone else. One special note: one of my atheist friends offered to say a prayer for me once, not because he believed in it, but because he knew it meant something to me. Talk about a selfless graciousness…
Lesson #4: Carpe diem, baby.
I recently conducted a funeral for a beautiful 25-year-old woman who had a 6-year-old son and a boyfriend she would probably end up marrying. One day, her son found her dead in her room. She was healthy. It was a freak death. We still don’t know the cause.
Like any other young person, she had plans, dreams, and aspirations. Suddenly all of that was gone. She left behind grieving parents, siblings, a boyfriend, and her son who actually had the courage to speak during the funeral. (I thought the funeral home chapel would fall to pieces after he spoke. It was a little while before I could break in again!)
Her life and death affirmed for me once again that tomorrow is not a guarantee. Life is terribly fragile. It begs the question, if I were die today, would there be anything left undone that I could be doing right now?
People joke about bucket lists, and those lists are good things to have, I suppose. The only problem is never knowing when that bucket is finally going to get kicked. So, either make the bucket list a bit shorter and more reasonable, or seize the day– carpe diem!– and do it now, most especially if it concerns a relationship with a loved one. I’d hate to die with a loved one questioning what they mean to me.
Lesson #5: For everyone’s sake, plan your funeral.
I know, I know… This sounds so morbid. But as a pastor, let me tell you that communicating your wishes to your loved ones about your funeral and burial is essential. It really does help your grieving family and those working with them. There have been to many times I have sat in guesswork with a family about what kinds of arrangements they want and what would best honor their loved one. Do everyone left behind a huge favor and demystify as much of this as possible.
One important caveat, however: Please, please remember that funerals are for the living. I always hate it when a deceased person willed that they didn’t want any viewings or a funeral of any kind or make outlandish requests their family could not afford. Think of those you might leave behind and their needs. One of those great needs is to properly say goodbye in a discreet, meaningful way with the support of others who love them and you.
That’s the best way to put all of this together: funerals are for the living, not the dead. They celebrate love and life, both of the deceased and of our own. And, done well, funerals put us in touch with the reality of death, not masking us from it, as so many try to do now. That reality is not depressing. In fact, a proper respect for the reality of death helps us live more meaningfully in life. And who wouldn’t want that?
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. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)