As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.
Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.
As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.
I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.
During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.
But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?
How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.
I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.
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)