Yogi Berra (famous baseball player) once said, "If you don't go to someone else's funeral then they won't go to yours." I've been trying to convince my church leaders that funerals are still relevant for Christians. Most of us go to the visitation, but attendance at funerals is way down. The last two funerals I've done of church members, only one other (non-family) member showed up at one, and only two members showed up at the other. We need to talk.
So, a few gentle musings about funerals:
I've presided at over 600 of them, including the funerals for both of my grandmothers. People often say to me, "Oh! It must be so hard to do a funeral for people you know." Other people will say, "Oh! It must be so hard to do funerals for people you don't know." But it's actually not too hard, as long as I am at peace in my own mind that I can't do the three things people most want: 1) raise the dead, 2) make sense of death, or 3) explain what God was thinking.
But I can do the next three best things: 1) be kind to everyone who shows up, 2) find something interesting to say about the deceased, and 3) explain what God is feeling and promising.
I presided at my first funeral when I was 19. A 45-year-old alcoholic had died and his parents were regular members of my church, the church I'd been assigned to just six days earlier. So, they asked if I'd do the funeral. I said yes without thinking.
Perhaps I shouldn't give answers without thinking. I had only attended one funeral in my whole life up to that point: my grandfather's. His was an Easter Season church funeral presided over by a district superintendent and attended by dozens of clergy...who sang the hymns with spirit and power. But this funeral would be in a dreary funeral home in the deep freeze of a chilly January with sappy music from a record player and a college sophomore presiding (me,) who had never even attended a funeral in a funeral parlor.
I went to the funeral home the day before, for the visitation. There was a vicious snow storm that day and hardly anyone else showed up. I stayed for the entire five hours of the visitation, not knowing what else to do. But it gave me a good chance to meet the two old women who owned and operated the funeral home. (Everyone in my life seemed old at that time.) They took pity on me and gave me some instructions and pointers.
I didn't tell them it was my first funeral. But they must have guessed by the way I was dressed. In those days, the only suit I owned was a lime-green leisure suit. Even I knew that I'd need to go with some other ensemble for the funeral. I opted for my deceased grandfather's hand me down checkered brown jacket. There used to be matching trousers, but they evidently bit the dust sometime before I was born. I'm not sure what trousers I choose to go with the jacket that day, but have mercy on me...I was only in college...and it WAS the 1970s.
It would be five more years before I would ever be taught (in seminary) how to conduct a "proper theological" funeral. But by that time I had already worked out my own style and didn't see a need to change for some old professor. (Everyone was still seeming old to me while I was in seminary.) My style was part my own inner compassion and curiosity, part traditional liturgy, and part 'pleasing the family.' Again, it's not my role to raise the dead; I'm only there to exemplify and articulate God's love for everyone: the living and the dead.
Funerals are a time to give thanks for the life of the deceased, pray for the survivors, and absorb the words and music of Christian faith (particularly words about Jesus' resurrection.) It has always been important for me to give thanks for the life of the deceased with specifics rather than generalities. The longer a person has lived and the more that a person has risked in life, the more interesting it is for everyone in attendance in the funeral...and the more we can give thanks to God. On the other hand, more a person sits around watching TV (or playing video games) the less there is to say in the eulogy.
Note to everyone still living: do your eulogist a favor, don't be a couch potato. Take some risks. Keep growing. Shake things up a little...all life long.
I do my homework when preparing for a funeral. It doesn't matter all that much whether I knew the person ahead of time or not. There are plenty of people who did. And when I talk to family, friends, and acquaintances, I usually can glean a wealth of material. After all, we experience each other in collages of vignettes, images, insights, and sagas. Sometimes we see a theme running through a person's life. Sometimes we see irony, maturing, contradictions, and paradoxes. Sometimes we see the gifts of God on display in a person's life. Sometimes our faith is strained to detect
any evidence of God's grace. It all makes for fascinating theology and "funeral material."
For Christians, a funeral is more important than a visitation because a visitation is basically respectful chit-chat. A funeral is where we bring God into the picture...and resurrection...and prayer...and song...and the Holy Spirit. We dare not let a death occur among our faith community without blessing everyone with the full treasures of church tradition.
I don't believe that the funeral is the place to hammer people with God or with religion. My friends in Urbana who run the Renner-Wicoff Funeral Home, next to the church I used to serve, often joked about me. Every time a family came in and said, "We don't know any ministers, so please find us one...but make sure it is someone who isn't too religious..." they would laugh and say, "We have just the guy for you!" Then they'd call
me. That reputation made me feel good about myself. I have always hoped that I could convey to others plenty of the grace and hope and comfort of Jesus...minus the manipulation and sectarian arrogance of organized religion. The Christian funeral is a key test of that.
Funerals are more likely to contain humor than weddings, which is good, because we need some comic relief. There was the family who tried to skimp on money and bought too small a coffin. And as I looked down on the corpse, the irreverent thought occurred to me that on the day of resurrection the Lord is going to need a crowbar to get that big papa loose and out of his casket.
There was the deceased who wrote instruction ahead of time that the pastor was to recite the names all the rotten family members he'd outlived...in the style of a sports announcer declaring a "winner."
There was the woman who went to the nursing home, loaded up her newly deceased mother's furniture body in a rented U-Haul, hoisted the body on top of it all, (not embalmed,) illegally crossed two state borders, and had me "on hold" while she shopped around for the cheapest funeral home in town.
There was the time the organist had to borrow a stranger's glasses to see the hymnal. (It didn't help!)
And there was the time two macho motor cycle "buddies" decided to give the funeral procession an escort for the 20-mile trip to the cemetery. They got mad at the cars that wouldn't pull off the road in respect, so from Urbana to Mansfield, they simply buzzed ahead of the process and ran them off the road. I kept waiting for the police to stop the whole funeral procession. And more.
But in the end there is this: only love. We can speak in the tongues of angels, but if we have not love...and show not love...we are only noise. So...Shsh. And think about how much more love we can show in times of death when we show up at the funeral...and thus bring God into our caring. - -Mike