Saturday, August 04, 2007

Funerals

I appreciate Greg at The Parish for many reasons, the #1 reason probably being how uncomfortable and self-conscious he makes me at times. Here's part of a recent post of his concerning funerals:

Let me say that funerals are hard to do. I did several when I was a pastor, and in no case was the deceased of an age where people think, "He lived a good, long life." The worst was an infant who died in the womb during the 32nd week of pregnancy. Even if you know the people involved, it's difficult to find anything worthwhile to say. I should also say that the funeral industry does not help the plight of preachers, as they bring a certain plastic tackiness to the whole affair: practiced sympathy, grating muzak, faux elegance, and dark suits...always the dark suits (folks, it's in the mid-90's outside. maybe go with the safari outfits and pith helmets.). The unfortunate minister, who if she knows the family, has already spent several hours with the bereaved trying not to feel like there ought to be something hopeful or consoling she can say, walks into this artificial environment where everyone just hopes her homily is short. If you don't know the person, and even if you do, you have to hope you don't screw up someone's name in the obituary. Add to that the feeling that you need to strike just the right balance of somberness and ease, and you have a very difficult one-hour affair. Having said that, I have met ministers who are very good at funerals; it can be done well. The important things are to eliminate cliches, speak truthfully and tactfully, and to genuinely care about the bereaved. (It helps if you cared about the deceased as well.)


With two exceptions, I've mainly officiated at "lived a good long life" funerals. The other two were quite surprising and tragic circumstances, and I like to think that I addressed those circumstances. At the same time, the only feedback that I ever really get is a few pats on the back and some "that was lovely"-type comments. And they never last longer than 45 minutes, and that's if they're held at the church. Funerals I've conducted at funeral homes don't go past 15, I think.

But the main point that Greg raises has to do with both addressing the reality of the situation while being very aware of the non-Christians in the room. This is no easy task. I guess I'm more orthodox in the sense that I do feel the need to speak a word of hope and, as a pastor, a word of hope that is particularly Christian. Greg rightly points out that one can easily lapse into codewords and cliches on this point, and he mentions some of the common ones. One of my frequently-used tactics to this effect is pulling examples from the decedent's life and saying something about the peace of Christ as witnessed through them.

At the same time, I think that we pastor types should use Ecclesiastes 3 more often, especially the line that goes, "there's a time to speak and a time to be silent." This was a very helpful text for one woman's death that came out of nowhere, and for a roomful of people who'd felt punched in the stomach by the whole situation. The tendency here may be to try to prattle on some semblance of an explanation for why it happened or to give a few excuses on God's behalf, depending on your theology. It was better, I said that day, to be silent about the whole thing and to mourn instead, hoping one day that a time to dance might present itself once again. For me it felt like one of the most genuine and honest funeral reflections that I've ever given. It's not that others were less so, but the circumstances called for a different sort of honesty...an honesty centered around cluelessness rather than faith. Sometimes cluelessness is more helpful.

I can't say that I always avoid cliches. Resurrection is a common theme for me, so I'm sure that out there more than once someone has said, "here it goes again." If words could somehow be more than they are for people who can only hear them that way (through no fault of their own), I'd latch on to that. In the meantime, I strive to present this aspect of faith as genuinely as I can as the center of our hope that death has no final claim on us; rather it is God as our Creator who has that claim.

So I'll try to do that again this morning. It won't be perfect. It never is. I always hope and pray that Someone Else cleans up my mess that way.

2 comments:

David Oliver Kling said...

Interesting topic!

I've conducted five funerals and they were all very different. The last one was for a woman who was very much into Eastern forms of spirituality, but the family claimed she was nominally Christian. Ultimately, all Christian references were taken out of the memorial service at the request of the family and I referenced Buddhist and Hindu funeral prayers as part of the spiritual component of the service.

When I conducted a funeral service for my grandfather my aunts (whom I had not seen in 20+ years) asked for a Christian funeral service with grave site service, which I did but focused the service on forgiveness and reconciliation -- since I knew my aunts had some issues with their father. It went extremely well.

What I have found is that it is best to put together a funeral/memorial service that meets the needs of the suffering than my own. That has been my rule of thumb, and thus far I think I've helped the family get over their grief.

P.o.C. said...

Hi David. Thanks for stopping.

I should add a clarification that I've not yet encountered the arrangement of a funeral where the person was expressly non-Christian (and even the term "Christian" may be relative, whether it was counted simply as church membership, cultural inertia, etc.). But your last paragraph hits the nail on the head re: meeting the needs of the suffering. I'd have little trouble adjusting to the needs of those professing a different faith or no faith.