Funerals – What can you say?

Written a couple of weeks ago the night after a funeral.  The church is usually informed that a member has died the day of their death, and a pastor is sent, that day or the next, to the family’s home in the middle of their turmoil and grief and family issues.  In the next few days we field calls from different family members with different experiences, memories and emotional agendas, possibly make more visits, and prepare the service and our message.  I’m usually so emotionally exhausted the night after a funeral that I sleep it off for 9-10 hours.  This was written on just such a night.

I did a funeral today for a man in his 40’s, the father of an 8-year-old girl. Funerals are one of the toughest parts of my job as a pastor.  I always feel guilty saying that, as if the stress and struggle of the funeral for me today was anything in comparison to what the man’s wife or daughter are going through.  But funerals are hard in different ways for everyone involved. 

Oddly enough, funerals are not hard because I’m uncomfortable with the topic of death.  That’s actually not a problem for me.  As a biologist, I’m pretty pragmatic about the whole life/death cycle.  Instead, I struggle in the preparation for the funeral because I want to find just the right words to comfort the family and others who are grieving.  The words spoken at a funeral can do a lot to put a family on a path towards healing. Conversely, they can do a lot to cause them pain, even if that’s not the intended effect. 

At my own grandmother’s funeral the pastor went on and on about how much pain she had been in towards the end of her fight with bone cancer and how good it was that her suffering had ended. I’m sure he was deeply affected by having seen this very faithful woman suffer so much, but I’ll never forget my father’s comment, spouted in anger after the service: “I’ll never forgive that pastor for dwelling on her pain like that!” It was so hard for my dad to be reminded about his mom’s struggle on the day he was hoping to move on to focus on her relief.

So I always feel quite a bit of pressure to say the right things.  It gets even trickier when I’m not able to say glowing things about the person’s faith in God and our assurance that they are in the arms of Jesus at this very moment. I don’t want to give false assurances. I want to be plain about how fleeting life is and how it magnifies our need for God’s grace and a hope for a life beyond this one. But I’m not going to make promises that someone is with Jesus when their life showed no visible signs of knowing or following Him.  I’m not the kind of pastor that brings that sort of thing up, dangling hell in front of a grieving family to try to get their ticket to heaven punched out of fear, but it’s a careful dance, knowing how much to say and how much not to say.

One of the best things I feel I can do at a funeral is to bring out the positive and wonderful parts of someone’s character (that’s easier with some than others!) and then point back to God as the source of those characteristics.  If every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17), then the gifts given to and through this person are no exception. 

Family resemblance is sometimes described as “spit-n-image” here in Texas, as in: “That boy is the spit ‘n image of his dad!”  But that phrase originally had so much more power, before being shortened from its original “spirit and image.” What it was meant to describe in the beginning was the way someone resembled someone on the inside (spirit) and outside (image).  I talk about resemblances within the family in front of me, and then I talk about how we’re created in the image of God, and how our positive characteristics are simply reflections of his Spirit and image in our lives.  The closer we grow to God, the more we resemble Him. The more recognizable we are as His children.

The man whose funeral I presided over today loved to do big generous things for others.  He would donate things out of his own pocket and let people believe they came from his company.  He would do things for his mother-in-law and let her assume that his wife was the one behind the blessing.  He was extravagant with his little daughter, treating her to a weekly breakfast out to eat with Daddy, a scavanger hunt for her Christmas present, a luxury suite while they were on family vacation, and a million little things that she will remember as his gifts to her.  Since his cancer diagnosis he even shared the research he did about cancer with other patients in online forums, trying to help them get the best treatment possible. He sometimes encountered other patients who couldn’t afford the same kind of treatment he could pay for.  At least once that his wife knows of (there are probably more) he sent them the money so they could receive treatment even though this was an incurable form of cancer.

This man was extravagant and understated at the same time. He loved doing big things… anonymously.  I would call that a reflection of the Spirit and image of our generous and invisible God.  The One who blesses without asking for anything in return, who creates for the sake of beauty, who loves without condition and forgives without looking back. 

How about you? What’s the most helpful or most damaging thing you’ve heard said at a funeral?

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