Funerals

As a pastor, I have officiated at a lot of funerals. In addition, as a member of our community’s suicide outreach and support team, I have attended a lot of funerals. Add to that number the usual amount of funerals of family members and friends and for a guy my age, I have been to a lot of funerals. When you go to a lot of funerals, it is difficult not to compare what you have experienced. Each funeral, however, is a completely unique experience for those who were closest to the deceased. Each experience of grief is individual and unique. The funeral service is designed to ease some of that personal grief by reminding those who grieve that they are not alone and that their grief has an impact on a wider community. In a funeral we gather to give our support to those most affected while expressing publicly our own sense of loss and sorrow.

It is a tricky process to find the right words to say at a funeral. As an officiant, you know that different people will be at different stages of their grief. Different people will have different connections to the deceased. Some people want to speak of their grief. Others prefer to remain silent. In each funeral, I try to make connections with the scriptures and traditions of our people. In times of crisis it is especially important to be reminded that ours isn’t the first generation to have faced loss and grief. We are not alone in the span of history, but rather are the inheritors of generations of faithful people who have sought meaning and understanding in the midst of life and death. I also strive to make each funeral unique, personal and find words that tell at least part of the story of the life we have come to celebrate. And although I think the word “celebrate” is overused in contemporary funerals, it is important to express gratitude in a funeral. Each life is a unique gift of God and even though it hurts to have to say good bye, none of us would wish that we had never known the one who has died. I also find that in most cases it helps to use language that is frank and direct. People know that a death has occurred. Using euphemisms such as “passed on” sometimes are a bit misleading, almost as if we are uncomfortable speaking the truth. When I use direct and frank language, I give mourners permission to themselves use similar language.

Because I attend more funerals that occur following suicides than an average people, I have witnessed all kinds of language in reference to suicide. I’ve attended funerals where everyone in the room is aware of the means of death, and still the word suicide is never spoken. I am aware that denial is one way of coping with sudden and traumatic loss and often it is a natural part of the grieving process, but it isn’t helped by a kind of social and corporate denial. The truth is that we will never know the exact intentions of the person who has died. We can not know his or her state of mind at the moment of death. On the other hand, calling a suicide a “tragic accident” usually does not help the family. It would be more accurate to say that the victim died of a fatal mental illness. The failure to use the word “suicide” has left grieving people believing that talk of suicide is not welcome in the church.

I make a point of publicizing the Survivors of Suicide Support Group that meets at our church in official church publications in part, to make sure that those who have lost a loved one to suicide know that this is a safe place to talk about their loss.

Still, as a professional who officiates at funerals as well as one who attends funerals with other officiants, I am careful not to criticize of attack others. I often have criticisms about choices of words or other elements in services, but I try my best to keep those comments to myself. A loss and the associated grief is an opportunity for a family to draw closer to the community of the church and I want to promote that closeness, not provide some roadblock to that relationship. Beyond that, I own a certain degree of professional courtesy to my colleagues. I know how hard it is to be a pastor and I know how challenging it is to find the right words. If, on occasion, a pastor doesn’t get it right it is simply a sign of the simple fact that ours is a human institution and we humans are prone to failure from time to time. Ours also is an institution of forgiveness, and we are called to continually practice forgiveness for others and for ourselves.

Still, there have been times when I have had to bite my tongue, figuratively if not literally. There are thoughts that I choose to keep to myself. Part of the problem is that there is a great deal of variation in the level of preparation and equipping for ministry in different parts of the church. Some of us have gone through intense periods of study and academic preparation as well as supervised internships and close supervision. Others are practically self-appointed and head into the pastors ministry without having read the history and traditions of the church, studied psychology and contemporary thought, or become familiar with the resources that are available to pastors. It is not at all common for me to present a colleague with a set of guidelines for pastors who officiate at funerals where death was the result of suicide and that colleague was completely ignorant that such guidelines exist. As we educate ourselves, we also must continue to educate our colleagues as well.

Attending funerals at which others officiate has helped me become a better pastor for the people that I serve. Observing is a good way to learn. In fact, I think I would recommend that all ministers regularly worship as congregants as well as officiants. The change in perspective is very valuable.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!