Funerals

Sometimes things we do have an impact on others that we don’t anticipate. Over the years, I have officiated at a lot of funerals. I put a lot of energy into carefully listening to grieving family members and providing a service that is personal, meaningful and that encourages looking at a bigger picture. I try to assist people as they move through grief. I am careful not to make false promises or to speak of grief in generalities. I know that the funeral is not about me, so I try not to make my own grief and feelings the focus of attention. Many of the things that I do i regards to funereal services are the result of years of experience and practice. I try to never take a funeral service for granted.

But there are parts of the service that have become nearly routine. This is especially true of the committal service, which is generally held at the cemetery. Traditions regarding committal services vary. Some families prefer to have a private committal before the funeral service. Other families want the act of committal to be the final event in the day. Most of the time the wishes of the family can be respected. We’ve had a couple of instances when we are doing multiple funerals in the same day when things have to be adjusted to get the schedules to work out. And we often work with Black Hills National Cemetery, which is a busy place that allows only 30 minutes for each ceremony, including military honors, which means that our services have to be short and quick.

Because a committal service is generally 5 to 7 minutes long, there isn’t much room for a great deal of customization or variation. There is a greeting, some assurances of scripture, a prayer of committal, and a couple of minutes for the officiant to set the context of the event before saying a benediction. On at least two occasions, I have forgotten my book of worship or notes and have led committal services without any written notes. I have the prayers memorized. I know, in general, what I am going to say.

Yesterday, however, I was reminded once again how a few brief words can have a big impact. As is my usual, after the prayer of committal, I said something about burial being a difficult task for those who grieve because even though they know the casket does not contain all of the person they loved, they have loved that body dearly. It is also a natural thing to do. God doesn’t waste and the elements of our earthly bodies are used by God to bring forth new life. And it is the right thing to do. We do not choose random places for the burial of our dead, but are careful in our choices. The ground in which we bury them is consecrated - made sacred by our practices and by the others who have been buried there.

Yesterday, however, for some reason the words I said were particularly meaningful for the funeral director who was serving the family. He made comments at several points during the day about how touched he was by those words. I do not know his own personal circumstances. Perhaps there is grief in his life that is weighing on him. Perhaps the realities of small town life in which the people we serve are often our friends was weighing heavily on him. Perhaps he was remembering other times of committal he has witnessed. At any rate, I was able to minister to him in that moment.

Of course my attention had been focused on the family. I knew that the moment of walking away and leaving the casket in that place would be very difficult for the widow. I tried to have words that would help her with that task as she moved on to the next challenges of her day. I was watching the faces of the daughters of the deceased to gauge their reactions as well.

Funerals always have fascinating and complex dynamics. While we are serving a family that is at a particular point in their journey of grief, we are also serving a wider community of friends who are at various points in their grief as well. Friends may be just starting to come face-to-face with their grief. Others may have had several days to process their reactions. Not everyone is going to be touched by the same moments in the service. In a full funeral service we have many elements to assist us with reaching out to the community. Some will be moved by a song, others touched by a prayer, others reached by the eulogy. I select scriptures with care, knowing that they have the power to make connections with other generations and other experiences our people have had with grief. I always work from a full manuscript when leading a funeral service. It reduces the risk of misspeaking. A funeral is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the grieving family and I want to reduce the possibility of leaving a painful word or mistaken pronunciation. Of course, we are human and never perfect and mistakes can be made. I am not always accurate in reading from notes in the midst of the flow of the ceremony. Sometimes a glance at a grieving family member can cause an intense emotional reaction on my part. The congregation is supportive and forgiving and together we trust the Holy Spirit to work through our service to bring meaning to those in need.

I need to always remind myself that there is nothing routine about serving those who are grieving. Each family is different and deserves unique and special words. Each service is worthy of all of the preparation we can give. It doesn’t matter how many other funerals one has attended or how many at which I have officiated. This is a unique experience for the family and they deserve the best I can bring to it.

And sometimes just the right words are said at just the right moment and together we experience God’s grace.

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!