The importance of a funeral

One of life’s mysteries is the nature of time. We have our watches and calendars and other devices that seem to measure the passage of time, but none of them give an accurate measure of one of life’s most important numbers - the amount of time remaining before we die. I’s spent enough meaningful time with those whose medical diagnoses predict a statistical possibility that they would die in a very short amount of time to know that not everyone follows the course described by doctors. I’ve also been with families whose grief has come sooner than they thought and sooner than predicted by medical care givers. When I visit people who are hospitalized or receiving hospice treatment, I never know which visit will be the last one. I know that part of being a pastor is officiating at funerals, but I can’t predict which funeral will be the next one.

Part of being human is learning to live with the reality that we don’t really know when our time to die will come. We can claim to be ready and willing to accept our mortality, but exactly how we will react to the events that lead up to death is an unknown. I spend enough time in places of care and in contact with grieving families to know that death catches survivors buy surprise. Even when it is long anticipated the reality is different than the expectations. There are so many ways to die, that there is no accurate way of predicting.

And there is no single way of grieving when you lose a loved one. There are a few common behaviors and a few frequently asked questions, so I don’t go into a situation of meeting with grieving families totally unprepared. There are a few elements in funeral services that seem to help the family and the community grieve, but there are no absolutes.

Over the years, I have not only officiated at a lot of funerals, I also have attended a large number of funerals at which others have officiated. I’ve been at funerals that were well handled and well led and at other ones that were awkwardly led to the point that I would call them “botched” or at least a missed opportunity for ministry to the grieving. A few years ago, I wrote a book-length manuscript of reflections on the funeral service and the process of caring for grieving families. I never pursued the project to publication, but it is something that remains on the back burner for the future. I may have a few ideas that are worth offering to others.

In general one of the problems with contemporary funerals is that while we are good at saying that the person who has died was a good person who will be missed, we are not good at telling those who are gathered what that means or how that impacts the living that is yet to come. Sure, it is nice to say that the deceased was a very good person. But that doesn’t help those who are grieving to get to the next steps of living their lives. A celebration of life is often in order when we have witnessed a life well lived, but just saying that the deceased lived a good life is insufficient information for those whose lives continue.

Not infrequently I witness the death of the last member of a particular generation of a family. Often that person has been the driving force behind bringing together the next generation. I can sense, even while planning the funeral that those who remain have tensions between themselves and don’t know exactly how to maintain their relationships as they go forward. The death of a parent often brings out conflicts between siblings. It would be easy to ignore this or at least allow it to go unmentioned in the funeral service. But there are times when helping families to understand their own dynamics and the need for shifting relationships and learning to forgive can serve the survivors well.

A funeral is just one service. It can’t fix all of the problems of a family. It cannot soothe the raw feelings that exist. But it is an opportunity to serve those who are in a vulnerable point of their lives.

As a result, I don’t have a formula for the funerals at which I officiate. I can’t go into the computer and pull out a service that has already been prepared. One of the most important tasks in the preparation of a funeral service is listening. I have developed some skills and techniques for interviewing grieving family members. There are some questions that help people to work through the meanings that are emerging. For example asking family members to point out qualities and aspects of the deceased that they see in other family members can help them to understand that the impact of the loved one continues far into the future. Similarly, commenting on family pictures or memorabilia in the home can help to remind those who grieve that their memories are important and will not be lost. Mostly, however, I have learned to sit with those who are grieving and to listen carefully to what they say. Often I write a sentence or a few words down verbatim from our conversations to remind me of the character of those conversations when writing the service. Often the actual words of grieving family members can inform not only what I say but how I say it.

A funeral is never just for a family. It is also for the community. And the community and the family may be at very different places in their grief process. What I say must bring meaning to the community as well as the family. Death may be an intensely private reality, but a funeral is a distinctly public event. Balancing the needs of the entire congregation can be a challenge.

So, despite the other tasks that I had planned for this week and despite the other things on my list that must be accomplished, preparing a funeral must be a priority for me now. It is my way of honoring the one who has died - to serve those who grieve as well as I am able.

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!