After both of the two funeral services which I’ve conducted this past week, I’ve had people speak to me with surprisingly earnestness, thanking me for my words or prayers or for the service as a whole. As a pastor, I have gotten quite accustomed to having people nod at the door, shake my hand and mumble some polite acknowledgment of my leadership. Such response, no doubt, seems the politically correct thing to do.
But I am always surprised and humbled when folk make that obvious special effort to seek me out afterwards, or to telephone later in the week, for the sole purpose of expressing a sincere word of appreciation for the message or service. Now, I have to confess that part of my quirky nature never quite knows how to accept a compliment. But it’s also that I have never quite figured out what it means when someone tells me that I “do a good funeral!”
I suppose I would have hoped that I might have been known as more than just a pastor who “does good funerals.” What about leading people to the Lord, or proclaiming the Word, or inspiring people to deeper commitment or impassioning folk for mission? That sounds so much more dynamic and important than “doing a good funeral.”
Or, if I was to be rather silly about it, I might wonder if I do a good impression of Mr. Sowerberry, the slow, somber, funereal undertaker in the musical, “Oliver”—a character I played back in my days of drama in high school. Have I become nothing more than a caricature of someone morbidly stiff and solemn, monotonously mouthing expected pieties like the preachers in a Mr. Bean comedy sketch?
When I start to think seriously, however, about what folk might be meaning when they tell me that I “do a good funeral,” a number of things come to mind—mostly in terms of those elements or qualities which I believe are key challenges for a pastor at a funeral. In order they are empathy, honesty, story-telling and hope.
The first, I’ve found is empathy. Empathy is defined as the identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. Or to put another way, empathy is being able to acknowledge the often hard and confusing mix of emotions being felt by a family and other mourners.
With that is the need also for honesty. Generally speaking, our society works very hard to distance itself from grief and pain and such realities as our mortality and the burden of sorrow that comes when a loved one dies. Because of that, families often try too hard to make the service upbeat and a celebration of the life, as if it is unseemly to admit our brokenness or pain. Or, at times, what needs to be admitted is our relief that our loved one is no longer in the midst of unendurable pain, or the suffering of a family having to watch the slow decline and fading away of a parent such that we have lost them years before their physical death. Or again, at times, the broken relationships that sometimes exist in families result in the fact that it is less the person who is being mourned than it is the relationship that should have been before rage or addiction or emotional distance or divorce tore away someone from our heart.
One of the truths I have found in life is that God cannot begin to heal the wound which is not offered to him. Only when we dare name the sorrow for what it is and ask God for grace, only then can his power touch our brokenness with compassion and mercy. If nothing else, a pastor’s task is to help a family speak their honest lament before God without apology or shame.
A third task is to enable story-telling. I learned a long time ago there is no generic funeral service in which one merely inserts “Name of Deceased.” Every human being is a remarkable creation by God, with a story that deserves to be told. A Jewish writer once suggested that God loves stories, and that is why he created people. We honour God as we remember, celebrate and ponder the triumphs and tragedies, the ups, downs and sideways of the unique life which has passed. Perhaps equally important is to tell the stories that make us smile and laugh. The author of Ecclesiastes said there is a time to laugh and a time to cry, and I’ve found that nowhere do we need permission to laugh and cry at the same time than in the midst of loss and grief.
But more than anything else, a pastor’s challenge at a service is to declare hope—the hope that is ours in the mercy of God given through Jesus Christ our Lord. That is not to suggest that we water down the gospel to a bit of sweet and meaningless pap, in which we either hint at a sort of universalist salvation (all good dogs go to heaven) or that the laudatory aspects of a person’s life will cause heaven’s gates to swing wide open. Rather, it is to point to the only reality of hope to which any of us can hold, which is that that same extravagant and radical heavenly love which gave Jesus to suffer the Cross for our sake is good enough and powerful enough to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The hope to which those who mourn must be pointed is that there is One who promises to comfort us and journey with us in tenderness even through the valley of the shadow. The hope upon which we all of us can only cling is that there truly is a Love that has promised never to let us go, a Love whose powerful grasp on us is far more important than our feeble grasp upon him. In the midst of a funeral, where hearts are so battered and tender, how essential is it to name the tender mercies of a God whose heart breaks over us.
To be known as a pastor who “does a good funeral” may not be the most exciting accolade in the world, but if it means being known as a pastor who cares, a pastor who lets tears and truth and laughter flow, and as a pastor who points to the hope that is ours in Christ, I’m more than satisfied. After all, those are surely the same elements that a church family needs to receive from a pastor in all of life.