What to say at the funeral?

I’ve not had the unfortunate luck (if it isn’t luck, what is it? Grace maybe?) to have to have buried too many friends and loved ones during my lifetime. That’s not to say I haven’t seen some go, but most of them haven’t been the “Oh Wow!” surprises that I’ve seen come in the lives of others. I consider myself very fortunate for that and count my blessing frequently.

The Oh Wows often seem to be the hardest: when the child is taken by a disease; a teen is taken in a car accident; or a young adult is taken by some freak bolt of lightning. I don’t mean to suggest that some deaths are anticipated…well, then maybe a do. It isn’t a surprise when your 95 year old uncle dies of old age.

It’s a fairly common thought, sometimes even spoken, that a parent should never have to bury their child. I saw it repeated recently on a movie…I don’t want to dwell there, because that makes my own spine shiver.

Having had the opportunity to know and befriend several of my pastors since my religious conversion, I don’t know why I haven’t asked them more probing questions about some of the things they do (because that’s a writer’s job, right? To ask probing questions of everybody we know so that we might get insight to what they do and use it for fodder in our writing?). But I imagine one of the most difficult jobs would be a pastor speaking at funerals and consoling the bereaved.

It doesn’t seem like it would that difficult if you knew the deceased; you simply tell what you know. Those stories always seem to be filled with the goodness or good deeds associated with them. Part of the pastor’s job seems to be to put the family members, those left behind, as ease; give them the peace and assurance that their loved one is in a much better place.

But what if they’re not?

I mean, what if Uncle Jorgé was a low-down, two-timing, double-dealing, swearing, cheating, lying, son…well, you get the idea. What if he was just a rotten person and nobody but nobody would think his final elevator was going anywhere but down?

I’ve never once in my life ever heard of a pastor standing up and telling those assembled at the funeral that they are better off because the deceased is now screaming for mercy in Hell. I’ve never once heard a pastor suggest that the deceased will be paying for his nastiness until that role is called up yonder and he won’t be there.

I’ve never once heard it…but I’d bet several of them have thought it!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What to say at the funeral?

  1. Barbara Braun

    re never alone. Even by ourselves, we are not alone. Death is just a door opening to somewhere else. Someday we’ll know what that door opens to.

  2. When I was on the staff of a large church in Oklahoma City, our pastors were often called by a funeral home or family member who had to ‘find someone’ to do the service. The pastor would talk to the family, try to find some good to say, some memory (however far back) to ease the feelings that might be there. A challenge for sure. He didn’t speculate as to where the deceased might be residing right now. That is of no comfort to the family unless it is a better place. And to my way of thinking a funeral is not the time for an altar call.

  3. I’ve owned a karate school for 10 years now. Serious colleagues in similar roles and I often reflect on the pastoral duties invited by our profession. When my students and I built out our new dojo six years ago, I insisted on an office surrounded by glass so that I could always be involved, regardless of who was teaching. I also insisted on blinds for those windows. They are often pulled without any notice, by me, when a forlorn parent, suffering spouse, or abused child is suddenly falling apart before me, hoping for some solution to a vexing problem. Too often a funeral has followed soon after, as was the case recently when I and other instructors in our school served as pall bearers (honored by the request at all, let alone that we were told to wear our uniforms and bare feet), carrying the casket of Christopher, a seven year old boy that we all adored after his valiant, brief fight with a rapid brain tumor.

    So I regret to tell you that I’ve had too much time to reflect on the topics you address, Roland. 2011 was a terrible year; I was happy to hand it its hat. I’d like now to share some thoughts, if I may, as Christopher’s was not the only untimely service I attended.

    It is a fundamental problem that pastors are tasked with easing a family’s grief. It’s an impossible task, often resulting in an awkward service that everyone assembled just wants to get through. Traditional Catholic funerals are particularly tough, where no one but the priest is allowed to speak off the cuff. Far more relevant, and meaningful to the grieving, are the heartfelt thoughts of even the least articulate friend or family member. This is something within the minister’s control. The grieving are the poorer for it when what’s heard at a funeral is preceded by, “I didn’t know Joe, but…” This is more so the case when the deceased has given in to some of the temptations of modern life and caused terrible, enduring pain to those close to him.

    There is always, always good in people. Always. And that is invariably the observation of those family members who stick with them through suffering, ill health, and lost opportunity for all involved. Their lifelong hope is for recovery and growth. Therefore, when the “good-for-nothing” person’s life ends—and early, at that—there is almost invariably a sense of tragic loss for those close by that cuts deeper than it would have were their potential fully realized. I reflect on this in my own blog, where my fiancée’s brother was suddenly taken from her and her siblings. There were times in years past when I felt violently angry and blameful toward him. I felt fortunate and privileged to have a more enlightened view at his funeral. That experience is described here: http://tsunamikarate.net/BC/wordpress/?p=122

    Finally, there is a LOT that can be done for those suffering. The thing is to just show up and do it. Going to their house and bringing food is a Jewish tradition that I adopted at a young age and never regretted. (The key is to bring it in easily-freezable containers, as many people may also have that idea.) If you think they don’t want to be bothered, it’s no excuse: leave it at the doorstep and send them a text message. In my experience, however, it’s almost never the case that they don’t want to be bothered. To the contrary, they’re normal—just sad—folk who’ve been told to take off work, then find that their social network that has no idea what to say to them. They suddenly find themselves ostracized in an oppressive zone of silence when often what they really want is to share their thoughts with someone who can simply listen. There are joys to remember, politically incorrect things to admit, anger to let out. Listening is doing. It is often the most important doing.

    But do something. It makes you feel better, and is a needed kindness in a suddenly unfair world. There is, however, one thing to not do—do NOT put the responsibility of your involvement on the grieving. I personally make it a point to never, ever say the words, “Please tell me if there’s anything I can do.” It’s a statement that’s meant to be gracious but (and you’ll appreciate this, Roland, given your recent diatribes on the correct use of the English language) it is devoid of grace. It’s said as if this depressed person is going to pick up the phone and say, “I really, really don’t feel like doing these dishes.” They feel bad enough without having to ask you for something. Show up with hedge trimmers and trim the bushes, then disappear, or better yet, clean up, go in and say hi, because taking their ability to express gratitude takes away their capacity to give at a time when they’re otherwise feeling quite useless.

    Christopher’s mom found a river stone on her stoop one day carved with the word “Spirit” — Christopher’s finest quality at karate, and the name of the puppy his parents gave him. Fortunately a little research revealed the source, a sensitive neighborhood child who himself had been hit hard by the loss of Christopher. It meant the world to her, and forged a connection between them.

    Compassion can be challenging, but if a child can achieve it, we all can. It’s what’s called for in such difficult times. Compassion for the living.

  4. Tim Court

    As Christopher’s father and Bruce’s friend, I wholeheartedly agree with Bruce. We were fortunate in that the priest at Chris’ funeral was his uncle and was able to speak from the heart. I would not have been at all happy with a complete stranger talking about him. Everyone that took part in the service knew him – his teachers, his aunts and uncles, his classmates, his friends from scouts and karate.

    Bruce is correct; everyone says “If there is anything I can do…” and I can assure you the last thing we wanted to do was ask. We did not want to ask people round to share in our misery, but it was such a help when they just showed up. Another phrase is “I wish I could be there…”. Where there is a will there is a way. Two years ago a friend of mine lost his daughter in a car accident. I drove 800 miles to Atlanta to attend the funeral. I didn’t tell anyone I was going. I wanted to support my friend in a meaningful way.

    We are now going through that phase were people have run out of things to say and fewer and fewer people comment on our posts on facebook, but the pain is still very real to us – Chris died on October 27th.

    When my father died, it was very different. He was not a religious man by any means. My mother wanted a religious ceremony and the vicar (Church of England) stood up and talked about him and it was all so fake and felt so wrong.

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