December 12, 2019

Another Funeral Rant

Death in the Sickroom. Munch

Another Funeral Rant

I’ll never get it as long as I live.

Maybe it’s as simple as a difference in personalities, but I still can’t quite fathom it.

Why is it so hard for some pastors to express sympathy and break out of their ministerial routines when they officiate funeral services?

I attended a service today that I really wanted to go to. I know members of the family from the community. I was part of the hospice team, and we only had a brief chance to visit and provide support until one of their beloved family members died. She was about my age, which is to say, far too young.

In the first visit I got to know her daughter, her husband, her son, and couple of her adorable grandchildren. Great family. They had built houses within a stone’s throw of each other down a gravel road in the country near where I live. They planned and toiled together, shared a remarkable communal family spirit, and from all accounts mom — the patient — was the glue that held it all together.

One of the skills a chaplain or social worker or anyone who works with people needs to develop is an ability to connect quickly, to earn people’s trust right away so that you can have conversations that cover sensitive and intimate topics in a sympathetic and reassuring way. This family welcomed me right into their home, the kids were delightful, they shared their thoughts and feelings openly, and we made that connection well.

Only a couple of days later, when the patient died, I went by myself in the wee hours of the morning and spent an extended time with a couple of them again. Again, we connected well as the husband in particular opened up and shared how stunned and lost he felt. I waited with them until the folks from the funeral home came (local people who have a good sense of compassionate engagement with hurting people). I assisted in handing their dear loved one into the care of these good folks, prayed with them before she left the home, and left with tears and embraces.

I went to her funeral today and joined a host of well-wishers in greeting and sharing our condolences with the husband and family. A DVD played on screens, setting forth snapshots of their life story and experiences. Comforting Christian music, well chosen, wafted over all of us. The funeral was held in an impressive facility, and the staff was readily available to help those in attendance. It felt like a real community, one in heart and mind, come together for one of life’s most blessed and painful small town rituals.

It was all as perfect as can be, from my perspective. Then the pastor got up.

Immediately, even though he said that the main purpose for us being here was to honor the deceased, he began to talk about himself. It was as though he had to give us his credentials for standing up to speak at this occasion. This 70-something evangelical minister came across as a salt of the earth Hoosier — plainspoken, commonsensical, grounded in his respectable, sensible midwestern upbringing, and what he saw as a simple, straightforward reading of the Bible.

After a rather perfunctory overview of some of the deceased’s admirable qualities, he prayed and then said he had a message for us. Without a trace of sympathy that I could detect, this pastor treated us to a didactic lecture on apologetics. With little emotion, he encouraged us to ruminate on a host of historical, philosophical, and literature references and cliches, despite his earlier announcement that he would simply talk to us as neighbors and friends.

He tried to get us to think about who we are and why we’re here as human beings. Nothing wrong with the subject, mind you, if presented in a proper way and with personal sensitivity to the occasion. But he gave it as a discourse, a presentation, a teacher talking to a class, and not a pastor taking a flock in his arms and reassuring them. I’ve no complaint with giving people something to think about, but in the context of a funeral, that requires a special touch — nine parts sympathy to one part information.

I won’t complain that there was no liturgy, no sense of mystery or transcendence, no “rites.” I would never have expected that in this situation. However, I expected a whole lot more than what was given. How about a bit of humanity? How about some words of consolation to the family and friends gathered? How about some sense that we were not attending a lecture but the commemoration of a life and an empathetic, pastoral offering of reassurance through faith, hope, and love? How about being a pastor?

In fact, and I just realized this as I was writing, even though he appealed to the Bible and set forth an apologetic case for a theistic worldview and the hope for an afterlife, he made no explicit reference to the cross or resurrection. No mention that Jesus walked among us, died our death, lay with us in our grave, and rose in anticipation of our own reawakening to life. No Christus Victor, no harrowing of hell, no evisceration of the power of sin, death, and the grave. No forgiveness, no new creation, no community of Word and Spirit in which to find solace and companionship in the darkness. For an avowedly evangelical pastor speaking to a family connected to his church, I find this unacceptable.

Pastoral malpractice is what it is.

Comments

  1. “It was all as perfect as can be, from my perspective. THEN THE PASTOR GOT UP.”

    wow

    the family deserved the compassionate care of a shepherd at that funeral
    . . . sounds like that preacher is also in need of a shepherd

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “It was all as perfect as can be, from my perspective. THEN THE PASTOR GOT UP.”

      Happens all the time — CM has posted on the subject many times (and as a hospice chaplain, he’s in position to see a lot of botched funerals).

      Just this one went into Theological Lecture instead of the more common “SCARE ‘EM INTO THE ALTAR CALL”.

  2. “(H)e appealed to the Bible and set forth an apologetic case for a theistic worldview and the hope for an afterlife, (yet) he made no explicit reference to the cross or resurrection. No mention that Jesus walked among us, died our death, lay with us in our grave, and rose in anticipation of our own reawakening to life. No Christus Victor, no harrowing of hell, no evisceration of the power of sin, death, and the grave.”

    How can you do a funeral as a Christian pastor and NOT fall back upon these? If you don’t preach Christ’s resurrection – and thereby the resurrection promised to us – at a freaking funeral, where DO you preach it?

    Either it never occurred to him to do so, or it was a deliberate omission on his part. And I’m not sure which would be worse.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Maybe it is just all-so-obvious to them, like the content of a 099 level college class, that they do not feel it worth mentioning? They view themselves as 300+ level teachers, not as some lowly TA assigned to teaching such remedial matters.

  3. Yes, malpractice.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > … Then the pastor got up.

    Every damn time… thinking back, that’s true.

    After my father’s funeral I wanted to strangle that SOB.

    One rule I have in my papers: no clergy are permitted to speak at my funeral, they’ve got all the street corners they need.

  5. This apologetics approach is very popular now thanks in large part to social media. Youtube is full of this stuff. “Five proofs for the Resurrection!!!” “10 questions no atheist can answer!!!” Growing up when I did the fashion was to deliver a hellfire and brimstone evangelistic sermon to a captive audiance who might never enter the church again until their own funeral.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Youtube is full of this stuff. “Five proofs for the Resurrection!!!” “10 questions no atheist can answer!!!”

      Like Campus Crusade “Witnessing Practice” back in the seventies – only worked when the “Heathen” was a Campus Crusader stand-in.

      Didn’t fly then and won’t fly now.

  6. Burro (Mule) says

    Sounds like an interesting family. I wonder if they were parishioners in the church the pastor came from or if the pastor was a one-off.

    It sounds very much like the latter.

    • That’s the funny thing, Mule. He was a pastor from the deceased’s church.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        That’s just crazy. Now I have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of a proud, cohesive, and capable family attending a church ill-served by an abstracted and clueless pastor.

        Wouldn’t be the first time, I guess, or the last.

  7. This is why Brahms’ German Requiem is my favorite of all in the genre – he deviated from the usual Requiem Mass format, which was intended to be a theology lesson rather than a comfort, and composed a Requiem based on scripture meant to comfort and give hope. My favorite is the 6th movement, where he quotes I Corinthians 15:51-55 – “Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I still get the shivers when the chorus builds up to that final “Tod! Tod! Wo ist dein sieg?” It’s the German version of the band playing Jazz coming home from the funeral, a celebration rather than a mourning!

  8. David Cornwell says

    I’d be ashamed to look that family in the eye if I were their pastor. Some pastors seem so lost in a funeral — so ill at ease. I can’t remember anything said or taught in seminary about the particularity of funerals, their preparations, counseling, etc. I figured it all out for myself and think I did a decent job of it.

    One can’t always use a liturgical approach because of the circumstances, but the liturgy of the Church can be a general guide as to how to go about it all. But still, it is up to the pastor to say the words of hope and comfort that the liturgy guides us toward.

    Some people are afraid to be around grief-stricken people because of not knowing what to say or do. Really not much needs to be said if you are uncomfortable — just acknowledge their grief somehow — and your love for them. Keep it simple. Sometimes pure silence is best.

    Being a pastor to those in grief was the hardest work I did as a pastor. After a funeral all I wanted to do was rest. I was wiped out the remainder of the day.

  9. Chaplin Mike, Unfortunately in life 70% of people are competent in their vocation, 20% are at best adequate or below in skill and ability and 10% are great and make the world work. There is no difference in Pastors. In the past few weeks I have perceived you are well gifted, educated and have the heart to do what you do. It seems to me that the Pastor like many people was not willing to be emotional thus comforting. Salvation is personal, life is personal and death is personal, people run on emotions. Funerals are not a worship service to save souls.. I have followed your writings here enough to know you are sincere, honest and just great at what you do. I have been to many funerals before I moved to Ga. and most Pastors did an “ok” job for whatever reason. I even went to one where the Priest mixed up the name of the deceased and the living daughter, just awful. Bottom line, excellent point and perspective from you. I would say to many preachers at funerals , just be human and real, it is about the deceased, the family and to help them in the now. So simple to write but I am sure you know how hard to do. Good article for lay people to absorb as we can grow in our compassion and expression.

  10. –> “Immediately, even though he said that the main purpose for us being here was to honor the deceased, he began to talk about himself.”

    I’ve seen this several times, and each time I’ve wanted to stand up and say, “THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU!!!!”

    (I swear that one time the pastor spoke longer about himself than the deceased. Seriously.)

  11. And then there are these people…

    —————————————-

    Inge and the Mike
    (R. Rosenkranz, 2017)

    Once upon a time, at a funeral for a friend of mine,
    someone handed Inge the mike, and it was a cryin’

    shame, really, for what had been a wonderful occasion
    quickly became horrid, and the overall sensation

    was as if eating something unpleasant, like liver
    and onions and moldy bread slathered in a river

    of expired coleslaw, but no one dared leave
    the bereaved with Inge alone, so we stayed to grieve

    the endless ramblings of an orator like no other
    who droned on more about herself and didn’t bother

    to say anything about my dearly departed friend
    or the family left behind, though we did pretend

    to listen, but after several hours I snuck out
    to order two dozen pizzas, for there was no doubt

    it would have to last several days, and as she forged ahead
    we all wished we were, like my departed friend, dead.

  12. senecagriggs says

    I was in my 30’s before I first attended a black funeral. As the funeral ended I walked out of the church thinking Caucasians have the worst funerals ever.

  13. I hear these funeral horror stories, but I have never seen one myself. Then again, these stories seem always to involve Evangelical pastors. I’m not sure I have ever attended an Evangelical funeral. Thinking back, my expereince has been with Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic, and Jewish funerals. Some have been done better than others, but this is simply the human condition. I am reaching the age where deaths of my contemporaries seem less untimely than in former years, so I expect I will be called upon to attend Evangelical funerals in the natural course of events.

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      An advantage, I think, of a liturgical tradition is that it doesn’t leave the average Joe pastor conducting the service all at sea having to work out from scratch how it’s done. They’ve got centuries of other people’s experience to fall back on.

      • I have it on good authority (my daughter) that a funeral for a sorority sister was conducted at a Southern Baptist Church that was solemn and dignified and in keeping with the fact that the deceased woman’s young boys were present at the service. I was told that there were flowers and candles and beautiful music, not unlike what my daughter had seen in mainline Christian services. I don’t know what she expected, but I know she was surprised and impressed. The circumstances of her sorority sister’s death were extremely tragic and the whole community had turned out for the funeral.

  14. Thank God (and I really do, and mean it) that you know better, Chaplain Mike. I’m sure your interaction with the family was the better and truer pastoral care they received. I hope they don’t write off church altogether because of the insensitivity they experienced.

    Dana

  15. Wow. You sound genuinely pissed off and it sounds like with good reason. Hopefully they ignored him to some extent as the blah blah guy that has to stand up and say his thing. Hopefully they were not as sensitive to the insensitivity as you were. It’s easier to be dismissive of absurdity when you are in the midst of your grief. Sometimes the energy it takes to be bothered by inanity simply isn’t there.