June 3, 2020

A Funeral Rant

'By Chaplain Mike

I have been officiating funeral services since I was 22 years old, a young know-nothing pastor in the hills of Vermont.

My first funeral was for an infant who died of SIDS. That service was held on the coldest, rainiest and iciest day I can remember. Outside. At the cemetery. It was pure misery and falling tears, inside and out. I wrote a song in the child’s memory. I’m not sure if I ever sang it for the parents; it might have broken their hearts. I guess in the final analysis I wrote it for myself, as a way of trying somehow to express the desolation of laying a little boy in the ground.

And I have been doing funerals ever since.

That little church in Vermont was more like a parish church, which is true in many rural communities. In that village we had our share of elderly people who lived along the mountain roads, up and down the hills, along the brooks and in the hollers. We also had a good number of vacation homes in the area, some of which had been used by families for generations. Many of them who died had stated their wishes to be buried in our quaint graveyards where their tombstones would look out over the mountains to see the sun rise.

I won’t bore you with a litany of funeral stories, but suffice to say that I’ve done more services than I can remember. To this day, in my work as a hospice chaplain, I still find it one of the greatest privileges of ministry.

'Peasant Funeral' photo (c) 2010, Ruslan - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Stop and think about it. This is one of the most significant times in a family’s life. And, it is one of the few occasions in our culture when we actually face what we all fear most: death. The funeral is an event where folks expect the pastor to talk about God and life and death and hope and eternal matters. It is an opportunity for ministers to show people they care, that they are interested in hearing their stories, honoring their wishes, and commemorating the life of their deceased loved one. It provides an ideal reason for pastoral visitation and follow-up to give ongoing support to those who grieve. It is one of those situations where we can roll up our sleeves and have genuine, heart-to-heart conversations with people. Isn’t this why we went into ministry?

Why then do so many ministers have no clue about conducting funeral services for people?

Let me give you an example.

Awhile back, I attended a funeral service that was standing room only. The person who had died had a big family and a large number of friends and acquaintances. He was a veteran. For his career, he had served as public servant in several different capacities that involved a lot of dealings with people in the community. He belonged to fraternal and service organizations. He was laid to rest in a uniform and his casket was draped with an American flag. His family had cared for him over a long period of time through various illnesses and then in hospice care. He did not practice religion throughout his life, but during his illnesses he expressed faith and always gratefully accepted prayer and pastoral visits. The pictures on the display boards and in the DVD tribute that ran during the visitation showed a man who spent a lot of time with his family, who enjoyed life, who loved to laugh, and was something of a rascal as well.

Now, if that is all I knew about this man, I think I could put together a funeral service that would both honor him appropriately and bring Christian hope to his family and friends.

First, I would meet with the family to talk about the service. I would encourage them during our visit to tell stories and give anecdotes that would help me get to know him and what his life was like. I would suggest that, since they knew him best, it would be appropriate for their voice to be heard in the service. Would there be a family member who might like to speak or share something? If not, would they consider getting together and writing down some remembrances that I could read on their behalf?

I would also ask if they wanted any special tributes spoken by me or someone else about his military service, his careers in public service, his community involvement. Had he received any honors? What made him most proud? In addition, I would ask about his faith and what they knew about that and how we might bring that part of his life to bear on the service. Did he have favorite verses from the Bible? Might there be any music that would enhance the service?

After gathering as much information as I could by spending time personally with the family or someone who represented them, I would also think back about what they had been through when caring for this man. I would try to imagine what their long journey must have been like and how tired they must be now. I would attempt to envision what the future will be like for them without his presence.

Now—put all this in a pot together. Simmer over low heat with thought, prayer, and contemplation. Serve over 30-40 minutes in a funeral service marked by personal concern, family involvement, remembrance of the deceased’s life, words of comfort to those grieving, and proclamation of hope in Christ.

So, what kind of a funeral did this man get?

  • The only personal touch in the entire service was when a song was sung that the family had chosen for the occasion.
  • Oh yes, and the obituary was read, which summarized his family and work.
  • No personal stories or remembrances of his life.
  • No acknowledgment of his military service, his career in public service, his work in the community.
  • No recognition of his family for all the support they had given him in the final season of his life.
  • No words of sympathy for the mourners, no expressions of encouragement for the journey of grief to come.
  • No acknowledgment of the large crowd that had gathered, even though this death obviously touched a lot of people.
  • No reference to things he enjoyed doing in life or his love for his family.

Instead, the pastor (who was known to some of the family members)…

  • Talked exclusively about one or two visits he had had with the dying man when he had asked him about his personal relationship with Christ.
  • Gave assurance that the man was in heaven based on the answer to one question on one of those visits.
  • Preached a full Bible study topical message on heaven, how we know it’s real, what it’s like, how we can go there, etc., quoting passage after passage from the Bible.
  • Gave an invitation at the end to receive Christ during the final prayer.

'1888 Pioneer Cemetery, Brazoria, Texas 0115111329BW' photo (c) 2011, Patrick Feller - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I call that pastoral malpractice.

Not because it is wrong to talk about knowing Christ and going to heaven, but because it was done without any context, without any sense of pastoral sensitivity, involvement, and concern.

First of all, I can’t ever get over what a privilege it is to be asked by a family to mark the occasion of a loved one’s death. How can anyone possibly summarize a life of 60, 70, or 80+ years and what it means in a half hour service? I think the mere fact that someone made it through this world for that many years is something worthy of attention and awe.

This is one of the most profound events in the world, and I feel like Jacob every time I’m asked to mark the occasion—“‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Gen. 28:16-17) A family and friends are saying “goodbye” to a loved one. This is death and the grave. This is the setting in which Jesus himself became overwhelmed and wept.

And a pastor can ignore all of that and not weep himself?

A pastor can fail to give “honor to whom honor is due” for accomplishments in life?

A pastor can forget to comfort the brokenhearted and give them encouragement for their ongoing journey of grief?

A pastor can be so blind to everything but the opportunity to possibly “win a few souls” that he fails to speak the words of salvation personally, in the real human context that is right in front of his face?

I am almost sure that when this pastor went home and his wife asked him how the funeral went, he praised God for the opportunity to preach the Gospel.

He may have used some of the right words. But as far as I’m concerned, he blew it. He missed one of the greatest opportunities ministry affords to be a neighbor, a pastor, a comforter, a friend.

A human being, for heaven’s sake!

Love God, love your neighbor. Is this really so hard to understand?

Comments

  1. Clay Knick says

    I’ve seen this many times. First thought: those who lead services like the one you describe are evangelists. When you (and might I add myself here?!) do them you are a pastor. There is a difference.

    In my experience no one told or instructed me how to do what you describe as your method. I pretty much do what you do, but I don’t remember how I providentially stumbled across our way of doing things. It is almost identical. It took a few years to develop.

    I’ve attended many funerals like the one you describe and always leave thinking there were a lot of missed opportunities.

    • cermak_rd says

      You may be onto something with your comment about evangelists. I’ve attended a number of funerals–Ind. Baptist, MB Baptist, Jewish, and Catholic (two types–Roman Rite and PNCC). I have never felt that the specific religion was pushed by the Jewish or Catholic officiants. Probably because neither religion is particularly into proselytizing. The Ind. Baptist was a hard sell pushing of Jesus, yet still had family input. The MB was particularly moving as it had pretty much anyone who had known the man step forward and talk about their experience with him.

      I wonder what kind of funerals the non-religious will create. Many of my friends have been married by sea captains, judges, JPs and relatives who have been internet-ordained. I wonder what they’ll do with the funeral where there isn’t even a requirement for clergy.

      • When my Irish Catholic grandmother passed away in October 2009 we had her funeral and burial in Montana. The priest who knew her knew my family for close to 40-50 years if I remember correctly. At the funeral he talked about my family, people he took care of, loved, etc.. He talked about my great aunts and uncles and relatives that I heard stories about. In that context he also talked about my grandmother in the larger scheme of the family. Then he talked about how the city where my family has deep root in Montana is home and its where we belong. I don’t know if I can say it was a perfect funeral…nothing is. There was a lot of grief and mourning for the loss of my grandmother. But the words that were said were very affectionate. This is how I’m trying to remember the funeral, not as I did when I was thinking of what John MacArthur and other fundegelicals teachings about Catholics.

        • Eagle,

          I grew up in Montana and have family there. Where in the Big Sky country is your family from?

          • My family’s history in Montana is deep…back to when the state was a territory. My family is from Butte, but I also have family in Helena.

          • Born in Boseman, with family in Livingston and Billings. Love that Big Sky….

          • I’m from north of Whitefish. A little town called Stryker.

          • Which, by the way is about 10 miles from the town of Olney, Mt., the childhood home of Eugene Peterson.

          • My Dad was born in Havre. My grandmother taught in Butte for years. Love that town no matter what people say… I went to college in Helena and loved Montana. Oh what I would do to escape from Washington, D.C. and live again in Montana. Sometimes when I’m stuck in traffic here I’ll reflect back upon the lack of traffic there. I miss Montana…. Other members of my family lived in Missoula, Bozeman, and northwest on the high line near Shelby I think. Or maybe it’s Cut Bank.

          • I do the same thing here in SoCal when I am stuck in traffic or waiting in a long line. I miss Montana every day and would go back if I thought I could find work.

            In the 70’s Butte was ranked one of the top ten toughest towns in America by Playboy magazine. I have only been there a couple of times, but I liked it.

            I used to play football and I boxed for a couple of years, so I spent a lot of time in a school bus or car traveling all over the state to compete. Went as far east as Harlem and the Fort Belknap Reservation.

            I would love to raise my boys in the mountains there. If I could only convince my wife that the winters aren’t really that bad…

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Why then do so many ministers have no clue about conducting funeral services for people?

    My first answer was “because people in general can be clueless.”

    Then I read the description of the actual funeral. This is beyond clueless. Reminded me of the (only funny in retrospect, not at the time) clueless eulogy at my mother’s funeral, except on steroids.

    THIS HAS ALL THE MARKS OF A GUY WHO EITHER KNOWS ONLY ONE ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL SERMON OR HAS AN OBSESSIVELY FAVORITE SERMON. In this specific case, a Favorite Sermon on Heaven. Naturally he ended with an Altar Call.

    The only way he could have gotten more clueless would have been preaching Hellfire-and-Damnation with an Altar Call Ending. AKA Wretched Urgency Soul Winning Uber Alles.

    • Some men and women of the cloth are just not people persons. Not sure why they would go into ministry then… I once knew a pastor who consistently drove away parishoners because he was so bad at creating that intimacy. I knew him pretty well and he was a nice enough guy who knew his theology, he was just uncomfotable around adults. But he was a very good teacher.

      The most memorable funerals were those where the pastor personalized his talk, where we could feel the connection, that he knew the person that we were connected to and so we shared in it as well.

      Those who use it as an opportunity to teach have missed the boat, the funeral should focus on the departed, so that WE can have closure, and remember past the pain of death, because to remember is to keep that person alive in our hearts.

      My mother died of old age – well other things but I watched her pass. But those last moments when she was gasping for her last breaths, that’s not what I want to remember, I want to remember the other memories that made her great.

    • What you’re describing, HUG (and what CM described) is a symptom of a larger problem in the American church: that of “seeking souls” instead of (or maybe “as opposed to”) loving people — spirit, soul and body. Jesus did both — loving people while introducing them into His kingdom. When we do less — whether at a funeral, a Sunday meeting, or anywhere else — we shred the gospel for the sake of … I’m not sure what, ego? Convenience?

      Also, Radagast, many ministers are not people persons, but have other gifts — teaching, for instance, or administration. One of the best pastors I’ve ever had was a man who recognized that he wasn’t very good at one-on-one ministry (simply didn’t have the gift), so he surrounded himself with a staff of more people-oriented associates who could fill that need for the congregation. Meanwhile, he kept the staff organized, handled the business side of the congregation well, preached wonderful sermons and came up with innovative outreach ideas that others who had the gift of evangelism could implement. The problem is when pastors who aren’t people persons don’t recognize and compensate for their shortcomings — or worse, think that their tool set is the only godly one and attempt to force everyone else, saved and unsaved, to conform to it. (I’ve had pastors like that, too.)

  3. steve graff says

    i stumbled onto your web-site this morning. stumbled is not exactly the word i should use, for i feel it was God’s hand that guided me to this site. i recently lost my wife of 23 + years to liver cancer. we, i should say, she battled several forms of cancer for eleven years. i say we,because i was with her most all of the steps of the way. watched her suffer from the effects of chemo, saw the scars from her surgeries, helped her to rise for the simplest of tasks(walking) for one. i haven’t studied this site as much as i am going to, but what i have read so far has been comforting. i have been upset with myself for not “getting with it” for not rebounding as fast as i think i ought. i see now, that i need to have patience, that what i am going through and my daughters, also, is an ongoing process. for the past six months, after the doctors said they had nothing to offer, we began to experience the “lasts”. last piano recital together, last elementary concert, last church service, and finally the last day. from a lifetime of firsts to the lasts, we shared our love for each other, our family and definately, our love for our Creator. i am thankful that you have this web-site and will avail myself of it much. our pastor did a great job at cindy’s funeral, but will give him the address, also. thank you much, steve

    • I’m sorry for your wife’s death, Steve. May God give you and your family peace and comfort.

    • Thank you for sharing a bit of your story Steve. Through your process, may you find always the Everlasting Arms under you and your dear children! LOVE!

    • My condolences, Steve, on your great loss.

    • Steve, I’m so sorry. Thanks for reading and for having the courage to share about your painful loss. Peace.

    • Oh my Steve, please do not expect to “rebound”. There is no such thing. My husband died 7 years ago. I did all the “right” things. Attended a GriefShare Group at my church, read the obligatory book on the grief process, etc . Every “expert” said after the first year you should be finished with the “process”. Well, I was fine during the first year. The second year was AWFUL!! And every widow, young or old, that I have talked with has said the same thing. The God given shock of the first year wears off and as one man said, it is like amputation without anesthesia. You have had a devastating loss. Don’t let ANYONE tell you how or how long to grieve.

      I am sorry about your loss. Be merciful to yourself. You never get over it, but you do get through it.

    • steve, there is no time for “getting over it”. My mother died of lung cancer five years ago, my father died two years after her of a stroke. She was in her mid-seventies and he was just turned eighty, so they weren’t young by any account.

      I still dream about them. I still miss them.

      My mother’s death didn’t really sink in or hit until the second Christmas after her death – the first one was just strange because it was the first without her, but the second one was when it really hurt that she was gone.

      It gets better, but it never goes away all the way. You feel what you need to feel when you need to feel it, and don’t mind any schedules or stages of grief or the like.

      God bless you and your family and be with you all.

    • I am so very sorry. Peace to you.

    • Steve my Mom dealt with pancreatic cancer..it was a nail biter. She beat it, but I don’t know why? I’m learning that death is hard and I’m trying to deal with it. I cherish my grandmother by embracing the things that she loved. For example…

      1. She loved theater and Broadway plays and musicals. As a result I’ve started to see plays again and saw the musical Wicked in the Kennedy Center
      2. She was a firm believer in health and losing weight. As a result I’m trying to eat more vegetables and go to the gym regularly.
      3. As a teacher she felt passionate about reading; thus I’ve doubled up on reading and am reading many non-fiction, history, biographys, etc..
      4. She talked about love and as such I’m trying to love my parents more.
      5. My grandmother told me stories about riding the railroad. Thus I model the railroad that she rode, the Northern Pacific railway.
      6. She dressed herself nicely; as such as I’ve tried harder (not that I’m bad or anything….) to look and dress nicer.

      One final note…this is a great place to hang out. I lost my faith and am trying to figure out a lot of spiritual problems. This place is a great community all the while being loving and warm. You’re safe here…I feel safe and this community is family. I wish the evangelical churches I attended were like this, if so I would not have gone over the edge.

    • Steve,

      Not an emotional guy yet your post tugged at my heart. Sometimes these posts come at the right time to get a person on track. Peace to you and your family.

    • Steve, so sorry for your loss. I pray the peace of Christ over your wife and you and your house.

      I will echo the sentiments of many of our posters here, and encourage you to spend time at internetmonk. It is a nice little community. We don’t always agree, but there are encouraging words and ideas exchanged here…and most importantly…the truth.

  4. My husband is a Chaplain named Mike and if I didn’t actually know differently I would be positive you and he are the same person. 🙂

    He’s done many funerals in his 30+years as a pastor and just last night we were talking about funerals he’s officiated and his favorite actually took place in a pub. The woman who had passed away spent most of her time there and it was one of her wishes to have her funeral (well…this was actually a memorial) at the pub.

    Mike said it was just a genuinely special time that he feels sure she would have approved.

  5. As usual, words fitly spoken and beautifully expressed. Please, please, write a book! I will do as I did for Michael Spencer’s book: buy as many copies as I could afford and give them away.

  6. People in general often don’t do well when dealing with those left behind after a loved one dies. It is especially tragic when Pastors are clueless.

    Recently a pastor sent this to us at NRP. It is the most honest rant on death that I have heard.

    http://www.newreformationpress.com/blog/2011/05/13/a-pastoral-rant-on-death/

    • Thank you for sharing that Patrick, I quite enjoyed the raw honesty, it’s how I roll, so I even laughed a few times, though not at all because something was funny.

  7. Christiane says

    Often felt sorry for pastors who were not liturgically-trained who had to conduct funeral services for the saddest cases: infants, children, teenagers, young dead soldiers killed in battle, etc. . . .

    all funerals are difficult, but of course there are the triumphant words of Job often read at the gravesite that are thousands of years old, but ever new. The power in these words to ameliorate grief is recognized throughout all Christianity:

    “25 For I know that my Redeemer liveth,
    and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
    26 and though after my skin worms destroy this body,
    yet in my flesh shall I see God:
    27 whom I shall see for myself,
    and mine eyes shall behold, and not another . . . ”

    from Job, Chapt. 19

    • It was a powerful moment when I first attended a funeral that used the Book of Common Prayer, Anglican. Before I had only seen evangelistic baptist services. There is no comparison.

  8. This is pretty much the story of my father’s funeral, except he didn’t have time to have any pastoral visits, giving the preacher an opportunity to work in how you had better be saved today because you might die tomorrow and end up where people who aren’t saved go.

    My brother walked out, grabbed a bottle of whiskey under his seat and started chugging. I said I’d never enter a church again, and didn’t for 20 years. My mom was in tears and said she wished she had not attended the funeral.

    Faith in Christ, works of Satan. I hope for the preacher’s sake works are indeed irrelevant.

  9. Sounds like my dad’s funeral. It was particularly hard not having an opportunity to share a tribute. But a long, drawn out service with a lot of personal tributes would have been hard on my mom. But as my son astutely observed, the service ended up being more about the pastor than my dad.

  10. “Gave an invitation at the end to receive Christ during the final prayer.”

    This happened at my dad’s service, too.

    Rule number one: turn every service into an altar call, no matter who is thrown under the bus in the process. It’s all about making the deal, making the sale. Such pastors probably would make very successful used car salesmen.

    • My grandfather was an evangelical Baptist Minister. His funeral was the ultimate in altar calls, with the overly stated “are you sure you’re saved?” kind of doubt spewing from the pulpit. If it weren’t for my mother sitting beside me, I would have walked out.

      At the cemetary, the same man who spoke at the service started speaking. Let me set the stage first…..we’re at the grave side, many family members dealing with the death of a man who died months before his 100th birthday……and this guy starts in on how it’s wrong to be proud of your kids and rock and roll is bad. This was 10 years ago people……and here I thought that rock and roll stuff got laid to rest in the 80’s. That’s when I had the courage to walk away. I didn’t care what the family thought, I wasn’t going to succumb to this b.s. anymore.

      I would later learn that this man, who had a church in the mountains here in Colorado, had a couple stand up at the end of a Sunday service and spoke their goodbye’s and listed out their reasons why they were leaving the church. In front of EVERYONE!! I wish I could tell you that I prayed for him, but alas, I did not. I felt validated in my anger from the funeral and his actions then.

      • Wow.

      • The stand-up couple are a couple of stand-up christians , in my book. Wish I’d done the same in my sad tale in the 80’s.

      • It’s any wonder how that pastor survived, why someone didn’t take him behind the church and show him the compassion he deserved…

        OK… maybe that’s not pc but I have a hard time with egos, self-centeredness and the like – Rebekah – you should have thrown a tomato at him…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Rule number one: turn every service into an altar call, no matter who is thrown under the bus in the process.

      When all you have is a Wretched Urgency Altar Call hammer…

      It’s all about making the deal, making the sale. Such pastors probably would make very successful used car salesmen.

      ABC = Always Be Closing.

      And who’s got the biggest sales figures for the week.

  11. When my sister died my mother insisted on an altar call. Of course no one came forward… who would come forward and pray the sinners prayer right next to a teenager laying in her casket?? That is very strange.

    • Robin, in my experience (both personal and observational), when evangelicals grieve, there seems to be a need to make sense of the loss, that there will be a near-term payoff that made all the pain worthwhile. Sometimes we try to force the issue – – in this case hoping that if one or more people will receive Jesus at the funeral might it provide immediate fulfillment to the promise that “all things work together for good”.

      There are secular variants on this bargaining, for example M.A.D.D. (“if I can prevent just one kid from driving drunk and killing someone, my daughter’s death will not have been in vain”).

      So, while it may seem odd to do an “altar call” at a funeral, I can at least understand it as a coping mechanism and part of the stages of grief for people with wrestling with theodicy.

    • Strange indeed. I’ve never understood it.

  12. Pastoral malpractice? Chaplin Mike…how do you do it!! 😛 I wonder when the fundegelicals are going to show up at your door in the middle of the night with lanterns and pitchforks determined to defend the gospel. 😛

  13. “A human being, for heaven’s sake!
    Love God, love your neighbor. Is this really so hard to understand?”

    For so many, yes, yes it is. They don’t see human beings out there in the world, or in the pews, or at the graveside. They see prospects. When did the Gospel message become akin to a sales plan?

  14. Scott Miller says

    “A pastor can fail to give “honor to whom honor is due” for accomplishments in life?”
    A pastor like this believes that this life is not important, and has been taught that the funeral is the best opportunity to do a fire and brimstone service with altar call.
    Even worse is the “homecoming/homegoing party” celebration that is all the rage in many evangelical churches, where sorrow is not allowed, the widow beams with smiles (through hidden tears). That is by far the worse case of pastoral malpractice.

    • Homecoming party? Are you serious? I never heard of one. I’ve heard of Christmas parties for Jesus…but no home coming party. That has to be a major WTF…

      • The Guy from Knoxville says

        Eagle,

        Oh, you’ve no idea of the crazy/silly things that go on in some of these situations. I honestly think that folks in some evangelical churches are in denial of death or they think that it’s so inconsequencial because, after all, we’ll see grandma/grandpa, mom/dad, sisiter/brother etc someday in heaven and all will be well so why grieve over it – let’s just have a big party to celebrate the “homegoing” of _________________. In time it may be appropriate to celebrate that looking back but when you’re in the midst of it I think it is that last thing most want to do or at least it’s that way for me. Most of the time it’s tacky and ill-timed and down right silly in some instances……. it can rival the “Birthday party for Jesus” at Christmas that many of these places have -one wonders who and where this comes from and yet folks in these places wonder why people want nothing to do with the church………….. duh – go figure!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Don’t you know “Homegoing (TM)” is Christianese for death, Eagle?

        …where sorrow is not allowed, the widow beams with smiles (through hidden tears).

        JMJ/Christian Monist has some real horror stories along these lines.

        • I do remember my pastor saying that we should party and that there was a party in heaven for an elder who died in our church. That was after they tried resurrecting him through prayer and that didn’t work. But I’ve never seen a physical party after a funeral where poeple are like, “Oh praise GEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEZUUUUUUUUUUUUSSSSS UNCLE BOB IS WITH THE LORD!!!!” 8-0

          If you get my drift.

    • I attended a homecoming celebration funeral at a charismatic church — the mother of one of my students had died after a protracted battle with breast cancer. The kindest word I can think of to describe it is “surreal.” It was almost as if the pastor was daring anyone, especially the family, to grieve or show any sorrow. My student was in the 9th grade at the time and had a younger sister and a younger brother still at home. I remember watching them trying to smile through their tears and my heart just broke for the youngest two.

  15. My grandmother passed away last fall. Her funeral mass was at the Catholic church my brother and his family attend. The whole service was very nice. My cousin gave the eulogy. The music was good. Everything was reverent but still personal. The priest did not place limits on Communion, so my mother received even though she left the Catholic church 30 years ago.

    Three weeks later, my uncle died suddenly of a heart attack. The experience was completely the opposite. His children by his first marriage insisted on having the funeral mass at the parish where they grew up, even though no one in the family had attended that parish in many years. The new priest there was an ultra-traditionalist. He was not going to allow a eulogy. My cousin tore him a new one before the Mass started. He relented on the eulogy. One of his sons gave the eulogy and it was quite good. The priest made sure the non-Catholics felt second-class. He kept reiterating throughout the Mass that non-Catholics should stay seated while Catholics knelt. He also made clear who could receive Communion and who couldn’t. The consecration was over-dramatic (THIS. IS. MY. BODY.) My cousin later filed a complaint with the Archdiocese! (However, I have to say he did give quite a good homily during the Mass).

    • On a positive note regarding Catholic funerals, our newest Liturgical Gangsta, Father Paul Koetter, impressed me so much at the way he handled the funeral of one of our hospice patients that I asked him to write for us. It was one of the most hospitable, gracious, accessible RC masses I have ever attended.

    • Yes…sometimes Priests get too caught up in the legalism…. same comment as I gave above, throw a tomato at him and then take him behind the church for some instruction in compassion, except in this case I would add – go to confession afterwards…

  16. I liked your rant -funerals are a rite of passage in every culture -and we all identify with our own ideas of what a good one should be like. In fact we all might spend much time daydreaming about what our own funeral service might be like.
    My Aged Parent makes notes and we have many conversations about her requirements for her eventual Funeral and have had since she was 70, she’s now 91, and she changes the hymns regularly.
    The one point you do not make is that maybe the deceased had the sort of Service he had actually asked for, no Glory for him , but the chance for the pastor to say what maybe he wished he had had the courage to say to those he knew. God knows how hard I find it myself to talk to people about the ‘best being yet to come’.

    • Even if there is an evangelistic emphasis per request, there is no excuse, IMO, for ignoring a patient’s entire life and not giving comfort to the family.

  17. The Guy from Knoxville says

    Chaplin Mike, I can’t tell you how timely this is to me and for a variety of reasons – some not necessarily related to end of life, funerals etc. I think that one of the biggest failures in evangelical churches is in the area of death, care and understanding for the family going through the loss and the funeral/burial that completes that initial part of the journey for them. I think much of this for me is, partly, my difficulty in dealing with death and the hurt, frustration and loss that comes – that is a natural part of the process and one, admittedly, that is slow for me to get through. That’s bad enough in itself but add to that the total uncaring incompetence of many evangelical pastors and associates or the ultra rigid legalistic versions of that – ind. baptist, old line COCs and the like and it’s unbearable and I have no good and kind words for this kind of uncaring and inconsiderate approach to a difficult period in people’s lives.

    I think one of the worst things that my wife and I (rest of the family too) was at the graveside for my wife’s mother in early February 2004. My wife’s mother was a member of a small COC that she and her husband had helped start in the 1950s. The minister there at the time was officiating and this particular day was one of the coldest of the winter with snow showers, gusting wind and wind chills in the single digits and we sat there for what seemed like 25-30 mins listening to this guy go on and on about the need for salvation, rant on divorce for the “benefit” of those there who were (incidently he was too!!). There were a few words about my wife’s mother and her life but very little in comparision to the the rest of that miserable, uncaring, inconsiderate service that he conducted and in that kind of unrelenting cold and snow. There are family memebers that still steam up over that fiasco of a service when it comes up on occasion – the utter incompetence of that guy is beyond words.

    I know that not all ministers are like what I described above or like others described in the article and comments but this day in time we seem to have more of this than not in evangelical ciricles. It’s things like these (funerals and such) along with other things that have me, for the first time ever, at the point that I honestly don’t care if I ever attend a church service again in an evangelical church and big thanks has to go the unkind, uncaring, self-centered ministers and associates and I’m sorry to say that my own church group, SBC, are some of the worst in this area and a host of others right now and I’ve washed my hands of that denomination and no longer have or want anything to do with it.

  18. Thanks, CM, for an honest an insighftul piece. I once did a funeral for a teenage girl whose family had been involved in our church of about 180 people for over two years. I was youth pastor, and very close with the family, but that “senior pastor” said that he had to “officiate”, and I would “do the eulogy”.

    I talked for approximately ten minutes about this young lady’s life…spiritual, family, friends, school, etc…and provided words of comfort from scripture for the family. As I was sitting down, the pastor leaned over and said to me, “Now, tell me this girl’s name again.”

    I was appalled. He went on to preach an expository sermon on the fruit of the Spirit, which was in line with a series he was doing on Sunday mornings, followed by a “raise your hand” altar call. On Sunday morning, he announced how many souls were saved at the child’s funeral, and how her own life made an eternal impact. The congregation applauded.

    (Heavy sigh…)One of many reasons I’m not in that denomination or church anymore.

    On the flip side, I recently attended a funeral for my wife’s great-grandmother at the local RC church. Beautifully done. Even though she had been confined to a nursing home for some time, and the current priest didn’t know her that well, he spent a good deal of time talking to the family, to friends, and to nuns on staff at the church who did know the deceased. He delivered a beautiful eulogy, and encouraged the children and grandchildren to speak a few words about their loved one. Some family members were prepared, and some weren’t. It was still lovely, and in order. Her life wasn’t over-dramatized to give us the impression she was a saint, but it was clear that the people who spoke knew and cared for her. The liturgy guided us through the story of Christ, and the hope of heaven.

    Evangelical churches do an extremely poor job of dealing with death, simply because it doesn’t fit neatly into their philosophy of the happy-clappy believer. It’s generally ignored as a subject, unless the pastor is trying to threaten people with it, in hopes of “getting them saved”. Death doesn’t fit neatly into a “God wants to prosper you and bless you” gospel.

    Death is real. I would be interested to hear from those of you who attended seminary on what type of training you had on dealing with death.

    Thanks again, CM…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Never been to Seminary and I’m speaking as a wannabe writer, but one thing that comes up again and again in my fiction is the horror archetype of The Bad Death. And when a character dies onstage, Death is Real. I don’t pull punches. It ain’t Happy Clappy Joy Joy Homegoing, dude.

  19. What an incredibly balanced and wise posting. I second everyone who is encouraging you to write a book.

    Mercifully, I’ve not had to endure many clueless funerals. Maybe growing up Presbyterian helped. Not sure. The best funeral services in my experience have always included memories from those closest to the deceased. When this is done, God is often glorified in ways that are truly meaningful and draw people to him. It’s far more subtle and beautiful than the bludgeon of a crude alter call to people one doesn’t even know. I had the pleasure of being one of the speakers at a servcie for my mom’s second husband. It was at once one of the hardest and one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m glad I was able to give back a little in that way.

    Not because it is wrong to talk about knowing Christ and going to heaven, but because it was done without any context, without any sense of pastoral sensitivity, involvement, and concern.

    This really hits the nail on the head. And it’s not only at funerals that you see this dynamic. It happens wherever the evangelistic impulse is allowed to run roughshod over the personal and pastoral. It’s no better than what the various door-to-door salespeople of various religions try to do at their worst. Too many folks have forgotten that trust and confidence has to be earned.

  20. Randy Thompson says

    As a pastor who has done countless funerals, I’ve come to see that the service has three purposes.

    First, it’s about grieving and coming to grips with a great loss, so tears are appropriate.

    Second, it’s about honoring the life of the one who died, so smiles and even laughter are appropriate.

    Third, it’s about hope and the Gospel, so joy is appropriate.

    Done rightly, a funeral should consist of all three of these emotions.

  21. Pam Burns says

    A large majority of people do not know how to deal with death and I think clergy are no different. Some Christians (actually a lot of Christians) don’t know how to be human beings–to show human kindness and the Agape love of God. I think we have to pray for more sensitivity in the Body of Christ. I also think that those of us who have lost a close loved one to death have to pass on by our behavior how to be sensitive and loving to the bereaved. The best evangelistic tool is usually to show love and kindness and sensitivity without a word about the three spiritual laws.

  22. Eric Evers says

    Here’s my two cents about funerals. It may sound formulaic, but I think of it in terms of a spine/ skeleton for what a funeral sermon needs to do.

    1. We thank God for the person’s life. This isn’t preaching the person into heaven; it is simply giving thanks for the blessing the person has been.

    2. We say goodbye. Particularly in my previous setting, there was a lot of denial around death – “he’s still with me in my heart.” But resurrection and reunion doesn’t make much sense (and neither does the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit and the Christian community) if there is no real “goodbye (for now).”

    3. We hear the good news of resurrection and reunion. If the goodbye is real, here is something more Real. I don’t have altar calls (I’m a Lutheran, fer cryin’ out loud!), but I do call on those who grieve to entrust not only the deceased, but themselves, to the grace of Jesus Christ.

    In addition to that, I think in terms of “an intersection of two stories” – where does this person’s life story fit in with the story of what God is doing in Christ, through the Spirit, to redeem and care for the world? This “frame” usually gives lots of ways to tell the person’s story AND tell the Story of Christ in a way that those gathered can hear.

    Again, I know that might sound like a “formula.” But it’s just a skeleton. The stories I know, and the ones I hear from family and friends, as well as the Scriptures and songs that are chosen, add the flesh. This takes time. I block out a good amount of time to be with the family. But I believe it puts the love of Christ into practice.

  23. I think the last three posts have it right. I also have done many many funerals over the years. One mistake is to make it all about the person in the casket, or the urn. There is a sense where this event should be overseen by the church, it doesn’t have to be “anything goes” just because the family wants it. Slide shows set to music come to mind. I’ve seen some that are just too much, and too long. On the other hand, the approach described in this article here is horrendous. I always share the truth of Christ in every funeral I do, Christian or not, but I would NEVER give an alter call. I assume that if the funeral director or the family has called upon me they understand they are getting a Christian perspective. However, I don’t do alter calls anywhere anytime. Yet the gospel is what gives perspective to any situation in life, including the death of the loved one.

    The very worst in my view is the trend to “Celebrations of Life” as opposed to funerals. This is the great evangelical disaster when it comes to dealing with death. Lord help us to just grow up.

    DSY