November 20, 2017

Pastoral Care Week: A Funeral Rant

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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.

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.

A while 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 worked 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.

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. I’ve been to two funerals that were similar to the uncomfortable one you described. It’s a shame and a terrible feeling. There are no retakes for that final farewell. At one, one of the sons did speak but couldn’t conceal his bitterness and competitiveness toward his dad. I wanted someone to go up and stop him. Then the pastor, who is fairly famous and much published in the U.S., spoke in a way that made it clear he barely knew the guy but was trying to sound familiar. I couldn’t wait for the horribly uncomfortable thing to end. Anyone with some sensitivity and heart can apply your template and make a positive impact if they take the time.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      My mother’s funeral in 1975 was just as uncomfortable. And kind of cringeworthy.

      Mostly due to cluelessness. After a ringside seat on a six-month losing battle with small-cell lung cancer, we were all pretty numbed out. The only pastor-equivalent was from the only churchlike group we knew of at the time — that End-of-the-World Shepherding cult I was mixed up in at the time. We got the ONLY funeral address/sermon he knew: Salvation Message & Altar Call.

      Looking back on it after 40 years, it was one of those “WHAT WERE WE THINKING?” reality-show moments. Though it sure wasn’t funny at the time.

      • I’m sorry to hear that.. I was mixed up with a similar group in NYC at that time. Certainly not emblems of caring and sensitivity.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Though after 40 years, I look back at it and go “WHAT WERE WE THINKING?”

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    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?

    SELL THAT FIRE INSURANCE!

    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.

    But he SAVED SOULS!
    (Note: SOULS. Not people.)

  3. James Mac says:

    You should see the way it happens in the UK… most rites of passage are cremations rather than burials. If you’re fortunate and the local council runs its crem humanely you get 30 minutes to run the service: if you aren’t you are pushed through in under fifteen (you are almost driven out so the next lot can come in). The funeral of my uncle was one of the latter: it was worse than your malpractice pastor because the minister who did my uncle’s made no impact AT ALL – it was just, we’ll do the necessary and collect the fee.

    And then you had people like the church I used to attend in Gloucestershire, who made a special effort to provide a wake, who had a retired minister (pushing 90) who handled the pastoral side of a lot of it, and whose careful blend of pastoral care and exhortation did bring people to a renewed faith.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      I am missing something. What is the connection between cremation and a rushed funeral? That is to say, why does the funeral have to be at the time of cremation? It is not at all uncommon in the US for the body to be cremated and the funeral held later.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Might be a UK thing.
        Or an assembly-line attitude.
        Probably varies from place to place; he mentioned “the local council” which implies the crem is run by local government (and Brits and Americans must have learned their bureaucracy from Russians…)

  4. I give up. Instead of sharing individual articles, I’m just going to go right ahead and share the whole pastoral ministry section!

    CM, you don’t just paint a picture of the kind of pastor I’d like, you paint a picture of the kind of pastor I’d like to be (and I’m not even a pastor!).

  5. Robert F says:

    The goodness of a God who we as human beings can trust in life and death, and with our living and our dead; the goodness of the life of the deceased; and the goodness of all human life: these are the emphases that make for the confidence and encouragement I look and listen for in the funeral services of those I have loved. And such funerals are times when I have a very high intolerance for anything but what amounts to a theology underwritten by an assumption of universal reconciliation coming from the pulpit, the liturgy and the prayers. How could anyone be comforted by a message that makes their loved one’s eternal felicity contingent on whether or not they believed in Christ? I know I couldn’t, and haven’t.

    • Robert F says:

      And then there was my father-in-law’s funeral, at an independent Baptist church he had been pastor to in South Carolina. Nothing but an excuse for an altar call. The preacher expressed absolute assurance of the deceased’s salvation, since he knew with certainty that Frank had faith in Jesus, and continually told the rest of us that we needed to be sure that we possessed the same faith against the day of our own deaths and judgment.

      In the meantime, I new something about the character and history of Frank that I’m sure the preacher didn’t, something that made me very aware that what we all depend on is the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, in this life and the next; and that my father-in-law was just as in need of that love and compassion, even now in his death; and that our guarantee against death and judgment is dependent on a decision made by Christ, from his side, not on us from ours.

      • Robert,
        I hope your wife’s recovery from surgery is progressing.
        Chris

        • She is doing very well, Chris. She just had her first follow-up appointment this morning; pathology on the biopsy shows no metastasis. Aside from another follow-up in four weeks, to check on progress of recovery from surgery, no further treatment will be required. We are both grateful, and a little startled, at how well the surgery and recovery have gone; and of course grateful most of all for her current cancer-free status. Thanks for asking, and for your prayers.

      • peregrin7 says:

        Amen. To both comments. Especially the first. And the last.

  6. I attended the funeral of the second husband of an old friend this week. I have known the friend for many years, but due to the busyness of both our lives, we had spent little time together in the past few years and so I didn’t get the chance to get to know her husband well. However, after at the end of the funeral, I was able to say honestly to the pastor that through his words, I felt as if I had spent weeks getting to know the deceased – his life, his work, his faith, all the various milestones and relationships that had defined him as a man and that pastor managed to indirectly share the gospel through all of that in a way that made the listener think – how can I get to know this Jesus whose light shone so clearly through the man whose life we were celebrating and whose death we mourned. There were many tears – but also laughter – I felt privileged to have been there. That’s the kind of funeral which is a comfort and a blessing to those left behind.

  7. Everyone has horror stories I’m sure. Growing up in a Southern Baptist community I can’t count the number of evangelistic sermons I’ve heard at funerals in front of captive audiences. But to be fair I have also attended a few funeral Masses where the deceased seemed like a spectator at their own funeral.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      I agree. The liturgical bad funeral is better than the Evangelical bad funeral, and it is bad in largely different ways, but it is still bad.

  8. Shortly after our pastor left a few years ago, a long-time member of the congregation passed away. The interim pastor, who had only known him for about two months, provided exactly the sort of service you describe in your example of what you would do. I learned much about the deceased in that service that I had never known.

    After leaving his position as our interim, he took a position as interim pastor in Roseburg, OR. One week after he began his position, the Umpqua Community College shooting happened. I can think of no pastor better equipped to step into a community reeling from tragedy and handle it with sensitivity and tenderness, traits built over a lifetime of learning how to pastor, not sermonize, people who are grieving.

  9. Dana Ames says:

    It sounds like the pastor who bungled the funeral CM attended was in the throes of Wretched Urgency. When I was an Evangelical, a “good funeral” would have included at least a few words about those attending considering what having faith meant, but even then the poor example would have been going overboard. I think I was insulated from the Wretched Urgency thing at funerals because my parents were funeral directors and when I was very young we lived in the apartment above the mortuary where they worked. I often sat at the top of the stairs and listened to the funeral services; I heard all kinds, but even the pastor in our small town who had the most doctrinal reasons to be wretchedly urgent did not go that far. He was simply too kind a person.

    One of the best things about growing up Catholic in a small town was that after the funeral Mass and burial those attending would repair to the church hall, or more often the home of the deceased’s family, for a big pot-luck meal and reminiscences – laughter and (usually) good memories amidst the sorrow. That’s real life. The forsaking of funerals for “memorials” (especially those without the presence of the deceased’s body) has become simply another way to avoid the reality of death and to cancel out the community memory.

    Dana

    • Pretty much agree, Dana, though i do get the reasons for some people wanting private funerals followed by public memorial services. And I have never understood our American insistence on open-caskets, or typicsl “viewings,” for thst matter. (Though i know there are regional differences in this.) In the Jewish traditions, the casket is alwsys closed; in England, that’s the norm for xtians as well. I think it honestly is both respectful and kinder to many of those grieving. Open-casket can be too much of a spectacle, imo, but it’s a very personal thing, and everyone is different in this regard. I know that i don’t want to be on display, myself. (And prefer cremstion to interment.) But that’s just me.

      • I was the one who wanted Mom’s funeral service with an open casket. My brother and sister would probably have preferred a closed casket, and probably Mom would have too. I just wanted to see her one more time. Selfish, I guess. But her sister, who came from 400 miles or so away, did say afterwards that she was glad we’d had the open casket, because “I could see she wasn’t there; it was just a beautiful doll.” As you say, numo, very personal.

        I have a horror of cremation, and would like either a “green burial,” just wrapped in a blanket, or a plain wooden box with holes drilled in it, such as the traditional Jews have (I’ve heard). Being 72, I guess I’d better get on with arranging that!

        • Jewish people use plain wooden coffins. Burial is very soon after death, as tradition stipulates no embalming.

          Thid is all do perdonal; I have a horror of burial, for myself. (Not gor others, necessarily.) My dad was a career ship’s captain who opted for cremation, partly so that his ashes could be scattered in the Pacific, off the coast of Oahu. It’s common practice for many out there, no matter what their beliefs are.

          I wonder, too, if some of this is generstional? I do know that it’s far more personal than is petmitted by msny traditions and customs (most of which aren’t set in stone, anyway).

          And i can totally understand about your mom’s funeral, and why you made thst choice.

        • That’s interesting. My mom had a closed casket at her instructions. I was amazed at how many people asked me about it later. The explanation was simple. My mother was an extremely dignified person and she found the idea of laying out in front of everyone unseemly. It was no more complicated than that but I was surprised at how much difference it made to some.

          • Stephen, i think it’s mainly to do with what people are used to.

            Catholic funerals sre closed casket. I think they have the right idea.

        • Dana Ames says:

          H. Lee, if you come back,

          There are monks (and others) around who build simple wooden caskets with cotton linings, suitable for green burial. Usually, a cross of some sort affixed to the lid is included in the price, but the builder might work with you for other options. Do some searching on the Internet.

          Dana

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      One of the best things about growing up Catholic in a small town was that after the funeral Mass and burial those attending would repair to the church hall, or more often the home of the deceased’s family, for a big pot-luck meal and reminiscences – laughter and (usually) good memories amidst the sorrow. That’s real life.

      “They put you into the ground, drive back to the church, and eat potato salad!”
      — Tony Campolo

  10. Terry Brown says:

    I attended a funeral service for a teenage girl who had died in a car crash. The church was full of high school students, many of whom were not only attending their first funeral but were in a formal church service for the first time. The pastor actually said God’s reason for taking the young girl was so that her friends could meet Him here in church. Followed by an altar call. What young person would choose in that moment to follow God?

  11. The fundamentalist horror stories make me glad I was raised in a mainstream Presbyterian church. My Dad’s funeral was very Presbyterian, very austere, but not any kind of Fire Insurance Sales job by any means. It was cold with icy rain. The minister was one whom Dad and Mom had known for a long time, in a cool, Presbyterian way, and he did the service right. Mom’s funeral was done by a minister from my brother’s small rural Methodist church, very kind and lovely.

    I have been to a fundamentalist service which was like those others have described, and it made my heart heavy. But I might add, I’ve been to a New Age Universalist-type service for a very dear friend of mine, and it was not much better for the mourners either. The minister just kept talking about how we should be glad our friend had “made the transition” and was on the other side and we should not cry but be happy for her. I cried anyway. At a funeral, don’t tell me how to feel! Tell me how fine and dear the person was to her family and friends, and how much his or her life mattered.

    I attended a Catholic service for a good friend who committed suicide. I was apprehensive even about attending, because I know the traditional Catholic attitude about suicide was that the person had thereby placed himself in hell forever. I thought if I heard a hint of that about my dear old friend, I’d either scream at the priest or walk out or both. But thanks be to God, things have obviously changed. The priest was a good friend of our friend, and he spoke tenderly and even humorously about him (“I remember him saying to me so often, ‘Hey, Father, you got a minute?” and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a lot more than a minute…'”. — because Paul loved to talk.) He said something like Paul’s compass was the Catholic Church, but in the last few months of his life, “the compass broke,” and his mind could not hold up any longer. He said or implied very strongly that Paul was safe with God, and it was a fine homily.

    Chaplain Mike, you are so right in saying that a funeral service is one of the most meaningful times that a pastor can have with the family and friends. The way you’d want to do it, and the way I’m sure you DO do it, is the very best way possible.

    • I think a lot more priests and non-fundy ministers are aware of mental illness and its role in suicide thsn was the case even 15-20 years ago. Which is merciful, because it is SO hard on the survivors, and i personally can’t see God being unmerciful toward people who’ve died in that wsy. Just seems completely out of character for him.

      As for the empty platitudes at the New Age service, yuk – many times over. Death is a kind of violence; those who remain to grieve need real comfort, not greeting card sentiments. They help nobody.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Christians are not alone in Saying Dumb Things.

        (Though there’s probably a correlation between Fundamentalist attitudes — no matter what the ideology — and Saying that sort of Really Dumb Things.)

  12. You should put all this pastoral stuff in a book, CM.

    Sounds like everyone has a pastoral fail at a funeral service. I’ve had two within the past two years. The first was the pastor at my sister-in-law’s service following her cancer death. He clearly had no idea who she was, turned the service into a “here’s some of my experiences” thing, and culminated the awkwardness with a “Would anyone like to say anything about Chrissy?” and before anyone could raise their hand he closed the service with a prayer

    The second was this same pastor at my wife’s grandmother’s funeral this past year. Similarly, since he didn’t know anything about her other than she was Scandinavian, he ended up talking for fifteen minutes about a trip he made once to Norway. I kid you not.

    • You should put all this pastoral stuff in a book, CM.

      Stay tuned…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      If there’s footage of this, YouTube could start a channel on “Epic Funeral Fails” or “Epic Pastoral Fails”.

  13. I play piano (not my day job) and have been asked to play at funerals, which I do gratis.
    My most cringeworthy moments have not been from the pastors – – they have been from the family selecting a song with lyrics that they didn’t really think through / listen to; they just liked the catchy chorus.

    I remember one years ago, a young woman named Angel who had been struck by a car and killed.
    Her family requested Amy Grant’s “Angels Watchin’ Over Me”, as if Angel’s new job is to now be their guardian.

    But there’s more – – when we got to verse 2 of that song:

    God only knows the times my life was threatened just today
    A reckless car ran out of gas before it ran my way
    Near misses all around me, accidents unknown
    Though I never see with human eyes the hands that lead me home

    Oops.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      My most cringeworthy moments have not been from the pastors – – they have been from the family selecting a song with lyrics that they didn’t really think through / listen to; they just liked the catchy chorus.

      Not just at funerals.

      I once heard Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” was commonly requested at weddings. (Read the lyrics sometime…)

      And then there’s the classic about a wedding hymn chosen at the last minute (because it was the only hymn the bride remembered): Onward Christian Soldiers.

  14. How timely… I was just at my neighbor’s funeral this morning. The service was held at the funeral home, but officiated by one of the priests from the local Catholic parish. The Father did exactly what Chaplain Mike described he would do in this situation. I remember thinking how grateful I was to be at a funeral like this, instead of the altar-call style I had seen so much growing up. The kind where the main point was to issue a 3 point sermon on heaven and hell and get as any people as possible to raise their hands to accept Jesus.