5 thoughts on funerals and ministry

I officiated a funeral the other morning. This is an aspect of ministry with which I’m becoming much more comfortable as I’ve had opportunities to do several of these in the last couple of years. It is a great privilege and a fascinating experience to be a minister of the gospel at a funeral. 5 thoughts on funerals and ministry:

  1. Being the minister at a funeral connects you to families.  This is basic, but so very true. The family I served this morning is one I’ve worked with quite a lot over the past couple of years. Since April alone, I have led the funeral of a very close family friend, the funeral of their grandfather, and then this morning, the funeral of their father. I know many of them just from funerals. After the service, one of the family members told me that I am now “part of their history”. It’s true. I’ve had the privilege of walking alongside them through death, which connects me directly into the life – the living history – of the family. When a family member dies, people need a minister. They want one; they need someone to lead a service, to “say a few words”. It is a tremendous privilege to serve people in these circumstances.
  2. At a funeral, the minister makes some people very uncomfortable. The title “pastor” puts some people on edge in any setting, but I find the title to have a peculiar effect at funerals. Maybe it’s the extra weight of the presence of death and the thoughts of judgment and salvation that come with it. I was apologized to a few times over the course of the weekend by people who swore mildly or merely told the truth about their own behavior – as though they need to answer to me for their lives. Which leaves me wondering: Jesus hung around “sinners”. He was comfortable around them and they seemed to be comfortable around him, though these people must have known that he was a pious man. How did Jesus make them so comfortable? How did he respond when people swore right in front of him at dinner, or told an off-color joke?
  3. Death is the elephant in the room, and even at a funeral most people don’t want to deal with it. T. S Elliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Nowhere have I found that to be more true than at funerals. There is a fuzzy, Christian-ish sentimentality that settles on a lot of people around a funeral. People say things like, “Well, we know he’s in a better place”, or “She was an angel sent to earth, and now God has called her back to heaven” – and other sentiments straight off precious moments cards. Often these sentiments operate on the basis of a set of unquestioned assumptions, and are placed like bandages over the wound of death. Many people – even standing in the very presence of a death – will avoid at all costs the ultimate questions posed to every one of us by a corpse. The job of the minister is to deal with the reality of death and to help people deal with it well. The question I struggle with: how hard do I push people to acknowledge the consequences of what is staring them in the face?
  4. The biblical view of death is much more stark than the popular conception of heaven as a pie-in-the-sky escape. A continuation of the last thought. Here’s what I mean: many people just want comfort at a funeral. They just want to say that they’ll see the dead one again, just want to talk as though death is a transition from one world to the next. They cling to a vague conception of a world of clouds and harps, and of ethereal beings floating around with famous people from throughout history and all of your loved ones that have gone before. This vague concept of an afterlife (held by many, many people who haven’t ever really read the bible or actually lived as a practicing part of any Christian tradition) is no doubt Christian in it’s origins – these folks aren’t strict materialists. But it is missing so many essential parts of a truly Christian conception of death that it doesn’t qualify as actually Christian at all. In this popular view, there is no judgment, no need for Christ, no God before whom we will stand, no accounting for a life poorly lived, no need for grace or to cling to a Savior. There is no future resurrection, no coming new heavens and new earth, no recognition of death as a violent intruder in God’s good creation. It continues to be surprising to me how many people will talk about heaven and never once want to talk about the God who presumably lives there. The biblical view of death is not only thicker than this popular conception, but it is also starker. There can be no easy answers at a funeral. There are only clear warnings and glorious, glorious promises. For Christians, funerals are not opportunities to avoid reality, but are calls to smarten up and look hard at our own lives and our mortality. When I do committals (where the casket is placed over the grave, following the service in the church or funeral home) I use the traditional service form, which includes this line: “Death is the destiny of us all, of every man and women; we who are alive should take this to heart. May we learn the lessons of this day and take comfort from and place our trust in Jesus Christ.”
  5. A central task of a minister of the gospel is to help people die well. This cannot begin at the funeral home, because dying well involves living well. By the time I’m called in to do a funeral, the living and the dying is usually already done. But the perspective given by a funeral always changes the way I relate to people during the following week. I heard once that in many of the old Puritan churches, the graveyard was placed just outside of the church where it could be viewed by the minister through the windows, while standing in the pulpit. The idea was that the preacher would always see the people to whom he spoke with a view toward their ultimate end. Standing in the pulpit, looking out over the living faces of the souls under his charge, and he would see behind them the skulls carved on the gravestones among which some day their remains would be laid to rest. “I preach,” said the Puritan Richard Baxter, ” As a dying man, to dying men and women.”
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2 thoughts on “5 thoughts on funerals and ministry

  1. I really like that Puritan perspective at the end. One of the wonderful things about parish ministry that many of us no longer have.

    Have you ever watched Six Feet Under? You oughta just rent the first disc. I think you’ll appreciate the approach they take to discussing death in that show. Meg and I are maybe halfway through the first season. It can get a little dark for every-night viewing!

  2. No, I haven’t seen it. We’ll have to check it out. I like watching series on dvd during the long winter nights up here in the north.

    By the way: I heard you guys are going to be up in this area sometime soon? Maybe we’ll get a chance to see you?

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