As a pastor and a chaplain I not only officiate many funerals but I also think that as a chaplain I probably attend more funerals than many other ministers. Seriously chaplains attend a lot of funerals because you have connections with lots of different people from many different areas of life, not just the people in your church or friend/family circle. When I first started writing this blog post (some months ago) I had attended /helped officiated 6 funerals in the four weeks prior to starting to write the post. Funerals are simply a normal part of my daily life. I have experienced some really amazing funerals and I have been present for some horrendous ones.
Before I give my thoughts let me just say these thoughts are from my white-middle class perspective. Other cultures have very different funeral practices and my thoughts might go against the grain for those practices. For example, Hmong funerals in our area. So just remember these are my thoughts from my perspective. I think they may be helpful but if their aren’t just ignore them.
So here are my few thoughts on some attributes that help to make for a life-giving funeral :
- It is personal – I don’t mean by this that it is small or intimate. I have watched as some officiants tried to talk personal about the deceased and I was fairly sure that every one in the room could tell that the minister had never actually met the person who he/she is eulogizing or spent anytime with the family members to hear stories about the deceased. The most amazing funerals I have ever been a part of have involved the minister also being one of the ones who grieves, but I have also seen some funerals where the minister didn’t know the deceased but had obviously spent enough time with the relatives to speak of the relatives’ thoughts and feelings and these were still wonderful funerals
- It is genuine – I am not suggesting that we speak ill of the dead, but I have been to a few funerals where all that was said about the deceased was overly positive, vague, overarching, and pretty much meaningless. Everyone’s a saint when they die is only true for those who really didn’t know the deceased. Some of the most amazing funerals I have ever been to have acknowledged the deceased’s faults in such a manner that you knew people loved him/her despite, and sometimes because of, their faults. Two people got up at my father’s funeral and talked about how cheap he was and all I did was smile because I knew that they actually knew and loved my dad and his cheap ways. I’ve been to funerals were lots of flowery words were said about the deceased that everyone in the room knew weren’t true. “He would give the shirt off his back,” but no one can name an example of him doing anything close. “She loved her family greatly,” except for the family members that she hurt over and over again. Cliché, cliché, cliché, ad infinitum because that what you say when you feel like you can’t say the truth.
- It acknowledges death – this one may seem a little strange because you would think that a funeral would obviously acknowledge death but often they don’t. We are so scared of death that we no longer like to even call them funerals. Nope, we call them “celebrations of life” and we talk about everything except the fact that we are going to miss our loved one and that their absence hurts. At funerals we gather together to help each grieve. Sometimes that grief involves laughter and smiles but those laughs and smiles come with sadness and pain. If we just run away from the pain then we don’t help anyone grieve.
- It points beyond itself – Yes I am a person of faith but I think this is true regardless of whether a person is actually a person of faith or not. I believe funerals should remind us of things that are bigger than ourselves. Specifically I believe there should be a connection with the divine but even if you aren’t a believer I think that funerals should help the living to have a long view of life. When it points beyond itself a good funeral allows those who have died before us to shape what we leave for those who will come after us. Funerals help us to think in terms greater than our own existence on this earth.
- It has some structure – The worst funerals I have ever been too have had no structure whatsoever. Everything doesn’t have to be written down and planned but please have a little structure. Have the people doing the eulogies think about and possibly write down what they are going to say. Figure out the music beforehand (seriously I have been to a funeral where people were scrolling through a phone trying to find a song that they thought the deceased would like to play on the sound system). Some structure recognizes that there are people at the funeral with varying degrees of grief. Some are just there for the family and want to let the family know that they hurt with them. Others are there to be comforted and need to be comforted for a long time. A horrific scene is when you can tell that a large group has taken off work to be there for the family and they begin to realize that this funeral isn’t going to end when they had been told and they are going to need to make other work or childcare arrangements or just duck out without giving their condolences to the family. I have seen people squirm. Whereas I have been to some highly structured funerals full where every word was prescribed that were still amazingly personal and meaningful.
These are just a few of my thoughts as someone who goes to many funerals. What I know is that I hope for those I love to have funerals that help all those who love them, including me, to grieve their loss , remember the deceased, and most importantly point to the God of life Who is there to comfort all who grieve.