On Funerals, Comfort and the Gospel

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Funerals, like weddings, are family matters. So says, the church order. But it is never so simple. Families are part of communities. We come together, usually in church, to remember a person and comfort each other in the light of the good news of Christ. 

The very words I used in the previous paragraph demonstrate the tensions present in every funeral. Is this a private (family) affair or a community event? Are we there to remember a person who is mourned or to remember Christ who comforts? Is a family free to do as it wishes or are there community traditions that need to be observed? The tensions get played out in the conversations in preparation for a funeral. Should we have a funeral service? Who gets invited to the graveside service? How long and who should do the eulogy? What about the Video/PPT remembrances? 

In a recent conversation with a funeral director he observed that more people were choosing to have no funeral. The body is cremated. The ashes are given to the family. That’s the end of their involvement. The grieving is deeply private. The community and friends are not invited to participate in any event. 

How we conduct funerals is an indication of our understanding of how we live in community and before the Lord. Here are some thoughts that might help us sort through our various experiences. 

Personal but not private

Grief is personal.   Everyone’s relationship with the deceased is personal.  Our joys and sorrows with the person, the conflicts and agreements we may have had, the experiences we shared are personal.   But while deeply personal, the shared relationship is not usually secret.   A husband and wife have a shared life in a web of relationships.  Every one of those relationships is touched and changed by death.  

Funerals while reflecting personal experiences and stories give us opportunity to acknowledge how all these relationships have been touched and changed by death.  We bear witness to grieve and reconnect our relationships as we experience this life-changing event.   To grieve in community gives us a shared experience to begin the new way of walking together.   While the sorrow is deeply personal and filled with memories of private experiences, the funeral allows us to hold hands in grief and take the first steps in our journey together.

A family matter but a public event

A funeral is a family matter. In my experience, it is the family that chooses songs, picks texts, leads the eulogy, makes the PowerPoints and makes a number of other decisions. We respect their lead role in the shaping of the funeral. 

And yet it is a public event. There are time limits. A diverse group of people will come - some with limited relationship to the deceased or the family. Some leadership is necessary. Not everything that could be shared in the family is appropriate for public. Balancing the concerns and desires of the family with the public nature of the event is important.  

When I lead such events, I find it important to have family time. The sharing that happens in such a time is both helpful in preparation for the funeral, but also for more members of the family to share experiences. Hearing stories, seeing the various pictures allows the family to remember, to laugh and cry, to tell stories only the family knows (and wants to keep it that way). This is family time.  

Increasingly, the burial is also family time. Part of this is due to safety concerns for the funeral procession. Part of this is the wish of families for private time. In my present charge the graveside is next to the church and there is still a rich tradition of walking over to the burial site. But even with this tradition in place, increasingly the burial is becoming a smaller primarily family time with a few invited guests.  

Yet there is something lost in this change. The grave is a stark and final presence of death. Knowing about it at a distance is quite different than encountering it face to face. And in the face of it to confess faith and bear witness to the gospel is a heart shaping moment. To do so as community is comforting. We lift each other up in shared confession and life. 

The memorial service is a public event. I remind families that the eulogy ought to have some time limits. Things need not be over said. Not all the good stories need to be told. The eulogy is a small way of reminding each other of how a person was a gift in our lives and a testimony to Christ‘s life renewing grace. I usually suggest between 10 and 15 minutes. PowerPoints in the service should be between 5-10 minutes. I usually suggest on the shorter side. Not everything needs to be said, it is a window to a life. Because it is a public event, time and the limits of what can be said are important.  

At a public memorial, a community of faith testifies together of our common story in Christ in which we find our present comfort. We do this through song and words. Death disrupts life and changes relationships. Our God restores and redeems in Christ. By testifying together to our faith, we deliberately turn our hearts and minds toward the one who heals and renews our broken lives. This turning is an important part of our shared life and public witness. 

At a public memorial, we also address the family. Sometimes this happens in a eulogy. More often this happens in the meditation/ sermon. It is important to recognize that this is both an opportunity to remind us of God’s word to us and an opportunity for the community to speak to the family as faithful partners in the journey. This public promise of faithfulness is an important part of our life together. 

A remembering of a person but comfort is rooted in gospel

Finally, we remember a person. In some traditions, no eulogy was given because we did not want to focus on a person instead of God. Remembering a person can be done in a way that shows gratitude to God. We can celebrate faith, love and service. We can tell stories that share joy. There is even a way of telling stories of forgiveness. Remembering a person is vital to good grieving. Remembering respectfully and with truth is honoring for the family. Remembering can be a way of celebrating our life with God. 

Yet it is important that the way we do the service helps us find comfort in God and praise to the Lord. For me, the last word needs to belong to God. In the services I lead, the eulogy comes early in the service, the preaching toward the end. By doing this we end in comfort and end with the Word of God. 

Funerals are important life events in family and in the community. Every time a funeral becomes an opportunity to grieve well. I am grateful we can journey together through grief in faith, hope and love.  

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Neil, I would like to suggest that a minister of the church does not have to lead the memorial service.  In my own case, my immediate family members have absolutely no connections to the pastor of my church because they live far away.  They know, however, that my faith community is central to my life, and they will honour that. So, I have suggested that certain family members they know can serve as the leader.  No sermon is mandatory, but the presence of Christ and words of comfort can be shared in so many other ways than just during a sermon.  Maybe I am just a rebellious person :-), but I just want to put it out there that there is lots of room for creativity.   Diane Plug

Great article. Funerals have come a long way. I attended one this past week where they played Frank Sinatra "My Way" along with songs by the Gaithers. In the past, I have been to funerals which hardly mentioned the deceased or their life. As you mentioned, we can show gratitude to God by sharing stories of this person - what better way? Real concrete ways. I hope that when I have entered the heavenly realm, people can see the love of God, the work of God through memories they have of me. I may not have been perfect but Grace is all I needed. May I also add, that I do not like it when people preplan their funeral by saying "no funeral, no gathering etc." Funerals are for the living, for those left behind to grieve , not the deceased.  It is a family matter but that depends on your vision of family - my family includes those related by blood but also those related by the blood of Christ, those related by friendship, love and support. A favourite new quote by Ram Dass - "we are all just here to walking each other home".

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