A member of this church is attending a funeral for her father later today. She will be in my prayers throughout the day. Funerals are part of a grieving process and a necessary piece to letting go. There are many theories about the funeral service; some theological, some pastoral, some practical. All have their merits and as a minister of 26 years I pass on what I have learned in all categories of grief.
There are some differences of opinion on funerals. Some liturgical churches prefer to ground the service in the Easter season, the theme of every funeral is resurrection, the story of Jesus’ life, death and new life. There is minimal attention to the life we celebrate because that life, all life, is grounded in the story of Jesus. From the point of view of Christian witness this makes sense, the service is less about the family, the loved ones, the local faith community and more about a theological statement, that there is hope in death, a hope of new life for those who die in Christ.
Non-liturgical churches tend to focus more on the grief of the family, friends and faith community at hand. There are tributes, sometimes called eulogies or words of remembrance, there are secular songs that remind the gathered community of whom this fine person was, there are visuals apart from Christian symbols that draw people to a place where they remember how special that loved one was. The focus here is on getting it right, finding an authentic and true expression of the humanity we all knew in the deceased.
The distance between these two poles of experience is what ministers and families navigate in the planning of funerals, how to ensure there is a sense of integrity to the Christian story and yet also a real connection to the unique life we come to celebrate and grieve. People who complain that funerals are too impersonal likely have attended services where the deceased’s name is rarely mentioned and they leave the church wondering, “Who was the service for anyway…” And others who complain about lengthy tributes and services that seem to go on and on have likely attended services that seemed to ignore any concern for the patience and stamina of the attendees.
My own sense is that there is a sweet spot of experience. That those who are concerned with impersonal services can be satisfied with a short, authentic and personal tribute and those who feel the more contemporary funeral is “out of hand” would likely not complain or notice the length of the service or tribute if the speaker(s) were skilled at using humour and stories that kept people’s attention. At least that is my point of view.
Two of the most effective words of remembrance I have ever heard were not short at all. Both speakers took their time but they effectively used both humour and personal stories to connect to a larger theme that resonated with the experience of the listeners. In short those of us who were listening felt like the speaker was really connecting the dots for us, helping us see the whole person, helping us put our own experiences of him/her in a larger context. One speaker was a son-in-law and the other a son. Both of them helped the congregation to move through grief, laughter and joy to a place where we felt hope was real.
My prayer for anyone going to a funeral is that s/he feel this kind of connection, where the particular touches the larger story, that we also can place our own finite lives within that ongoing story. Peace.