On October 18, 2012

Inspi(re)ality #8: Funerals and The Gift of Empathy

 

This is another post in a year long series about both the nuts and bolts of practical ministry and how it relates to the reason we got into ministry in the first place.

The first time I ever spoke in front of an actual crowd it was for a funeral I was doing.  One of the members of the 10 person church I was growing up at had died….and it was obviously a big deal for us. We’d just lost 10% of the church. So I stood up in front of a couple of hundred people and talked about Frank and how much he meant to us, and about death and resurrection and grief and hope.

And I was 14 years old.

Which means I actually didn’t write the funeral. Bro. Foy, the patriarch of the church I grew up at did.

Which was meaningful, because Frank was Foy’s brother.

Looking back on it, I can’t imagine the courage that took to allow some punk teenager to speak words in one of your most tender moments. But that’s exactly what he did, and thanks to Foy, I’ve been doing funerals ever since.  There is a weight to this part of ministry that is really hard to explain. And the temptation will be for us to not fully enter into it. If I could give one piece of advice when it comes to helping the grieving family, it would be this: Don’t jump to the resurrection too soon. Stand with people when they grieve. Jesus wept, and he didn’t just believe in the Resurrection, he was the Resurrection.

If this was your dad or spouse, how would you want the minister to enter into this?  Be present and listen, the most important things that people tell you might not have anything to do with what they say. The word for this is Empathy.

I have one suit that I wear for funerals. And in the coat pocket of that suit is the funeral program for Bro. Foy.

The person who taught me to do funerals.

The guy who is the reason I’m a preacher today.

And before every funeral I do, I look at that program. Because I love him. And I know that there are people who are gathering now who love the person who died the same way.

That’s why Empathy matters, that’s why funerals are more than just a task or a necessity for ministry. They are ways of facilitating and helping grieving to happen.

And with that in mind I’d like to introduce you to someone who is very gifted at empathetically entering into these worlds of grief. I’ve asked my friend Randy Piersall to write for the next couple of weeks, about best practices that he’s seen from ministers in funerals.

Randy is a local funeral home director and one of the best people that I’ve seen at entering into people’s grief and standing with them.  And today I’ve asked him to introduce himself, and share a bit of the story behind why he is a funeral director, and why what ministers do in funerals matter.

Meet Randy Piersall

Over the next couple of weeks Jonathan has asked me to write about some of the best things I have seen in the ministry of serving families during loss, how the situations surrounding a death impact how a life is celebrated or remembered and I may throw a few other topics and stories in as well, but this week I really just want to talk a little about how I entered a career of funeral service and why after 17 years I still find it incredibly rewarding.

Funeral directing doesn’t run in my family, in fact until I graduated from college, I had never even been to a funeral.  I was focused on being an accountant and after graduating from ACU I landed a job as a Controller for a company that was buying funeral homes. It was a great job with a solid company that was growing exponentially.  After a year of working as a Controller my boss asked me to move with my wife to manage a group of funeral homes we had just purchased and at 24 I did exactly as they asked.  As you can imagine I was “well” received as 24 year old “boss”.  It was a difficult learning experience but one that changed my life forever.

While we were in this community, my wife and I became very involved with a local church and found a group of friends that we will never forget.  We celebrated birthday’s together, went through pregnancy or difficulties with pregnancy together and unfortunately we experienced loss together.  After a few years of being in this community one of our best friends developed cancer and six months later she was gone.  Even though I wasn’t a funeral director they knew I worked in the funeral home so they called me.  I remembering trying to do anything I could to make things easier for her husband, all the while in the back of my mind thinking, “if my friend associates me with the death of his wife from now on, I am done doing this.”  Well the exact opposite of what I feared actually happened.  We became closer than we were before, spending time playing racquetball, getting out frustrations, sharing thoughts and feelings about life and loss.  I was convinced at that point that walking with people through grief created a bond that was something I needed to bring meaning to my life.

Over the years I have taken care of hundreds of families, and each time the relationship I develop with them is a little different.  My focus is always the same, humble myself and become a servant, shoulder whatever burden they will let me take on, and lighten the load of loss they are carrying.  In a way, it’s almost like the feeling you get when you give a gift, but in this situation the gift is time, compassion, concern, acceptance, and understanding.  So even though I might not be able to have the same experience I had with my close friend, each time that feeling of giving a gift keeps me going.

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  • Zach S.

    Thanks for sharing, Randy.

  • John Wallace

    Excellent counsel and insight right there!

  • Julie McFarlin

    Randy,
    I did not know you before my Dad died.  I just know that you feel like a family member now.  My Mom, Betty Fowler, just knew that you were the one to help us.  You did so much for us and you definetly have the gift of compassion and love and servanthood. Thank you for blessing our family with your gifts.  Love Julie Fowler McFarlin