This is another post in a series for people who serve/volunteer/work in any kind of ministry setting. Inspi(re)ality is a year long series about the practical things we face in ministry, as well as why doing these things matter. This is the final post in this series for this year, but look for more beginning in January.
The following is a guest blog by Eddie Sharp on how he goes about writing a funeral and caring for a family in the middle of grieving. For those of you who are not familiar with Eddie, he is a legend in West Texas. He is one of the best ministers I know of at doing funerals, and I’m so glad he’s willing to share some of the wisdom from his experience. Here’s Eddie:
Writing about funerals calls for a bit of restraint and focus for me. I have buried a small town over the years. I think I did 500 funerals or so during my ministry with the University Church of Christ in Abilene, TX between 1980 and 2008. The funeral is a time for service in the name of Jesus. It is a time when the church can honor its beloved members, a time when faith finds a its feet to stand in the presence of loss, and a time when one can minister into the lives of those without faith caught up by the grinding surprise of mortality.
Some presuppositions ought to be laid out:
- Every funeral you do is played out against the backdrop of your own mortality and how you have resolved your feelings about your own death in the presence of the cross and the resurrection. We have the right to do funerals as men and women who believe the tomb is empty. Hope and joy sing harmony behind all we do.
- Doing a funeral costs you in your body and soul. You have no place to hide from the loss experienced by someone else. You have no right to hide behind your own denial or behind some structured funeral liturgy that offers to insulate you from the ugliness of death and loss.
- The minister standing in the circle of death and mourning makes a promise to God and the family that he or she will not run from the sorrow of the loss, the dysfunction of the family or anything else about the situation created by the death. We will not run.
My first funeral was for an 80 year old granddad in Trent, TX. who took his 20 year old granddaughter on her first dove hunt. She followed the birds across until she took the shot into her granddad’s head. They called to see if the new preacher at the Church of Christ in Trent could do the funeral. They are were not members, but they needed a preacher. I was 20 and finishing my last semester as an undergrad Bible major at ACU. My mentor and father in ministry, Jimmy Jividen, had given me a template for working though a funeral process. It was what I had; it served me well enough. I can’t remember a thing I said that day, but I’ll never forget the glazed eyes of that granddaughter. I can’t remember what I said; I remember I answered the call and didn’t run away. Many of you reading this piece know exactly how it feels to be so alone in the moment and yet feel the presence of God empowering you. You know.
I have helped so many say goodbye to their loved and no-so-loved ones. I did the funeral for my best friend after 20 years of our daily conversations. I have said impossible words over the tiny caskets of babies. I have heard Taps echo over the scene of flag-draped casket and honor guard at attention out of respect for an old soldier surrounded by family and friends. And for wives. And for grandmas. And for elders. And for alcoholic plumbers.
The point of this piece is to think about how I decide what to say at a funeral. Perhaps I can only describe what I do. I am sure the process is different for everyone. First, I try to listen for the overarching themes in the person’s life. Sometimes when I have known the deceased when she was alive, I already know what I think the meta-narrative of her life is. When I don’t know the person as well, and even when I do, I try to listen to what the family says about the deceased. There are stories usually told by family and friends. I try to listen very closely for the “theology” of the person’s life. Sometimes I ask the family what they remember, what were the word’s of wisdom given by the deceased, what were the favorite Scriptures. These tidbits of information sometimes make it into the service, but they are more important in helping clarify the great themes of the person’s life. In almost every situation, if I have listened well and with an open heart, I will hear those themes. And when I take those themes into the funeral message, the family and friends recognize them and get a clear vision of their beloved for the hardest day they have known. Find the theology of the person.
Second, don’t be afraid to tell the truth in a kind way. Pretty often everyone knows something funny, quirky or just plain difficult about the deceased. If that aspect of his life is not mentioned, there is going to be something a bit fake about the funeral. Sometimes you just have to say that he could be difficult (not always the easiest person to be around), opinionated (often wrong, but never in doubt), a neat freak (we may have to pause here in a minute to re-dust the casket), and so on. There is usually a right and delicate way to tell the truth that needs to be told to give the service an air of respectful reality.
Third, spend some time stepping into the life of the deceased. Slip into the skin of someone born in the Oklahoma Panhandle during the Dust Bowl. Wear the shoes of the lady with six children born to her who buried two of them. Imagine the life of the woman who lived as a faithful widow for 40 years alone. Be the soldier in Germany or Korea or Vietnam stumbling through the mud, hoping to live another day. Use your blessed imagination and what you might say out of it to shine light on the person and her simple, noble life.
Fourth, do not talk very long. The minister usually gets to go last in the service. If at all possible, do not let the service go past an hour. People lose their focus on the funeral and start worrying about their personal to-do lists after an hour. I often feel myself editing what I am going to say as others going before me mention ideas and events. I try to use the right Scripture, but not a lot of Scripture. Find the right verses. I try to paint a picture of what this life was about. What values empowered it? What struggles marked it? What dreadful wounds turned to scars of honor? I try to say two or three true things that this person’s life means. I try to put the person’s life in the context of faith and hope. I try to let the last thing I say encapsulate everything I know and hope about that person.
I hope this reminds you of what you already know and already do. If you are a younger minister, go to the funeral directors near you and volunteer to do funerals for people who do not have ministers, but need one for a funeral. This will be a holy service for you to perform, and you will get experience that will bless you. For those of us who have done many funerals, do not forget to see each funeral as a unique opportunity to serve. We cannot coast on our experience. Each family deserves our best effort. In all the ways we get to serve families in their times of need, may God bless us.