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Is her name Carrie Mae or Carrie Lou?
My stomach tensed as I stood to give the funeral message. I can't believe I left the name off my notes!
My heart beat fast. I reached into my jacket pocket as discreetly as possible. Where's that obituary? It's soaking up the sweat that's spreading under my arm. It's so damp it's stuck in there. Looks like I'm going to have to do the message with all pronouns-"she" and "her" rather than using her name.
I looked at the family, seated in the first few rows. Will they suspect I've forgotten the name of their loved one? Should I ask them quietly for the name? Should I stop and fumble to get this damp obituary unstuck from my pocket?
I wish I could tell you this was fiction, but except for the name, it's not. My first year in the pastorate included thirty-one funerals, and often I strained to get the names straight. I'd write them in the margins of my Bible. I'd rehearse them in the "green room" at the funeral home. But now and then, I'd find myself stuck with pronouns. I felt like a duck, trying to move serenely on the surface while paddling like crazy underneath.
It's just not easy ministering to people you barely know. Usually the scenario goes this way: Your secretary hands you a note on the death. As you're rushing out the office door, she calls out, "She's Robert Caulkins's sister-in-law."
"Who's Robert Caulkins?"
"Bud Freely's nephew. He used to work for Axworth Drilling (Who? Robert or Bud?) before it became Shambling Pipe and Valve, which went bankrupt in '56."
"Okay. Thanks. Got to go."
You sit in the home with strangers all around, except for one older lady you met at the adult Sunday school Christmas party. It's hard to imagine doing anything particularly helpful for these people, and there seems to be the possibility of doing some harm-either through an ill-chosen phrase, a forgotten name, or just a general failure to rise to the occasion.
Fortunately, you don't remain a novice for long. And as I've done more of these funerals for people I've barely known, I've discovered they can be gratifying. In fact, they're often not as difficult as those for long-time acquaintances with whom you share a vast store of personal memories.
After all, the expectations of the family and congregation aren't as high. They know the constraints of time and your unfamiliarity with the person. If there were months to prepare the funeral, then they'd expect a substantial research program of you. But the folks know you've had to scramble, and they can be forgiving.
Compare this to the funeral of a giant of the church, well known to you and everyone, where the "you'd better get it right, Buster" factor is high. You enter the pulpit on these occasions with the suspicion that when you're done, a brief silence will be followed by a display of score cards like the ones competitive divers face. But when they know you and the deceased were strangers, they're more inclined to leave the cards down.
None of this is to suggest our primary concern in preparing a service is reputation. We have important things to say as God's people on the scene. If offense and disappointment are the natural outcomes of being faithful to God in the funeral setting, then so be it. But offense due to ignorance is nothing to be cherished, and it's nice to know you're going into a situation where the chances for it are reduced.
In funerals for the little known, the eulogy terrain is treacherous. It's difficult to get a candid picture of the deceased. As people sit in the parlor with the pastor, they feel obliged to limit their remarks to niceties. I suspect if it were Hitler's funeral, little or nothing would be said about the Holocaust, but someone would be sure to praise his special work on behalf of Aryans.
It's often said that funeral directors are prime candidates for religious cynicism since they hear so many scoundrels preached into heaven. Day after day they watch pastors gloss over corrupt lives in an effort to make everybody feel good, and so the meaning of discipleship is obscured. If for no other concern than the souls of funeral directors, we should be careful about heaping up misplaced praise.
It's embarrassing to hear after a funeral full of eulogy that the person was, in fact, a skinflint and a tyrant at home. As a pastor, you realize you've jeopardized one of your most precious vocational resources, your credibility.
The danger extends to praise of family members. I once ventured some kind words for the widow, calling her "one of God's good gifts" to the man. I knew this would be gratifying to her and felt sure, in light of the affectionate words I'd been hearing, that it was true. But not long after, a man in the community took me aside to inform me that she was the worst thing that had ever happened to her husband; she had tormented him with suffocating advice most of his life. The man's tone let me know he counted me as just one more in a long line of ministerial saps. G. K. Chesterton built his "Father Brown" detective series around the premise that clergy are savvy folks since they have access to so many dark secrets, but the notion that pastors are fuzzy idealists is strong, and a misdirected eulogy serves to reinforce this crippling impression.
There is danger as well in the opposite direction. What shall we call the pronouncement of critical words at a funeral? Mallogy? Kakalogy? Antilogy? Whatever the term, there may be the urge to wax prophetic against the departed and his type. Here lies before you a perfect sermon illustration for the "rich young ruler" or the "Demas has departed" texts. Only kindness and a strong desire to preserve your ministry and life will keep you from preaching it. Outright condemnation is rare at funerals.
But, as those of us who've written reference letters know, in a context where flowery speech is the norm, a meager word of support says a great deal by what it leaves out. This is fine; it communicates with delicacy. But even here I hesitate.
We can damn with faint praise. The relatives may have been the reticent sort. Or perhaps they weren't morally or spiritually observant. They told me nothing bad, perhaps, but their failure to tell the good could be leaving me with an inaccurate impression. If I'm not careful, I'll pass along that impression to the funeral congregation. In short, a eulogy can underdo as well as overdo it.
It's embarrassing to be patronized by a relative after the funeral: "If only you had known her better" or "It's so hard when you don't really know them." The tone tells the story: "You really fouled up, but I'm going to make a lame excuse for you just to keep things pleasant." You know you've undereulogized.
So I shy away from eulogy. It's so easy to get it wrong. If it were unavoidable, it would be worth the risk, but there's an alternative. I don't have to eulogize. Neither do I need to stick to a purely generic funeral, just leaving a blank for the name. Let me call this alternative the "personalized" funeral.
I begin by scavenging, searching for bits and pieces of information about the person. As soon as possible, I go to the home where the family is gathering. I have them talk about the person, giving each one there a chance to reminisce. Often friends and neighbors will add to what the family says. Certain themes emerge. Anecdotes generate anecdotes. There is a pause for tears, and then a fresh word comes. Sometimes it runs fifteen minutes, sometimes an hour. I may ask questions to open new regions of memory. All the time, I'm taking mental notes.
Many families bring out objects to show you-a poem stuck in his or her Bible, a Sunday school class history, a photo of a long-dead spouse, a newspaper clipping, a watercolor he did. Any one of these can supply the key to your funeral remarks.
Back at the church are other resources for those at least remotely related to the church. Long-time members can add information. Bound issues of the church paper may hold other traces. I keep a file folder on each household in the church. Into these go letters, hospital visitation note cards, newspaper clippings. When death occurs, I pull the family file. Perhaps there's a Christmas card I'd forgotten, a notice of election to a civic club office, or the record of a comment made from the hospital bed.
I'm not after a comprehensive presentation of his or her life. If so, then the day or two between death and the funeral would be filled with anxiety. There would be too much to discover and assimilate. That's why I steer clear of eulogy: it presses me into this sort of anxiety.
But when the focus is not on the person but on the Lord, the bind is not there. I simply try to use an item from the deceased's life to introduce a truth from God, not build a case for the person's glory. Thus I scavenge with a different spirit. I'm not looking for everything but for something, some hook upon which to hang an apt biblical word.
1. Checking her hospital visitation card, I found I'd once read Psalm 121 to Alice. At the funeral, I recalled that moment together and then focused upon that psalm.
2. As I visited in the home, the family showed me a poem placed under the glass on Margaret's dresser. The closing words, "Remember God the Gardener knows when flowers need the rain," provided the base for comments on the sufficiency of God's grace for the woman who'd died-and for those of us who remained.
3. The family made clear Jack's love for the Bible, sports, and music. I saw in all these a hunger for heaven, where we find, respectively, the full truth of God, release from drudgery, and a new song. The message was not upon what a good fellow he was but upon the nature of heaven.
4. Bill's son passed on to me a small metal cross with the words "Jesus Christ" written on it. He'd found it in his father's effects. At the funeral, I mentioned this by way of introduction to the truth of the Cross.
The son also told of a time when Bill flew across country to help him after a car wreck. From the report of this deed, I quickly moved to a description of God's sacrificial love for his children.
Notice that in none of these was there a serious attempt to praise the deceased. In fact, in the first one, there was no praise at all. But the simple act of tying a biblical point to some feature of the deceased's life personalized the message and prepared those gathered to receive it.
You'd think this minimal attention to the glories of the deceased would frustrate the family and friends, but it's my experience that this approach is well received. Family members will sometimes coach you on what to say on their loved one's behalf, but they, too, seem satisfied with personalizing rather than eulogizing. Once they've seen the Lord and his work lifted up, they realize this is something better than what they had in mind. You might say they discover what they wanted all along, though they didn't suspect it.
The juxtaposition of loving reference to their dead friend or relative and words of instruction from God is generally satisfying and helpful. Of course, when it comes to working with people, there are no foolproof methods. I've also blown this approach a time or two.
Shortly after coming to a church, I was called to do the funeral for a woman. I wasn't sure what I could say about this near stranger, but as I visited the family in her home, I found she had been a pretty good artist. It struck me that a sermon could be built on this interest of hers.
In brief, the message went this way: In art, we have the realists (e.g., Roman sculptors) and the idealists (e.g., Greek sculptors). The Bible is that way. It shows the realism of David's sin and Peter's denial, the warts of human existence. It also shows us the ideals, the perfection of Jesus and heaven. So God meets us at every level. He takes us from perdition to sanctification, and so on.
I cringe to recount it. It's so strained. You can almost see the beads of sweat form on the words. If I'd taken more time to reflect on what needed to be said, I could have made a more direct and satisfying statement. Having taught aesthetics for a number of years, I saw a chance to trot out some old course material. And it sounded like old course material trotted out. I determined to serve up better baked bread thereafter.
The personalizing approach helps me keep clear on what I should count success. Have I succeeded when the family is gratified and failed when it's not? Not necessarily. If so, then flattery, touching both the deceased and the family, would be the best percentage shot. But I can aim higher.
It's not at all unrealistic to hope the service will lead a good number of those present into the presence of God. When this happens, lives are changed. Comfort, repentance, quickening can occur, or at least get underway. In the personalized funeral, this happens as we establish rapport with personal reference and then move on to God.
We don't think of funerals as laughing matters, but it's hard to keep from smiling when you see some of the folks who attend them. People who never come to church, whose lives are as dissolute as any to be found, find themselves seated before a preacher. They're usually black-sheep family members or rough-edged fellow workers. Whether they exhibit the florid face of the lush, the hair and jewelry of a lounge lizard, the affected sophistication of the socialite, the smug impatience of the self-made man, or the eyes that match a drug-fried brain, they look lost. Some squirm in borrowed Sunday-go-to-meetin' suits. Others posture in expensive, dress-for-intimidation outfits. And there you stand with Bible in hand. If you'll pardon the expression, "What a setup."
You see these people at most funerals, but you see more of them at funerals for those you barely know. The reason you barely know some folks is they are virtual strangers to the church. There are, of course, other reasons for unfamiliarity. You may be new to the church, the size of the congregation may be great, or the deceased may have lived elsewhere in recent years. But in many cases you're dealing with the unchurched.
A clear statement of the gospel is in order. I use a simple presentation I've committed to memory. It touches on repentance, trust, and the lordship of Christ, and provides a scriptural base for its claims. It's the sort of thing I could share in a moment with a desperate man. I want to be able to leave that funeral with a conviction like Paul's: "I am innocent of the blood of my listeners because I've not hesitated to proclaim God's counsel" (Acts 20:26-27).
If the personalizing item does not lead directly to the gospel statement, I introduce it in other ways. If I do compliment the deceased a bit, I might say he was no fool in that he did not rely on good qualities or deeds to make him right with God, which is an impossibility anyway.
On other occasions when I was assured the deceased loved the Lord, I've presumed to speak for the dead, telling the congregation the one thing he or she would most want them to hear, namely the gospel. No one has objected that I've misrepresented someone's interests.
A well-handled funeral can put pastors in a unique position. Because we have played a critical role in a delicate situation, we enjoy a special standing with the family. They see themselves in our debt. We're pasted in their book of memories. We can therefore move more easily into their lives to do God's work. Are they lost? They might give evangelistic counsel a hearing. Are their lives in disarray? Perhaps they'll open their door and ears to advice. Are they hoping for help for a friend or relative? They'll likely think of the one who helped them in their time of difficulty.
So many walls encircle the Christian minister. When breaks occur, when opportunities for entrance show themselves, then there's cause for celebration. Funerals for those we barely know can serve this cause admirably.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of First Baptist Church in El Dorado, Arkansas.
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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