This morning I officiated at a graveside funeral service – essentially all the funeral plus the committal to the burial space. It was a beautiful day, warm for this time of the year, and for a blessing, not the least bit windy at the top of the hill in the cemetery. Burials in New England, in the winter months, can be really unpleasant. This was lovely.
The deceased, a 95 year old widow, had walked away from church participation (and, so far as her children knew, all relationship to God), upon the sudden death of her first husband. Her happy re-marriage did not bring her back to faith.
That said, they reported that she was a loving, kind and generous woman, beloved by her children, her second family, grandchildren and all. So, there I was, officiating at a service for a woman I will never meet, in the midst of family members who have all moved away from our little town: today was the only time I will ever see these people.
It was all made more interesting because the funeral home gave me the wrong address for the cemetery. Who knew that our town runs both town cemetaries out of one office, while the two are a good five miles apart? Who’d have expected that half the family was at the right spot, while the other half were with me, at the “right” address, but wrong location? Fortunately, someone had a phone, and we were soon on the way to the right spot, our very own mini-funeral procession, and no one was inconveniences by waiting an extra five minutes for our arrival. Moral of the story? First, check those addresses. Second? Always plan to arrive early.
There’s always a question as to just how much “proclamation of the Gospel” is appropriate at such a service. I’ve known pastors who’d preach a full-on, come-to-Jesus sermon over the casket of the dearly departed — but mostly I hear of them from the folks who were so turned off by the experience that the first thing they ask me is, “do you preach sermons at funerals?” And “yes” is definitely the wrong answer because these folks already know that sermons are a bad thing.
So, how exactly can I share God with these people? I try to do it in a number of ways. First, I am hospitable. When the family comes to me, I welcome them as they are. Sometimes they’re enormously embarrassed that they’ve had so little to do with church; I do my best to get them beyond that.
Secondly, I encourage the family to be truthful, at least among ourselves. If Dad had two families, let’s talk about that; then when I speak, I will not be saying things that everyone knows are false. In one of my earliest funerals, I buried a man who was a poacher and a wife-beater — drunk every Saturday night. Had I not been told those things, I might well have made a fool of the church in my comments; knowing the truth, I was able to offer comfort to a family that was just as glad he was gone.
And thirdly, I concentrate on the Gospel of Love – not uncritical, sloppy-agape love, but that love which welcomes us home. I am absolutely convinced that Love is the foundation of Christian life. You can believe all the creeds in the world, but as Paul says, if you have not love. . . And conversely, if you have love, then you are part of God’s family. I do not believe it serves God’s interests or anyone else’s to use the funeral as an occasion to suggest that the deceased fell short of God’s plan, or ought to have been a stronger church member.
Most of the time, I do funerals. memorial services and committals for people I will never see again. Living as I do in a place where my denomination was for many many years the “official” church without which it wasn’t possible to have a legal town, it seems as though it’s part of my call to pastor in need those who have no church affiliation. It is my intention, hope and prayer that when the family leaves the service they know that they have met a way of living which is welcoming and affirming and which intentionally preaches a gospel of love. Maybe they’ll check out church when they go home; maybe they’ll tell their friends about the good experience. Maybe they’ll grow in their appreciation of the place God can have in their lives. For sure, in every case, they will have heard and seen a Gospel of Love.