Getting Away from Depressing Politics, Let’s Talk About Death

 

WHOSE FUNERAL IS THIS ANYWAY?

As a pastor doing premarital counseling, I would sometimes shock the bride-to-be with the news that the wedding wasn’t just about her. It wasn’t even just about the bride and groom. Unless they were going alone to city hall, the family and guests are a vital part of the ceremony and must be considered in the planning. That didn’t mean they had to do a wedding just like her mother wanted, but the feelings, needs, and convenience of others needed to be a part of the plans. If she can’t get her mind around the concept that other people should be considered, I wonder about the hope for a lasting marriage.

It’s usually too late, but I have at times wanted to say to a corpse, “It’s not just about you!” I thought of this when Katharine Hepburn passed. She left specific instructions that there would be no funeral or memorial service. Hepburn had many friends in the entertainment industry and millions of fans around the world that would have liked to honor her and express their grief. From beyond the grave, Hepburn said, “Sorry, stuff those feelings. I’m so humble, that though dead, I want to tell you what to do.”

Of course, Kate is not the only one. In ministry I’ve known a number of people over the years who have left instructions, sometimes in a will, that there would be no service to commemorate their life and death. So even if family and friends wanted to commemorate the life of this person they loved, to gather and share the pain they are feeling, they were forbidden from doing so by what they perceived as the force of law in a legal document.

On the other hand, there are times when feelings of the deceased are ignored altogether. In the recent podcast du jour, S-Town, an atheist died and a Christian funeral was held. Everything said at the service contradicted everything the person being “honored” said and believed. But the host of the show said the mother of the deceased seemed to appreciate and be comforted by the service.

It reminded me of a scene in the film, Captain Fantastic. A woman, who hated organized religion, dies and her parents try to give her a good “Christian funeral” and “Christian burial.” He husband disrupts the funeral proclaiming it is all a sham and an affront to his wife’s Buddhist beliefs. His anger is understandable and justified.

Even when the person who died is a believer, the service can be too reverent. Several years ago, the organist of our church passed away; it was sudden and unexpected. Paul would certainly have wanted a Christian service. His mother wanted it to be a Christian service. In fact, she wanted the service to be all about Jesus and not at all about Paul. No stories about how Paul liked to joke or his love for gardening or his work at the local lumber mill. Everything should be about Jesus’ atoning work on the cross which paid the way for heaven, if one believes in Him. And there was certainly to be no talk of Paul’s work with community theater, which I don’t think ever sat well with Paul’s mother. The church service was all about Jesus and nothing else. So members of the theater did their own service to honor Paul, which was all about Paul and how they missed him.

As a pastor, it someone asks for a service without the “God stuff,” I usually try to help them find someone else to do the service. Because I’m called to share what I think is the hope that everyone needs. I feel the need to honor both God and the person who passed and those who wish to honor that person. Balancing those things can be challenging.

I’ve come to believe that a service may accomplish several of the following things, all good:

Honor the deceased, Comfort the bereaved, Contemplate life’s meaning and deepest questions, Acknowledge grief and allow it to be expressed, Allow for expressions of love and grace, and Allow the gathering of family and community. For Christians, there is also the opportunity to celebrate the Cross and the Resurrection and the Life to Come. 

Which of these do you consider worthy goals of a memorial?

What might be other goals I didn’t mention?

And finally, who should decide the focus of a memorial or funeral? Should the wishes of the departed always be followed? Or should someone else have priority for making the calls? The spouse? The parents? The children? The siblings? The clergy? The funeral home? Whose funeral is this anyway?

There are 44 comments.

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  1. Kevin Schulte Member
    Kevin Schulte
    @KevinSchulte

    Eustace, you made me think about my death in a different light . Of course my first thought was it’s all about me, who died ? It’s my party and I will cry if I want to sorta way. I do not want a funeral. But now I will leave that to my bereaved if they wish. They can do that in a memorial service with my blessing. I will not pay for a funeral, only my cremation.

    I read a post recently on another blog how someone planned their own funeral. How responsible.

    Regie’s blog  <– read, it will touch your heart if your not dead yet. His post’s are always this thoughtful, you can subscribe if you wish. He posts one or 2 times a month.

    As to order of who matters:

    My 2 cents,

    Spouse, Grown Kids, Parents if still alive, siblings.

    • #1
  2. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    You’re a good man, @Eustace C. Scrubb.

    • #2
  3. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Fantastic post.  Thanks so much for sharing this.

    My Grandmother was an atheist.  Her funeral was all about her devotion to Jesus.  It made us all feel better.  But I was thinking, “Grandma would have been rolling her eyes through this spectacle.”

    A wedding is a good analogy.  An engagement is about the bride & groom.  The wedding is about family & friends (NOT the bride & groom).  As it should be.  The wedding is about the new family joining the pre-existing society.

    A funeral is more complex, I think, since the ostensible guest of honor is not there to speak for themselves.  But realistically, the funeral is more for the benefit of the family.  To console the grieving.

    I believe that they most private, personal relationship one will ever have is with one’s savior.  So that has already been worked out.  The funeral is to comfort the aggrieved.

    That’s probably not the way it should be.  But that’s the way it is.

    Would you agree Eustice?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

     

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Eustace C. Scrubb: She left specific instructions that there would be no funeral or memorial service.

    Sounds like the wishes my wife has expressed. Definitely one who prefers to hide in the shadows.

    • #4
  5. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    I prefer the Catholic funeral when done properly. The homily speaks to the meaning death has for all Catholics in the light of the Resurrection. The Wake after the Mass is for personal remembrances, condolences, and celebrating an individuals life. Please note, I said when done properly. The Catholic Wedding Mass should extol the Sacrament of Marriage, the reception is for personal congratulations and stories about the bride and groom.

    • #5
  6. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Spot on, Eustace! Almost 3 years ago my pastor (priest-retired mil chaplain) and I co-led a service for my Dad.  Our local funeral director had insisted: “You want Father, but your Dad wasn’t Catholic; he won’t come.” My brother called me at home, recounted the exchange tearfully, requesting that I call and ask him. I did, he replied positively with no hesitation: “Yes, of course I’ll come.  What time?  You pick the readings…*We’ll* do this for your Dad.” Little did I know that on the day of the service, Fr. K. would say to me: “Nice reading choice; you’re dressed appropriately, too.  You’ll have to say something about him; I didn’t know him as well as you did.  You can do this.  Chaplain never goes away.”  And so, I did…The hardest thing I’ve ever done…But we saw Dad P. safely Home that day.  Mom P. and my sibs were supported and encouraged; even his surviving sibling approved, thank heaven.

    • #6
  7. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    [Oopsie, duplicate comment: Sorry!]

     

    • #7
  8. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    @skyler, Thanks!

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    A very nice post. Lots to think about.

     

     

    • #9
  10. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    MarciN (View Comment):
    A very nice post. Lots to think about.

    Yes – agree. Thanks Eustace.

    • #10
  11. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    My feelings about funerals are mixed. A long time ago, I knew a woman who was diagnosed with cancer and died about a month later. Most of her many nieces and nephews claimed that they were too busy to visit her when she was alive-even when they knew she was dying, they were too busy- but every single one of them showed up at her funeral. I wanted to slap the lot of them.

    There was a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow a while back; her father was a brilliant professor who developed alzheimers, at which point all of his friends and colleagues abandoned him. Then, when he died, his funeral was mobbed with so called friends and colleagues. I loved it when Gwyneth Paltrow’s character told them all off; I would never recommend doing that in real life, but it was great to see it done in a movie.

    For too many people, showing up at a funeral has nothing to do with grieving or remembering the person who has died; it’s just about keeping up appearances, or something. I could care less whether they have a funeral when I die. If I die before my parents do, I am 100% certain that many of the people who show up at my funeral will be people who never gave one damn about me. If I outlive my parents, I am sorely tempted to limit attendance at my funeral to close family and a few close friends. I don’t like it when people who never had time for the deceased while he was alive show up at the funeral.

     

    • #11
  12. zandertunz Member
    zandertunz
    @zandertunz

    Nicely expressed, @eustacecscrubb.  As an elder and director of worship for my Christian faith community, I have seen a number of variations on the theme.  One of our pastors has set the tone of our funeral services with a particularly profound perspective on the experience.  We typically create a cutomized order of service which includes elements of scripture readings, songs (if desired – and they usually are.. all kinds of music, actually, is accepted), prayers, eulogies and a brief homily.  The immediate family has great latitude in the aesthetic elements, because we feel their desires are preeminent at this moment – the wishes or “requisites” of the deceased notwithstanding.  Some families want video memorials to be part of the service – projected on the screens.  Some want pre-recorded music.  Some want traditional songs.  Some want freshly minted songs just made for the occasion.  Some want none at all.

    The deeper beauty of the experience are the eulogies and the homily.  We welcome family-designated prepared eulogies if they wish, but we also encourage the people gathered in the service to freely speak during the memorial service, sharing thoughts concerning the deceased loved one.  Since it is such a natural part of our culture, visitors and newcomers to a memorial service often feel equally free to share their heartfelt thoughts, memories, and admirations.  The spontaneity of this is so very organic and genuine.  The thoughts spoken run the gamut of topics, but the upshot is that folks are able to both mourn and celebrate the “homecoming” together with precious memories of this soul who was so much a part of their lives.

    Following the eulogies, the pastor speaks a brief extemporaneous homily.  Since it follows the eulogies, he is able to weave together the things just spoken, truths of faith, the life of the friend now gone, and the poignancy of Christ-won salvation in a way that speaks precious compassion and truth to those gathered together.  It is a dynamic and touching experience.

    Clearly we feel a funeral is for those who are experiencing it, the nearest family members foremost.  But, if it is taking place in a worship space, it is also such an opportunity to consider the wonder of the promise of life beyond life – and give a reason for the hope that goes beyond what we can see.

    As a sidebar, my wife and I have discussed our preferences for our final remains.  She, cremation; me, burial in the family plot.  But I have told her plainly that if she predeceases me, I will not be able to do what she asks, and she should feel no similar compulsion for my preference.  We both need to do what comforts ourselves.  That’s the singlemost important wish we have for each other.  That, and the clear knowledge that our living souls will be elsewhere and quite safe from any anguish.

    • #12
  13. The Whether Man Inactive
    The Whether Man
    @TheWhetherMan

    Judithann Campbell (View Comment):For too many people, showing up at a funeral has nothing to do with grieving or remembering the person who has died; it’s just about keeping up appearances, or something. I could care less whether they have a funeral when I die. If I die before my parents do, I am 100% certain that many of the people who show up at my funeral will be people who never gave one damn about me. If I outlive my parents, I am sorely tempted to limit attendance at my funeral to close family and a few close friends. I don’t like it when people who never had time for the deceased while he was alive show up at the funeral.

    Wow, my experience is just the opposite. When my grandparents died, I remember how many people showed up who hadn’t seen them recently or didn’t know them at all – but they came to support us, the bereaved, not to show off. My parents’ co-workers came to show support. It wasn’t about appearances, it was about showing up for the people who are mourning to say “I’m here for you today, and I’ll be here for you down the road when you need me.”

    And some people don’t really regret not making more time until it’s too late. Then they grieve for themselves, that they missed these opportunities.

    • #13
  14. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    I’m young enough I haven’t put too much thought into my own plans, but the short version is this: I want a reverent, traditional, Lutheran funeral service.  I also want a rip-roaring wake/reception where the booze, laughs, tears, and stories flow freely. This song may be played at some point:

    • #14
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m not fond of funerals. If I go, I attend to comfort those left behind. Both my husband and I have selected cremation, although I’m re-visiting that due to Jewish law. And I’d prefer to just have a gathering of people–my husband wants a celebratory wake, but that would have to be a while after his passing. Any kind of get-together doesn’t have to be immediate either. And if a person wants something, he or she can ask for it, but I don’t think we need to comply after that person is gone. The gathering, after all, is for us and our friends. Of course, if I contradicted my husband (assuming I outlive him), he’d probably haunt me.

    • #15
  16. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Kevin Schulte (View Comment):I read a post recently on another blog how someone planned their own funeral. How responsible.

    Regie’s blog <– read, it will touch your heart if your not dead yet. His post’s are always this thoughtful, you can subscribe if you wish. He posts one or 2 times a month.

     

    Regi is a friend of mine.  His blog is almost always a worthy read.

    • #16
  17. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    A couple of days before my dad died he brought up his funeral. Knowing how contrary he was and his issues with religion, I wasn’t surprised when he said he didn’t want a funeral.

    I interrupted and told him he’d be lucky to be invited. That it wasn’t about him, it was about mom and his kids.

    And knowing how he liked to be the center of attention, I’m pretty sure he’s sorry he missed it.

    • #17
  18. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    A few years before my mom passed my sisters and I took her to the funeral of someone who had been a dear friend to her.

    And at the wake I heard a story that I hope is true

    My mom’s friend had been married to a real jerk. Drinker, Cheater, wife abuser. For that reason I hadn’t attended his funeral. I didn’t like him as a kid and loathed him as an adult

    But Scots like funerals and his was well attended. The priest – whom I am certain knew nothing of the deceased was extolling his virtues.

    From the back came the voice of someone:  “has anyone checked the casket? I think I’m at the wrong effing funeral.”

    • #18
  19. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Honoring the dead is among the oldest, most universal, and most sacred traditions of humanity. As with a wedding, the sacred and once-in-a-lifetime nature of a funeral should be reflected in its proceedings.

    Wakes are a good tradition, but only the funeral need be formal. The people who attend a funeral inevitably interact before or after it. Those times and settings are more appropriate for individual expressions.

    Christians believe that a human being is essentially both body and soul; not just a mind or soul to which a body is incidental and interchangeable. Death severs the connection (or some aspect of it), so we speak as if the dead’s soul has departed. But life in Heaven is again both body and soul. Though the reasons offered in the ancient tale Antigone are different, honoring a body with burial in perpetual connection with the soul should be no less important to Christians. No person can refuse such honors… even the deceased.

    • #19
  20. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Regarding Christians burying non-Christians, that’s complicated by baptism. Though many modern Christians believe baptism must be self-initiated — and therefore can arguably be self-negated — baptizing infants is an ancient practice that expresses the original understanding of the rite as adoption into the Christian family. Again, modern beliefs vary, but orthodoxy argues that family is generally (with the exception of marriage) not a voluntary bond and cannot be severed by any grievance.

    Like your father is your father or brother is your brother whether you get along or not, a Christian is a Christian whether or not one embraces the gifts and calling of baptism. It is for God to determine which of His adopted children will be judged with disapproval. So, short of some vile act that shatters bonds like murder, a baptized Christian who ceased to believe and live as a Christian is yet a Christian meriting a Christian burial.

    That doesn’t answer everything, but seems something worth considering.

    • #20
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    It is for God to determine which of His adopted children

    Wait, are you saying I’m only adopted?

    • #21
  22. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    It is for God to determine which of His adopted children

    Wait, are you saying I’m only adopted?

    Didn’t your mama always say you were special?

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    Didn’t your mama always say you were special?

    Well, my brothers claimed I was adopted, but I looked more like Dad than they did.

    • #23
  24. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    If one comes from a High-Church background, a lot of the “choices/anxieties” are moot questions in terms of ceremony, reposing of remains, etc.  But some means of having friends/acquaintances/colleagues/extended family gather is important.  There’s a hole in the fabric of the community, of life itself, that wants acknowledgment…Even gathering to talk of everyday things in the loved one’s presence can be helpful

    • #24
  25. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    The nicest funeral I have ever attended was my grandfather’s funeral–my dad’s dad. He was a person who helped people throughout his life, including me at one point. Like all good people, he was completely unassuming in the way he lived his life and interacted with others. The church was overflowing with people, and I think as people who loved him, we were all surprised to see each other there. Grandpa had the rare ability to be so focused when he was talking to people that the person he was talking to would think he or she was the most important person in Grandpa’s life. To this day, I have never met anyone like him.

    He was a deeply religious person, always talking about the blessings God had given him.

    He was very active in his church, and his minister’s eulogy was sincere and wholehearted.

    But the best moment was when the church sang Grandpa’s favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” You can always tell when a congregation gets to sing a song they love and that means something to them.

    • #25
  26. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Coincidentally, soon I will probably attend the funeral of a child. It will be interesting to see how it compares with funerals for adults. I expect there will be much less laughter surrounding the event.

    The parents I have spoken to do not intend to bring their young children to the funeral of someone near the same age. The thinking is that kids shouldn’t worry about their own mortality. But @katebraestrup has said from her extensive experience helping the grieving that adults generally need to see the body. Might the same be true of kids?

    • #26
  27. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    Coincidentally, soon I will probably attend the funeral of a child. It will be interesting to see how it compares with funerals for adults. I expect there will be much less laughter surrounding the event.

    The parents I have spoken to do not intend to bring their young children to the funeral of someone near the same age. The thinking is that kids shouldn’t worry about their own mortality. But @katebraestrup has said from her extensive experience helping the grieving that adults generally need to see the body. Might the same be true of kids?

    Continuing prayers re: this, Aaron…And, I’d say: yes to your question, on an individual basis.

     

    • #27
  28. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    Coincidentally, soon I will probably attend the funeral of a child. It will be interesting to see how it compares with funerals for adults. I expect there will be much less laughter surrounding the event.

    The parents I have spoken to do not intend to bring their young children to the funeral of someone near the same age. The thinking is that kids shouldn’t worry about their own mortality. But @katebraestrup has said from her extensive experience helping the grieving that adults generally need to see the body. Might the same be true of kids?

    I’d advise “no”. I was six when my brother died and seeing him laid out in the casket was, and has not been, a comfort.

    I’ve had the misfortune to attend several funerals of children and it was awful. The only reason I won’t avoid one in the future is to be there for the parents.

    • #28
  29. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    @thewhetherman: I understand that people who didn’t know the deceased, or didn’t know them well, go to funerals to comfort the bereaved: that is a good thing. My problem is with people who did know the deceased well, totally abandon them when they are dying, and then go to the funeral. The aunt I mentioned in my first comment spent her entire life lavishing love and attention and presents on her nieces and nephews, because she loved them. Their parents didn’t just accept this, they demanded it, but when their own sister (!) was dying, they told their grown children that the only thing they owed to their aunt was to attend her funeral, and to be fair, it was a beautiful funeral with lots of people in attendance, but as someone who genuinely grieved, I found the presence of those nieces and nephews to be very cold comfort.

    Funerals are important, but it’s even far more important to care for the sick and dying. I know people who totally abandon their dying relatives, and then put on a beautiful funeral: I have seen it more often than I would like to admit, and it just makes me very angry.

    • #29
  30. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Good post and excellent questions, Eustace.  There aren’t easy answers for this.  On one hand, once I’m dead it has no effect on me whatever happens at my funeral/wake/memorial.  And the purpose of the funeral is to provide comfort to the bereaved, so their wishes should definitely be taken into account.

    On the other hand, I sure would prefer it if there were an honest accounting of who I was rather than a fantasy version that happens to align with how my family wishes I had been.  I could trust my wife, mother, or brother to play it straight, but there are other relatives who would paint a distorted picture because they just love to exaggerate so much.

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    My Grandmother was an atheist. Her funeral was all about her devotion to Jesus. It made us all feel better. But I was thinking, “Grandma would have been rolling her eyes through this spectacle.”

    When a non-believer is portrayed as a devoted Christian, isn’t that kind of a scam?  If God exists and cares what we do, I don’t know that He would find it a good thing that He is being used as a prop.  I’m not saying that an atheist should be buried without any prayers if the family wishes it, I just bristle at the idea of someone yammering on about how much someone loved Jesus when they didn’t believe in Him at all.  You don’t have to bring up that so-and-so was a non-believer, but you shouldn’t lie and claim that they were.  My two cents.

    The Whether Man (View Comment):
    Wow, my experience is just the opposite. When my grandparents died, I remember how many people showed up who hadn’t seen them recently or didn’t know them at all – but they came to support us, the bereaved, not to show off. My parents’ co-workers came to show support. It wasn’t about appearances, it was about showing up for the people who are mourning to say “I’m here for you today, and I’ll be here for you down the road when you need me.”

    Most of the funerals I’ve been to have not been for people I was close to, they were for the son, father, mother, in-law, whatever of a friend or co-worker.  I think it’s pretty normal for a funeral to have way more people who were not close to the deceased than who were close.

    • #30

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