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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?