Saturday, May 21, 2011

Funeral Fiascos...And How to Avoid Them

I’ve learned an important phrase in my ministry: “I’m sorry, but we just don’t do that at St. John’s.” Although that sounds a lot like, “I’m sorry, but we aren’t willing to do that for you,” what it usually means is, “I’m sorry, but you’ll need to trust that we know what’s best in this situation.” The time in my ministry when I’ve had to use that phrase most often is during funeral preparations.

When meeting with the families of the deceased, I’ve heard all sorts of requests that sound good to those making the request but, if ever put in practice, wouldn’t be as “beautiful” or “special” as they hope. For example, playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” in the nave of St. John’s is not going to emphasize the power of the resurrection…no matter how much the dead person liked it.

One of the policies we stick to without exception is the no-solo rule. We don’t have solos at St. John’s—ever. I’ll admit that, on occasion, the right solo performed by the right soloist can be beautiful. But, usually when people ask for a solo at a funeral (or a wedding), what they want is Aunt Jenny, who has never had any formal musical training, to sing a warbly, off-key version of a piece that everyone will (unfortunately) recognize and never like again.

Another firm rule is this: we don’t do eulogies. Many Episcopal churches stick to this one. A sermon is a sermon, but a eulogy has no place in a church. By definition, a eulogy is a looking-back at the life of the deceased, when, at a funeral, we’re supposed to be looking forward to the promised resurrection. And honestly, eulogies usually either say what shouldn’t have been said (“Daddy loved beer…a lot.”) or they skirt around what everyone knows should have been said but wasn’t (“After that, he never spoke to his father again.”) Really, our rules are saving the family from disaster.

In today’s reading from the book of Wisdom (7:1-14), the king says, “There is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure.” I’ve had that paraphrased to me by several at St. John’s who are emphasizing the beautiful simplicity of no sermon/eulogy at St. John’s: “We all come in and go out of this world the same. A funeral should be identical for prince or pauper.” A good point—and not only because that saves the family some embarrassment from bad solos or difficult eulogies. The theology of death suggests that we’re all the same in God’s eyes—sinners in need of redeeming—and, when we leave this life, where we go has nothing to do with our merit or status and only with God’s grace.

At St. John’s, because families usually want a eulogy and don’t want a sermon, we typically steer people away from both. But I like sermons at funerals. And by sermon I mean a sermon—an address that usually doesn’t even mention the deceased by name. It’s a sermon on the hope of the resurrection. It’s an opportunity to remind everyone there of the unifying truth that death presents—there is no distinction in death. And therefore we all share the same hope—the resurrection is the universal promise we all share. To enter the funeral office and attempt to customize it for the deceased would be to suggest that, when standing before God, a person’s life makes a difference. But we thank God every day that it doesn’t. And that’s what a funeral (and sermon) are supposed to remind us.

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