Dr. Carlyle Marney once began a sermon by looking over his congregation and saying, "What a bunch of losers!" In so doing he did not mean the usual understanding of a loser. Instead, he was alluding to the fact that for each of us, time eventually runs out. Not one is exempt. Sooner or later death breaks into our circles and we become persons of grief, acquainted with sorrow. In one sense we all really are a bunch of losers.
There will be few times in the life of a pastor when the potential for ministry will be greater than when death invades the ranks of a family. This time is an excellent opportunity for a pastor to approach a family from within a role that has two important elements.
The minister offers, first of all, himself. The gift of his presence, support, and encouragement is not to be valued lightly. Although the role carries with it certain expectations, the minister reaches out not just because he is expected to do so. He approaches the family because he cares and wants them to know it.
Secondly, as he moves toward that grieving family, more than just his own concern is communicated. As a minister he has the opportunity to provide an embodiment of Christ's love in a physical, tangible way. In a time of great need, the minister becomes a visible reminder of God's presence during these hours of pain.
In describing the symbolic role of the minister, Wayne Oates said, "The Christian pastor, then, is a representative of God, commissioned to bring the ruling sense of the presence of God to bear upon the conflictweary lives of men and women." There can be little debate that the death of a family member creates the conditions for a weary soul. The minister becomes an agent of help and healing because he carries with him more than his own personal presence. Never take for granted the mystery of the symbolic role of a minister.
Therefore, the pastor usually is very quickly and readily received in these circumstances. In very few circumstances will the symbolic role of the pastor be ignored or rejected. Even families who have never developed a strong relationship with their church or minister will frequently open themselves to the ministering spirit of their pastor.
There is also the opportunity for the development of a relationship that is unequaled in the normal routine of life. The potential exists for persons who have become church "drop-outs" to be redeemed back into a productive relationship with the institutional church because of the care extended by the minister and church family during a time of grief. To ignore an opportunity for ministry so full of potential is tragic indeed.
In most cases the role of the minister is readily received by the grieving family. In many functions, the minister must slowly earn the authority granted him. In the context of personal loss, the role of the minister is usually granted by nature of his position in the local church. It is truly an opportunity to symbolize the warmth of a loving God at a time of need, even great pain. The place to begin for any minister is to claim this sacred role.
There are very few hard and fixed rules to follow when dealing with grieving families. However, a compassionate spirit and a little common sense go a long way.
There are some general principles that ministers should consider when ministering to a grieving family. Some of these are more within the realm of the practical than the theological. For example, it is important that the minister make a timely response to the grieving family. The message concerning the death will frequently interrupt the immediate plans of the minister. Depending upon circumstances one may not be able to contact the family immediately. However, be careful about indefinitely postponing a response. To make an assumption that the family knows you care is a dangerous proposition. Prompt response is crucial.
This response does not demand a siren and a race to the family. Yet, to wait for a long period of time before making contact may take on the appearance of unconcern, justifiable or not.
Do not be offended if the word comes to you indirectly. In many cases the family will contact you directly. In other circumstances an extended relative or friend may be the contact person for you. It very well may be the funeral director who notifies you of the death. Regardless of who tells you, you should immediately begin the process of making contact with the family.
A brief telephone call may suffice for the moment. This call to the family will accomplish several purposes. In so doing, you let the family know that you have received the word about the death. One of the many anxieties for a family during a death/crisis is the process of notifying relatives and friends. The family can relax that, at least, contact has been made with their minister.
If you do not plan to go to the family immediately, this call provides an opportunity to let them know when they can expect you. Your visit, in most cases, is important enough that a family will have interest in visiting privately. In some cases you will want to set a time very soon. In some cases a later time will be appropriate. A little common sense will be quite valuable at this point.
Since the death may have occurred quite recently, the chances are good that details of the funeral have not been formulated. Therefore, during this initial telephone call, do not become overly concerned about these details. If the family has already discussed them, they will usually offer readily any information to verify that the details do not present a conflict for the minister or ministers involved. When making contact with the family, you should give them the opportunity to request that you lead the funeral. There will occasionally be some peculiar circumstances when the family might want someone else to do the funeral or, at least, take the leading role. A family member may be a minister, and the family might request this person's leadership, with no insult intended toward anyone else.
Unfortunately, there are occasions when the relationship between a minister and a particular family may be strained and they would simply prefer someone else. On most occasions, fortunately, families want their local minister to lead them during these difficult moments.
If you are separated by great distance or some other extenuating circumstance when you make the initial telephone call, it may be quite appropriate to discuss funeral date and time. However, if you will be with the family in a very short while, the personal visit in their home provides a much better environment to discuss details.
Do not overlook the opportunity to use this initial telephone call as an occasion to pronounce a blessing. Your voice and presence symbolize the warmth of a loving God. Words of assurance carry special significance during these painful moments. With few exceptions most grieving persons want to hear words of assurance from their pastor. In fact, they expect it; so do not hesitate to claim that role. Assure them of your personal concern and the promise of your own prayers.
If you have now established a time to meet with the family, take that time seriously, and be prompt. For most bereaved families, time is precious. There is more to be done than could ever be imagined outside that experience. There will be enough delays and frustrations without their minister being the source of one. Just as you expect them to take your time and schedule seriously, you will want to respect theirs as well.
To be late in getting to the family does more than just create delays. It carries with it the implication that you are insensitive or unconcerned even though you, in actuality, may care tremendously. Promptness is an assumed trademark of any professional. Do not be envisioned as anything less.
As stated earlier, make this visit as soon as reasonably possible. A prompt visit allows more opportunity for you to be a part of the funeral-service planning process. It is unfortunate when a minister waits hours and, sometimes, days, to make this initial pastoral visit and then becomes frustrated when the details conflict with his own schedule.
There is an even more important reason why this visit should be prompt. Your presence is welcomed and openly received in this setting. Particularly when a relationship has already been established, the family wants you to be with them; they value highly your physical and symbolic presence. You are more than just a friend. You are a tangible reminder of God's love and presence with them. Claim the role which is freely made available to you. The experience can become a very special one.
As you make your way into the presence of the family, do not be timid or shy. Your own strength will find its way into the lives of others. Feelings are passed on like a virus. If you are confident and secure, the family will "catch" some of your strength.
However, there is another principle that needs to be practiced at this point. The strength of a pastor should be a quiet strength! Be careful not to enter the family's presence with a predetermined speech of easy and glib answers. Your entrance is very crucial and should be handled carefully. Your entrance is no less a part of your professional tools than is a scalpel for a surgeon.
Do not enter with a roar. In fact, it is a good practice once you have acknowledged the presence of people to just sit and develop some sensitivity to the mood of the group. Because of circumstances families will respond to death in a variety of ways. You cannot minister to them unless you make some assessment of their emotional tone and immediate needs. You cannot do this if you enter the room with a need to provide all the answers before the questions have been asked. You are not a drill sergeant or an entertainer. You are the symbolic presence of a calm and peaceful God of love.
As Thomas W. Klink has indicated in his book: Depth Perspectives in Pastoral Work, the role of the pastor is one of delicate communication. It is a combination of words, gestures, and actions with which one struggles to convey the fullness of God's word in everyday syllables. An embrace or gentle holding of a grieving person's hand carries more significance than many words. Do not be afraid to just sit and be still with the family. As you begin to converse, there is no harm in inquiring about the circumstances of the death. While the family may not want to relive them with everyone who calls, they will want you to know. Do not feel inhibited to ask questions, but allow the bereaved family to share only that with which they are comfortable. Quite possibly, some of this information will guide the formulating of your words in the funeral service.
Be careful not to offer quick, capsule answers for everything. There are many phrases that have been around for a long time which one might hesitate to quote.
For example, one may speak out of honest concern that "He is better off now because he is with Jesus." Yet the author remembers one lady, who had just lost her husband to cancer, admitting that it made her very angry when someone made that statement to her. "Who are they," she said, "to determine that someone is better off dead?"
Our words in this setting can be a medium of strength and comfort, or they can add pain to an already wounded soul. We must be good stewards of the gift of our words. Do not come up with such inane remarks as, "We just have to accept the Lord's will." One may mean well, but communication at this time must pass through a storm of emotion which very well may cloud one's intention. Beware of quick comments such as: "I know just how you feel."
Dr. R. Lofton Hudson has offered some wise admonition for this setting: "Don't try too hard to console or advise. What most people want when they are in a crisis is somebody there, and someone with big ears and a small mouth."
In other words, do not try to take on the role of an all-wise sage. A quiet, strong friend is worth his weight in gold during moments of grief.
This setting now provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the specifics of the funeral service. Ask the family their thoughts about music, Scripture, and any special requests.
Within reasonable limits, the service should be directed toward meeting the needs of the family. Their needs should be foremost at this point. Be as flexible as possible to meet their needs. Do not hesitate to offer advice at points of the planning process. Yet give way to their needs when possible. The service is primarily for the family.
There may be an occasion when the family seems trapped by the emotion of the moment and appears to be making plans that are somewhat inappropriate and could cause some embarrassment in retrospect. Gently question the family concerning the specific detail. If they do not hear your concern, do not press the issue at the moment. This is no time for a tense scene. Instead, let the matter drop momentarily. There is another approach that is usually quite effective.
After leaving the family, contact the funeral director and express your concern to him. He has an accepted entree with the family and can usually influence them in the planning process. Consider the funeral director a partner. Let him help when there is a need. In most circumstances he will offer very gentle guidance to the family. More will be said in another section concerning your relationship to the funeral director.
Visit with the family long enough to effectively communicate your concern and also plan the funeral service. Stay with them long enough to accomplish what needs to be done, but do not "camp out" with the family. Within an appropriate period of time excuse yourself and allow the family to give themselves to the guests who are entering their home.
Before leaving, inquire if there are any other functions you can perform for the family. Are there any persons still needing to be contacted? Is special care needed by a family member who is having difficulty with the news of the death? Should the local church be providing food or hosting the guests?
Make your exit as important as your entrance. A prayer with the family is usually well received and underscores the special role of the minister in that setting. A word of reassurance and a promise of your prayers in the hours ahead will be valued by the family.
The minister has a great influence on the quality of the funeral service. The contribution is far more than just a verbal eulogy. The minister's guidance from the planning process to the graveside is sometimes subtle but extremely important.
One should keep in mind that the purpose of a funeral service is to provide support and strength for the bereaved. Certainly, the minister should seek to conduct himself and the service in such a way as to promote an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. It is not a captive audience to which one must preach one's best evangelistic sermon. It is most unfortunate when ministers use the setting as an opportunity to take a few "shots" at people who might not otherwise frequent the church.
Instead, the funeral service is an ideal setting to convey the love of sympathetic friends and, especially, the love of an incarnate God. The service can become a moment of positive impressions for persons not affiliated with the church.
When a minister takes advantage of the emotions of the moment, everyone loses. Words and gestures should promote the self sacrificing love of Christ and the symbolic embrace of the believing community.
The service, particularly when conducted in the church, should be characterized as worship. Just as worship takes many forms, so may a funeral service. But it should first and foremost be worship as it points beyond the grief of the moment to a God who is still very much in control of this world. The service should be one of simplicity and brevity. Orderliness should also characterize the service. Thirty to forty-five minutes is ample time for most services. The service should be planned and thought out just as any worship service.
Scripture, appropriately selected, provides comfort to a grieving heart and should be central in any service. Time must be spent in the proper selection as the possibilities for application are many. The analgesic power of Holy Scripture takes on an almost mysterious quality.
Many services will incorporate music. This may include hymns, solos, or special arrangements by organ or piano. Music can be a very meaningful part of a funeral service, but it should be carefully planned. Hymns may be sung by the congregation and should be chosen with discretion.
Do not overlook the possibility of including the eulogy as a separate part within the service. When tastefully done, the eulogy is a very appropriate way of celebrating the deceased person's life. The eulogy is frequently offered separately from and before the sermon and has a valid, traditional role in many services. (More is said about the eulogy later in this chapter.)
The sermon (address) should be well planned by the minister. Too many funeral sermons are quickly thrown together, and the minister misses great opportunities to proclaim the good news of Christ's love. The length of the "sermon" is quite crucial. There is seldom a need for a long address as emotions are usually quite tense. Brevity is a virtue in this setting. Scripture should always form the background for the minister's words. Some possible selections of Scripture are provided in another section of this book. The sharing of a prayer is always appropriate and meaningful. It should not be embellished, and the length should always be given consideration. It is much more than just a good way to signal the funeral director that the service is about to be concluded.
At the conclusion of the service, the minister should lead the recessional from within the church or chapel to the hearse. Once the casket has been placed in the hearse, the minister takes his place in the automobile procession to the graveside. At the graveside, it is customary for the minister to lead the pallbearers as they carry the casket. The graveside service, which follows the funeral service, should always be brief. Frequently, friends are standing during the service, which can be a problem if there are extremes of heat or cold with regard to weather. Brief remarks, Scripture, prayer, and a closing committal statement are adequate for the setting. Ten minutes is usually ample time for the graveside service.
There will be occasions when the entire service will be conducted at the graveside. This type of service, too, requires planning since there are number of circumstances that will be considerably different. For example, the weather, temperature, and seating arrangements must always be considered. Usually, most of the people will be standing which necessitates an abbreviated service in comparison with one in the sanctuary.
For such reasons as time, simplicity, and cost there is a significant trend toward a single service at graveside. Yet even a graveside service deserves the best planning. A well-planned graveside service can be very effective.
The remarks should be delivered from the head end of the casket. After the benediction, the minister usually offers a quiet word of consolation to individual family members seated. A word of blessing or promise of prayer is usually adequate. Several suggested orders of service for the graveside are provided in another section of this book.
The opportunities for ministry are not completed once the funeral service and burial have been concluded. In fact, when the formalities have been completed, there is an opportunity for a very special form of ministry. Just as God's care for a bereaved family does not end with the benediction at the funeral service, neither should the compassion of the minister.
Sensitive follow-up will underscore the sincerity of the minister and will create the climate for the development of even stronger relationships with the family. Disappointment may be in store for a grief-stricken family who does not experience the interest of a minister once the formal obligations have been met. It is possible that during the final days of an illness, visits to a particular home were made by the minister with great frequency. When the death occurs, it becomes very easy to forget about a spouse who still has great needs. The minister has possibly already directed his attention to other families where an illness is critical while the spouse of a recently deceased church member is at home wondering why the minister never calls anymore.
With schedules that are already heavy, the minister does not have unlimited time to offer. Yet there are a few simple suggestions that do not require great amounts of time but can communicate a message of love and concern.
After the service has been concluded, make contact with the bereaved and indicate that you will be in touch with them during the next few days. This brief encounter becomes a reminder that they can look forward to your friendship in the tough days ahead.
Keep in mind that this is a very critical time for most persons who have lost a loved one. Immediately following the death, and for the next few days, there is usually a flow of people through the home. There is considerable activity, and it is at this point that the support network seems strongest.
Yet within a short while the house becomes empty. Extended family members return to their homes. Friends must return to their own responsibilities. The house that provided a great deal of defense for the grief process suddenly becomes quiet and very lonely. This is inevitable! The timing then becomes excellent for a pastoral call.
The bereaved one has had some time to think and ask questions of herself and God. It really can become one of those sacred moments when the shepherd and a wounded heart can transact business available to persons only in those two roles. Do not overlook the opportunity for ministry when the house of a grieving family becomes quiet and still. Even a simple telephone call has great value.
Some ministers have disciplined themselves to maintain records that will remind them of the anniversary of a parishioner's death. By recording the date on a calendar they can visit, telephone, or write a letter to the spouse on the anniversary. In most cases the contact will be unexpected and deeply appreciated. The anniversary of a family member's death can be a very difficult experience. Memories are still very strong, and in some cases the grief process is continuing to proceed. A person's knowing that someone else is aware of the pain and offering prayerful support can produce an uplifting experience for a grieving heart. A little extra effort and sensitivity at this point from a minister can become pastoral care at its best.
A good funeral director should be seen by the minister as a partner. He can be a genuine source of help to the family by relieving them of many burdens. There are numerous tasks that the funeral director can perform for the family that otherwise they would have to do themselves. With very few exceptions, funeral directors are very capable and also very caring. They want to assist the family during this time. As a rule, they are very courteous and helpful to the minister as well.
The funeral director will take responsibility for the body and assist the responsible person in making a number of decisions regarding casket, vault, and arrangements. An ethical director will not oversell, particularly at a time when emotions are very strong.
The director will contact relatives, if requested, and will assist in such matters as viewing the body, arranging pallbearers, and notifying the newspaper. He will work out any traffic problems relating to the processional and parking during the funeral service.
It is a good practice for the minister to check signals with the funeral director before every funeral service to verify that all the necessary responsibilities have been fulfilled. The funeral director, as does the pastor, has a distinct and honorable role to perform.
Occasionally, the question of fees will come up concerning the minister. Most ministers do not even consider the establishing of fees. Instead, they envision grief work as a part of the total ministry whether loved ones of the deceased are church members or not.
Occasionally, more than one minister will be involved in the funeral setting and, more specifically, the funeral service. A minister should not be threatened or offended by the sharing of duties. Keep in mind that needs of the grieving family must be foremost, and there are many reasons why more than one minister might be asked to participate.
Because ministers tend to relocate on a rather regular basis, a new minister might not have had the opportunity to develop the relationship with the deceased or the family which the previous minister had. The family appreciates and needs the presence of the new minister, yet they may have a strong desire for the support of the previous person whom they have known for a long time.
Our mobile society affects more than the clergy. The deceased may have been a newcomer to the community. It is possible that their membership in the church is quite recent. Therefore, the family might request the assistance of their former, out-of-town minister as well as their new friend.
Occasionally, a minister within the grieving family may be requested to assist and possibly take the lead role. Being a family member will often add warmth and perspective to the funeral service.
Within reasonable limits a minister should try to honor the desires of the family. The time of grief is a critical period with great needs existing for the family. A family will often grasp for the support of as many people as possible. The minister may need to offer some gentle guidance if it appears that the inclusion of people is getting out of hand.
Most families are very open to suggestions by the local minister, and he may need to offer advice to the family. If the minister senses that the number of persons involved in a service is too large, he might want to talk to the funeral director who is usually in a good position to offer suggestions to the family.
The participating ministers should have at least brief conversations before the service to discuss the order of service and expectations of each participant. There is no established protocol as to who initiates the contact. However, the host minister is usually in the best position to make contact with any other persons involved, even including musicians.
Nevertheless, a minister should not view the sharing of responsibilities as a personal threat. With the needs of a family foremost in your mind, you can use the experience as an opportunity to establish new relationships with colleagues. Friendships may be developed as you work together to meet the needs of a grieving family.
Do not envision this circumstance as a sharing of the spotlight. Instead, let it be a team approach to the heavy responsibilities of the moment.
The funeral service, while frequently taken for granted, is a tradition of great value. Even though the form and agenda will vary, there are many reasons why the funeral must be preserved as a part of our culture. It is far more than just an occasion when something nice is said about the deceased.
One of the major goals of the funeral service is the facilitating of "grief work." The first segment of the grief journey is that of acceptance, facing up to the reality of death. This fact of human experience must be acknowledged because there is a tendency to deny the reality of death. Denial is our first line of defense when we are faced with the painful reality of death.
One of the values of viewing the body is to confirm the fact that a death has occurred. There are some cultures which actually encourage a family member to kiss the corpse. What appears at first to be a very strange custom may be a tangible way of confirming a death has indeed occurred.
There are stages through which most persons pass as they walk through the "valley of the shadow" of a loved one's death. While it is totally inappropriate to place a timetable on someone, there are observable stages which characterize a healthy journey of grief. The stages of shock, numbness, flood of grief, acceptance, and the return to a new routine provide a sense of direction for the support of a bereaved person.
Repressed grief is very risky. The funeral service should facilitate the grief process. That grief process begins with acceptance, and the funeral service provides a structured, supportive setting for those early hours of grief work.
There is also value in the tradition of viewing the body before the funeral service. I encourage family and friends to participate in this tradition for the reason that it puts people in contact with symbols of death. There is a tendency within our culture to insulate the bereaved at the expense of emotional health.
The viewing process is more than just putting a corpse on display. It provides another tangible way of reinforcing the fact that a death has taken place. The practice of viewing the body should not be discouraged in our funeral tradition. The viewing process is usually done at specified times previous to the funeral service. The funeral tradition and wishes of the family will influence the viewing times, especially in regard to the funeral service. In some cases the casket will be open immediately before the service in the chapel or sanctuary. However, the casket should be closed during the funeral service.
The funeral does much more than work against the denial of death. It also provides an opportunity for family and friends to express their grief. In the process of this expression, there is also opportunity for this same group to offer support and embrace one another.
Within reason there is nothing unseemly about displaying emotions. Naturally, when we have loved someone and lost that person, we are hurt and sad. Pain is a reality of life. Our emotions are a powerful part of our human makeup, and to deny the normal emotionality of human existence is unfair. It is not a sign of weakness to cry. In fact, it may be an indication of care.
Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn" (Matt. 5:4). To lament is not necessarily a form of doubting. Holy Scripture is filled with the words of grieving hearts. Listen to the psalmist:
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee. Hide not they face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin (Ps. 102:1-5, KJV).
On the other hand, do not forget that the psalmist concluded by saying, "But You are the same, /And Your years will have no end./ The children of Your servants will continue, /And their descendants will be/established before You" (Ps. 102:27-28).
A Christian funeral service provides a ritualized structure by which one can express deep, human sorrow. Jesus reminded us all that those who mourn "shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4).
Another positive value of the funeral is the ritual of community support. Most of us take for granted our presence at a funeral. One lady who had just lost her mother stated, "I did not realize how meaningful the presence of my friends at the funeral could be until I was the one seated with the grieving family. I have made a promise to myself to do better by being there for my friends."
Even as friends are seated around the grieving family, their supportive presence becomes a symbolic embrace. The funeral service provides an obvious setting for a supportive network in one of life's toughest moments.
Above all else the funeral service should be characterized as worship. All of the other positive values would still be inadequate for our needs if the funeral could not take on the act of worship.
The worship of God is the act of giving God His place. He is the Giver of life, the One from whom we came, and the One to whom we go. The time is most appropriate to praise God and offer thanksgiving for sharing the life of a certain individual.
The funeral is a time to be still and know that God is God (see Ps. 46). The setting is a time to listen to what God has to say about life's mysteries and hurts. Through God's Word we can be reassured that the world is not out of control, and that the pain of the moment has not separated us from God or His love.
The funeral becomes worship when the minister holds before the grieving family the priceless gem of Christian hope. The funeral is a setting where much takes place. The acceptance of death, the expression of grief, and the embrace of community are helpful. The priceless nature of the setting comes when Christ is lifted above the pain of the moment. After all, He is the Author and Finisher of our faith. He is the strength for our race, and the goal to which we run. "O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?...But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:55, 57).
A minister should always be aware that in the funeral setting one is dealing with far more than just the immediate and obvious grief. More is involved than just the death of a particular person within the last few days.
The emotion of a funeral service does not take place in a vacuum. As one deals with the present loss, the feelings of all past grief and losses may very well be activated. The grief of the present moment often releases unshed tears of years past.
Consider a man who is attending the funeral because the deceased is the father of his best friend. There will be emotion because he cares for his friend, and he could have been closely associated with the deceased. Yet as he grieves and offers sincere tears for the present loss, he remembers the pain of his own father's death. He begins to discharge old tears under the pretense of the present grief.
The funeral setting has the potential of being an emotional umbrella under which are gathered the feelings of pain in the present and in the past. Realization of this fact adds new potential for ministry in the grief setting, particularly in the funeral service.
The minister can enter the setting with an awareness of a healing ministry that goes beyond the grieving family seated in front of the chapel. Words of hope and comfort are directed to the fresh wounds of the grieving family, but may find their way to scars they assumed had been forgotten.
People weep about present losses. People weep about the losses of childhood. Even more so, people weep about their own mortality. The funeral is the setting where society gives approval to deal with loss in general. To recognize the presence of old tears adds a very precious dimension to ministry.
When the minister enters the pulpit during a funeral service, he addresses a whole room of "losers." Pastoral eyes must be lifted beyond the first few rows all the way to the back of the room. There may be someone on the back row whose pain is old and real. That person has never been willing to give up a loved one to God's care. As the minister speaks, he not only addresses the pain of the identified family but also embraces one who has not forgotten the pain of other years.
It is unfortunate that a time-honored funeral practice is gradually being abandoned. The eulogy once stood as important as the sermon in traditional funeral services and was granted its own separate place in the service order.
The eulogy was traditionally a celebration of the life of the person now deceased. While the trend now is to include some biographical and factual statements within the sermon, I believe the eulogy should still be granted a place in the service order. There are many reasons why the eulogy has gradually lost its place.
There have been times when the praise of the deceased seemed hollow and "made up." The preacher or friend would strive to catalog the virtues to an extreme, and everyone present knew it. The problem has come with statements which are more laudatory than factual and more fictional than truthful. To avoid the risk of "overdoing," the speaker has chosen the route of keeping it short and saying very little that is personal.
The eulogy, sometimes referred to as the obituary, usually falls within two types. The first tends to be factual: birth, education, career, and honors. The key in preparing this type of eulogy or obituary is the accuracy of facts. Make certain that they come from a dependable source.
The second type of eulogy becomes more of a tribute. This kind of presentation is frequently done by someone other than the minister. More will be said about this possibility later in this section. The tribute focuses upon special attributes that could be observed by the presenting person, or as observed by a particular group for whom one is speaking. The key to success in eulogizing the deceased is understatement. A "swing" that is wider than reality destroys the eulogy's effectiveness. Examples of the two types of eulogies are provided at the end of this section.
The eulogy, when presented tastefully, requires time and effort by the eulogist. The minister does his best eulogy when there was a strong and knowledgeable relationship between himself and the deceased. In many of today's large churches, that kind of relationship with many members is not likely. Yet there are ways of approaching a eulogy even when there is little knowledge of the deceased. This can be accomplished for the minister through prompt and brief interviews with family and friends.
The interviews should not be detached, fact-finding missions with legal pads and tape recorders. The interviews should be simple and straightforward, with the focus on the survivor's memories. The question: "How are you feeling?" is a good way to begin. Allow the person to share feelings about the deceased, especially those related to events surrounding the death. This kind of sharing may become an emotional time. Do not be afraid of these emotions.
These conversations accomplish two functions. They provide information that can be used as a part of the eulogy. There is also the opportunity for therapy as the one interviewed remembers the life of the deceased. Talking about these events often helps to heal the hurts of the moment and facilitates the grief process. Good judgment must be exercised as you select information to share as a part of the eulogy. Some information may need family approval to be shared. One should give special interest to material that deals with the character of the deceased.
Not uncommon is the request for a friend of the deceased to be requested to give the eulogy. This approach frequently adds a very special touch to the funeral service. The friend can talk from a perspective that is open and honest.
If the friend of the deceased has never presented a eulogy before he may have questions as to how it is done. The minister should offer guidance in the matter. A few suggestions might be made. For example, the friend should remember the context from which he speaks. He should not deliver the minister's "sermon." His words should reflect the perspective that comes from being a friend of the deceased. As a friend he has made observations that are unique. The process can become a tender sharing of a life and a relationship. Encouragement should be given toward brevity, clarity, and integrity. Remember that the goal is to celebrate life and the person.
The eulogy need not focus only on the serious aspects of life and death. After all, life is a mixture of the serious and the humorous. Particularly if the deceased was a humorous person, do not be afraid to share some of the pleasant and funny memories. But take care that you do not turn it into a joke session. It is one thing to share tender humor, but another to tell jokes that may be totally inappropriate. One must be sensitive to the emotions and needs of the moment.
Carefully chosen humor not only helps one remember special characteristics of the deceased, but it can help cut through the tension of a funeral setting. I remember conducting a funeral service when the tension was very obvious. The deceased was a sweet lady for whom everyone really cared. She was a very jovial person, and was known by everyone for her hats. She had dozens of hats and always wore one whenever she came to church. During the eulogy the question was raised—Which had she was wearing when she met Saint Peter? The congregation knew the spirit in which the comment was made, and all shared a moment of laughter. After the laughter the tension had been reduced, and the service was more relaxed for everyone.
Humor must be carefully chosen. It must be well placed and never used in any way other than to celebrate the deceased. Ridicule and barbed humor have no place in a funeral service.
In summary, a well-prepared and well-presented eulogy will bring mourners together and bring to mind memories of a life, although now ended, which can be claimed and celebrated.
This first type of eulogy or obituary is a summary of the important facts of an individual's life. Included in these facts should be references to the person's birth, education, affiliations, interests, family relationship, professional concerns, and honors. These facts should be gathered from dependable sources and presented by someone thoroughly familiar with the deceased, preferably by the minister.
Mrs. W. H. Walls
June 19, 1986
(Delivered by Her Grandson)
Myron Madden in his book The Power to Bless has indicated that grief turns adults back toward childhood. There is a tendency to dream of times long past when the world seemed young and untroubled. A man's childhood is as available in his mind as are present days. There is a strange tranquillity that comes from escaping into early years.
I find myself right now surrounded by the remembrances of early years. This town used to be home. This church used to be the church I attended. One summer during college I even worked with the crew that built the wing behind us. There are names of people and familiar faces that are so very natural and make one feel that some things really do transcend time.
There is no way to mentally return to those days without some persons being firmly in the middle of those memories. For me and for some of you the Lady we come today to remember is one of those persons. There is no way for me to escape back in memory without her being there. Of all roles that any person plays, her role as grandmother is such a powerful role for me that I have difficulty in seeing her as anything except Grandmother.
Grandmothers are special people. I am one of the fortunate ones because I was given two beautiful ones. Their influence upon my life is not subtle but profound. And I count it as a gift of God, to whom I will forever be grateful.
I cannot come to this setting today without being aware of my indebtedness. I am indebted to her for being what grandmothers are supposed to be: kind, gentle, trusting, and making few demands in return. I, along with many of you, have experienced all these from Cora Walls.
Her home always seemed like home. It looked, smelled, and just felt like a home should be. In some ways it appeared to be unchanged by time. And yet deep down we all know that nothing material or mortal evades the hands of the clock. We only fool and deceive ourselves to think otherwise.
One of the most difficult challenges of growing is the acceptance of the fact that life changes. It is the first challenge we face out of our mother's womb and the last one we face before entering the outstretched arms of our Lord. We don't always like change, and, to be honest, I don't think God expects us to do so. We only have to accept it and move on. There is always the overarching challenge to move on.
Such is our great challenge today. And of all the ways that we could honor this Lady, nothing would dignify her passing more than taking what she has given and move on. She has given so much. In the past few hours as I have tried to recall all that has come to me through her, I kept coming back to the fact that she has simply given herself. To try to break it down into the many things that she has done and been for so many of us seems to discredit her most valuable gift: herself. And she never hesitated to make that offer.
For me as with you I must now take all that she has invested in me, gently wrap it up, and let it become one of life's treasures, and keep it within me where neither "rust doth corrupt, [nor] thieves break through and steal."
Since it became obvious that her death was impending, I have asked myself what kind of responce is appropriate for my grandmother.Such a special person deserves a distinct response. I can only speak for myself, but I have chosen to honor her by giving her up. As long as a person holds to his loved one who has died, he holds himself against all spiritual blessings.
The essence of despair is in putting God in the past tense. We do ourselves, our faith, and our deceased loved ones an injustice when we let the past override the future. Just as God has cared for Cora Walls all through her life, He will now care for her in death.
I believe that very strongly. Just as He has cared for you He will continue to embrace you with His mercies. The curse of grief can only be removed when we become convinced and rest on the assurance that even the power of death is not too great for God's blessings to prevail.
This is how I have chosen to respond to this event in my life and your lives. I will give her up and give her back to a Lord who has been her personal Friend for eighty-eight years. We must take her gifts with us and not only embrace them, but incorporate them.
I will leave here today very much aware that our lives are not islands unto themselves, that we bear the influence of special people in our lives. We will honor her best by leaving this place and going back to work. But we leave realizing that to this date we have been blessed by the presence of a gentle spirit.