I assisted in a funeral Sunday afternoon. That is the occasion when the coats and ties in my closet rejoice that they will see the light of day because otherwise they stay put.
The funeral was for a friend and longtime member of the church from which I retired. I joined the current pastor and another former pastor in doing the service. It was, as I like to put it, a triple header. All went smoothly. It was a good funeral. The lady was a believer, a faithful church member, and had lived a long life. As is the custom these days there was not only the preachers preaching and sharing anecdotes, musicians playing, and singers singing, but also family members speaking. Everyone did a good job.
But I have witnessed a few cringeworthy moments at funerals, moments that were inappropriate and/or embarrassing. You may have read the account of the recent funeral for a young man who took his own life. The priest who was to preside over the Catholic ceremony was unacquainted with the deceased so the grieving parents met with him to give him some personal information to use at the funeral. They were aghast when the priest spend his homily time talking about suicide. Ouch!
Most of us may have the sad occasion to preside over the funeral of someone who had taken their own life. There are ways to do this without doing what this priest did. Cringeworthy to the extreme. You don’t get a do-over for a funeral. The minister gets one opportunity and, while mistakes are common, he should be prepared, informed, and wise enough to avoid disastrous errors.
Here are a few things that make for a cringeworthy funeral moment:
- The minister gets the name wrong of the deceased. We all do funerals for those whom we don’t know well or even those whom we have never met. Get pertinent information from the family. Write it down. Don’t spend a half-hour calling the deceased by an incorrect name while attendees sit and shake their heads. Such not only shows that the minister is inept but that he doesn’t really care about what he is doing.
- There is confusion about protocol. Funerals are scripted and funeral directors get big bucks to make sure everything goes smoothly. Meet with the funeral director ahead of time and if you aren’t already familiar with how things are to go, ask questions. There’s no need to stand around looking confused. Everyone present will appreciate professionalism from all involved.
- Likewise, let the funeral director handle difficult people first.
- Don’t even bring your cell phone in the church or funeral chapel.
- Don’t wear that stupid tie.
- Check your zipper.
- Avoid inappropriate anecdotes about the deceased. I almost always have a few great tales about the folks I pastored and knew for a long time. Some of these are home runs at the funeral. Most of these are not ones I would choose for the last moments the family and friends meet to remember their loved one. Share those at other times. Some should be left on the bench.Use some wisdom and discretion. You don’t want the family whispering, “Why did he tell that story?”
- Once or twice I’ve been pressed into pall bearer duty. You don’t want to be shorthanded totin’ the casket. If the director asks, by all means agree to help. Dropping the casket is not the moment you want folks to remember.
- To the degree that you have influence, counsel against oddball and inappropriate music. If the funeral is in your church worship center of chapel you should have discretion on this. If in the funeral chapel, you should still gently move the family in the right direction so far as the ceremony is concerned. After all, you are leading it.
- Don’t convey the impression that you are just a functionary at the service. If handed something to read, by all means read it before the service. It may be inappropriate in which case you can approach the family and say, “I’ll consider this but put it in my own words” or something similar. Usually these things can be finessed.
- A lot of uncertainty and problems are solved by spending most of your time talking about the Lord, not the deceased. The funeral should be personal but not exclusively so. It’s primarily about eternal things, not just temporal.
It is an honor for me to be asked to assist with the funeral of someone I pastored for a long time and I enjoy ministering in this way. There’s more stress if you are the pastor. I’m fairly stress free in the role of assisting the current pastor.
Weddings? I pass on doing those these days. Let someone else handle the bride, mother-of-the-bride, FOBs, aggressive aunts-of-the-bride, wedding directors and dictators and all that…but I’ll show up and eat the food. In my area funerals almost always mean a big meal for the family. I’ll show up for that also.
God bless and guide you as you serve Him in this way. It is sometimes a minefield.