By now you’ve probably seen the “dueling obituaries” articles. They are all over the internet.
How would you like to preside over this man’s funeral?
Yawn. I figured that it was only a matter of time before we had one of these. Newspapers are happy to expand their sources of revenue (“Obit special! Place two and get a discount!”). I presume that experienced funeral directors are prepared for both the wife and girlfriend showing up. I barely avoided a couple of funeral brawls over the years (when it looks dicey, get the funeral director to handle it; he is paid much more than you and has a lot more experience).
All genuinely called-of-God pastors are inveterate obituary readers. Ostensibly, we read to see if any of our members have died and we didn’t get a phone call about it. I sometimes think that churches are seething with passive aggressive members, folks who want to test the beloved pastor and see if he is paying attention to them.
“Well no, Miss Gertrude, I didn’t know your second cousin once removed died six months ago. I’m glad you called, though. How can I help you?”
Unsaid is, “You know Gertie, no one had seen him come to church for years, so he wasn’t missed there. And thank you very much for not asking me to bury that old reprobate.”
Obituaries have, uh, matured over the last several decades. It used to be that you had basic facts about a person: birth and death dates, occupation, family members, and the like. Now, obituaries are “family placed” and include the most interesting things beyond the basics. This makes for some fascinating reading, often between the lines.
A young person dies and often the family puts in wording like “She was her indomitable self.” “He had the courage to be himself.” “He lived life to the fullest.” “She was a unique energy force.”
Chances are, that individual did something foolish or got involved in something recklessly and it tragically cost them their life. I wouldn’t expect to read, “She was stupid and paid with her life.” Most of us have been called upon to preside over such funerals and understand that parents who have lost a child deserve to say whatever they wish. We can find a way to be compassionate and extend grace at the funeral.
I love the old photographs that families use. Youth and beauty ought to be remembered and celebrated. I’ve seen military service photos of folks I’ve known and have wished that I asked about their World War II service. Often I have already heard their war stories and it is almost always worthy of inclusion in the funeral service.
Families don’t always include the cause of death. Sometimes you can glean it from the wording or from the organization to which memorial gifts may be made. If cancer is involved and it is mentioned, almost always the adjective “courageous” is employed, “She fought a courageous battle with cancer.” We love to personify disease and make it into an enemy to be fought and battled, so “courage” is entirely appropriate.
Major newspapers assign obits to someone. Often an individual is selected for some obscure deed or interesting fact. My favorite is the obit for a woman, a British immigrant, who kept a photo of Winston Churchill in her kitchen. The woman, said the obituary, refused to allow anyone driving a BMW to park in her driveway. My father, wounded on Iwo Jima during the Second World War, didn’t ban my Toyota from the driveway but he often grumbled about it.
One day I’ll read the obit for an old man who was a major league baseball player. “Never heard of him,” I’ll think. Seems that he had one timely hit, maybe made a spectacular catch that won a World Series game – a brief, undistinguished career, not a hall of famer, no major league records, pathetic batting average. Ah, but he had that one brief moment of glory for which he was remembered decades later. We might reflect on what obscure fact might make our obit, and shudder.
In retirement, I generally turn down requests for weddings but will do an occasional funeral. I often read an obit and think of what I would say at the funeral, sort of a vicarious funeral experience.
So, how would I handle the funeral of the man with the dueling obits?
If I were completely immune to consequences, I might crack the old preacher joke that ends, “…but compared to his brother, he was a saint!”
Look it up.