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Funerals: A Significant Threshold The Honorable Gift
By John Grys
As a pastor, perhaps one of the most sacred moments I find for ministry is the opportunity to be a part of a funeral for a bereaved family. I describe this as a "threshold" for a number of reasons. For the family and friends of the deceased, it is the moment where there is a shift from what was to what will be. There is this momentous reality that for the family, presence is now replaced by absence. This residual void now finds fulfillment through the sharing of significant memories. And finally, there is the closing of the door of possibility and the experience of finality. Indeed, regardless of culture, this serves as one of the most profound transitional moments in the life of any community. 
I begin this essay with these rather abstract beliefs for a reason. What I hold as a theological/philosophical assumption regarding this moment implicitly guides me as I enter into the life of the family and community during this most solemn of occasions. My inner world as a servant influences the externals I bring to the table in this sacred moment. The finality of the moment for all has a way of seeping into the inner worlds of all involved in the process of planning. This includes me. There are internal considerations that I carry into this moment. These moments have a way of bringing to the surface my own worldviews and unspoken considerations. These internal realities influence the external practices I bring to the table of ministering to all involved. Am I open to factors, practices, and other considerations as I engage with the community in this sacred journey?
For this reason, the planning and implementation of the service creates a window into the soul of the family and community as well. Thus, this "inadvertent" access into the soul of both family and community can reveal the levels of anxiety that may be latent in both. It is this dynamic that compels me to "listen" to what stirs – especially with those who are closest to the deceased. For it is precisely this listening that provides the substance of the message that I will present (if I am the one chosen to speak) or provides the broken place to where I can most effectively minister. This brokenness reminds me of the brokenness of both the world of which I am a part and my own brokenness. And it is precisely from this place, as painful as it may be, that I can best minister.
A Few Recent Learnings
As part of this internal world I bring to this moment, a few recent learnings emerge. The age and "era" of the person and what the era represents both to the family and the wider community must be remembered. I was reminded of this recently when I led the service for a centenarian. As I prepared and shared the world in which she experienced the formative years of her life, it would've been incongruent for me to make her sound as if she were of this epoch. I wanted the family and friends present to recognize the gift of not only her life but what her epoch means for our world today. In our highly multigenerational world, I must honor those upon whose shoulders I now stand.
Which gets to another learning. I must always remember that I am being "asked" to mediate and minister between the family and the wider community, including close friends, acquaintances, and in many cases, an ecclesiastical community. This can be a tricky situation at times where the desires of those closest to the deceased may at times conflict with the desires of the wider communities. And depending on the levels of anxiety and the capacity to manage the anxiety, there can unfortunately be moments where conflict becomes rather intense. I have found this especially true where siblings and grieving spouses conflict on the components and/or the order of the service. I know as a pastor I am walking into a living, breathing, dynamic family system. And the invitation to engage with that system at a moment where it is possibly the most vulnerable is a gift that we pastors rarely gain access. And as such, is a sacred trust.
Another learning surrounds the circumstances of the death. How to approach a suicide versus a stillborn versus an elderly saint versus a murder would all contribute to the tone and feel of the service. Again, this reminds me that I must be attuned to the family and circumstantial dynamics involved leading all to this moment. Having led a service for a visiting foreign teenager tragically killed in a car crash as well as a service with an elderly person with a long-term illness (where death was almost a relief), these speak volumes into the tone and texture of the planned service. To believe there is a one-size-fits-all service can lead me down a path of violating the context of the person’s life and passing.
Thus, at the core of my own presence is the continual reminder that I am there not as a servant of my particular congregation nor of my own denomination. I am there as a servant to the family, specifically the immediate family and then the extended family.
Two practical learnings I've discovered. First, the use of video as a vital part of the community memory celebration can be very effective. I have been part of services where a video clip of the deceased has been used. There is a difference between a video of a slide montage and the use of an actual video cut. The second is a much more visceral experience and as such, I've found I must be very careful how it is used. I usually will ask the family to watch the full video cut as a family before the day of the service.
Secondly, as well, I have found more and more people appreciate where we as a church can provide a DVD copy of the service itself. This contributes to this necessity of keeping the memory of the deceased alive within the family. It also provides the family with a tool they can pass along to family and friends who were unable to be there at the service. Finally, as will be addressed below, it provides closure to this threshold moment of ministry to the family.
Presence vs. Space
Now, to some practices. Again, depending on the situation, there may come the call that a death has occurred. The dynamics of the larger system will kick into high action. I have found some do not want the pastor present immediately after the end of life. They want the space to be able to mourn as an immediate family. Death has a way of revealing the myriad of ways people deal with this most unwelcomed guest. Thus, there may be the necessity of providing space for the family to engage their grief without an "outsider" present in the moments immediately following the end of life.
Others will reach out to the pastor immediately. For them, their close community (especially if you are in a culture where pastors hold a high authority) includes the pastor. Some will ask that you be there at the end of life. Others, just after the person has passed but before the body is removed. Again, as a pastor, I cannot take it personally how some people grieve. Part of this grieving process will include or exclude the immediate presence of the pastor. I have found this moment to provide a window into the possibilities of what the future planning and participation will hold.
I will usually try to be with the family as immediately as possible. A quick phone call can stand as a moment to begin entering their world. This way of communicating brings into the play the ways of communication that exist within ministry today. For younger generations, because of the unbelievable overload of incoming calls or emails or even FB comments, I sometimes have found a simple text will suffice. Usually, I will express sympathy and then ask what time would be good to call them. I then will try to follow up with what is the most effective way of communicating for this moment: presence.
I have found that the less I speak, the better, when I make that initial visit with the family. I doubt that the family will remember any words I've said at these initial moments weeks or months later. What they do remember is that I was there. Presence matters far more than words. Which means for me as well that I must commit my anxiety to God and not allow the anxiety to make me an unnecessary chatterbox. This sacred moment is about the family and not my own anxiety as a servant.
The Service
As far as the service itself, again there are a variety of ways to approach it. Again, circumstances will guide. I've found some families want me involved in the whole process of planning (including urn/casket selection) while others prefer to plan it out themselves and then inform me what I will be doing. Others will plan it and then contact me to solicit my input. One of the points where I've found quite a divided opinion: Should there be an opportunity for the audience to give open-mic testimonies about what the person has meant to them. My experience is that if you do something like this, you will need to make sure the person moderating the mic can move the group along. The other issue as well is whether or not the family is at a strong enough state to hear what will be said – even though it is very good. Some families are at a point in the grieving process where that will work and others are not. I have found the circumstances surrounding the death may give wisdom.
Generally, the following is an order of service I will start with:
Welcome & Opening Prayer
Opening Song
Favorite Scripture (if the person is a believer; if not, I still will use a more known Scripture here like Psalm 23): Many find that if the person had a Bible, it is a powerful moment to share this Scripture with that particular Bible. Some will even have notes written around the text that can be quite moving to share.
Song (this can be a special performance selection or a congregational song)
Eulogy: Usually read by a family member. Sometimes the local obituary is read and sometimes a much more personal and extensive eulogy is read. I have found with the latter I discovered many things I did not know about the person.
Song: Again, usually here will be a more performed song rather than a congregational song.
A Life to Remember: Here is where some kind of visual presentation is used. Most families will create or have someone create a slide montage of the person. This is usually one of the most emotional moments of the service, especially if real video is used rather than a slide presentation. Also, I have found that some want to use this at the end of the service, kind of leaving a last visual-audio impression of the person's life.
Message: I always focus on the reality of Jesus and the hope his life and death has brought to reverse the curse. I also seek to remind the audience that God is the judge and not man, especially in the cases of an unbelieving relative or a suicide.
Musical Selection: Again, another song to kind of bring all things to conclusion. Whether it is performance oriented or congregational oriented.
Here would be a good time to interject some issues that arise throughout this process. One may be the choice of songs. I've been involved in funerals where the individual was not a practicing believer nor part of any specific congregation. Family members wanted music with a video that was not "religious." This again may challenge some congregations. I am glad to say the congregations where I've served have been open to such experiences. The songs that were selected were songs that still shared the sentiments that did not contradict our values as Jesus followers. So yes, in these moments, the value of sacredness in the sanctuary (which largely goes undefined) and the value of serving families mourning the loss of a loved one may compete. This is where staying close to congregational leadership and prayer can be helpful.
Another issue I've encountered is the issue of remuneration. There are some cultures where this is expected, some funeral homes include this in the price of the package for the family. Just recently, the funeral home informed me this was the case and I informed them that I would not be receiving the gift. Usually, I inform the family (if it is a direct inquiry by the family) that I am compensated as a pastor already and that this is my gift and honor to be invited into this moment. However, this is not always the case. I often have to weigh the cultural component of accepting or rejecting versus the reality of what best serves the family. In those moments where I do accept, I use that money specifically for ministry needs. I know some pastors have a specific account where they deposit those funds. However, I am again under the conviction that it is not my money nor my ministry. This is about honoring people in a moment of high vulnerability in a way that both serves them and honors the God who took the towel. 
Probably one of the most personal funerals I've experienced was held at a church in the San Francisco Bay Area where I served on the staff. The individual was a delightful young twenty-something who worked at an animated film studio. Instead of the more traditional sign-in books located in the lobby of our church, we allowed for the studio to locate throughout the lobby large easel's in anticipation that many from the studio community would attend. Along with these easel's, drawings and caricatures of various popular characters the young man had doodled during his time there were located through the lobby as well. Sure enough, as people began arriving (many from the studio), the easel's starting filling up with unbelievably detailed drawings of the popular characters, all with thinking or speaking bubbles expressing love for both the young man and his family. In attendance that day as well were executives from the studio.
The Message
Which leads to the final category (as well as issue) for funeral planning: the message. Having spoken at funerals that were not overtly religious and others that were very much so, I know that there is a wide variety of responses to this issue. Some will advocate very strongly an overtly evangelistic appeal made at some point during the message. Others will advocate a much more softened approach. I seek to try finding a middle ground. With members who have passed, where the primary community is the congregation, I would be much more "religious" in my approach. In places where the person had no congregational connection and/or no public indication of faith, I am much more cautious. Yet, I cannot deny the reality of Jesus and the Resurrection and make no bones about preaching it.
Our corollary to this is the issue of our state-of-death views and how to present those. In places where I know there is controversy in the family (and I've been in a few of those where members do not agree and in these moments can disagree vehemently), I am not going to make myself the center of attention by being controversial. However, there is not one funeral that I've done where I've not presented the texts from 1 Thessalonians. Those texts say far more than I could ever say at that precise moment and, I believe, open the door for the Holy Spirit to do his work.
Bringing Closure
One final learning that I've not done well in and see it as something I've ignored over the years. It is the issue of bringing some kind of closure to this chapter in the life of the community and the family. It is the means of "announcing" a change in relationship. The intensity of the relationship during this time of immediate and high grief requires a strong relational presence. However, that intensity of presence will not be sustainable and the family and friends will soon be continuing through the various stages of grief. So, as implied above, I attempt to contact the immediate family some time during the following week as a way of "exiting" the process of the funeral. It is here where I can bring a copy of the recording of the service. Rather than make the last contact being the day of the service, I want to follow-up to bring about a more neutral exit. This process is one where my presence becomes diminished over time. The pre-existing support structures of the family begin to kick in and can provide stability once again. A new normal will be born.
A former Adventist had "wandered" into my office one day and we quickly struck up a distinct friendship. While he had not attended an Adventist church in decades, he had been brought up in the house of Adventists through his elementary school years. Over time I had the privilege of building a strong relationship with him and follow him into the baptistry as he and his wife were baptized. He experienced over the course of a year a remarkable journey away from the worship of self to the worship of this wonderful God he had met in a loving community. His family was so thoroughly embraced by our congregational community. They brought an enthusiasm and passion for this Jesus. It was remarkable.
About a year after his baptism he was diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of a few months, it became clear it was terminal. Sure enough, a few weeks later, he passed away. We had the privilege of conducting the service. Over the time of his transformation, he had fallen in love with our praise team. He made it very clear to me that at his funeral, there wasn't going to be this kind of down-and-out tone to the service. He wanted to make it a time of celebration of the new life he had found in Jesus. And so, with band set up on the platform behind his casket, we opened the service with one of his favorite songs and sang the words with a whole new sense of the divine presence, " is the time to worship. Come, now is the time to give your heart. Come...just as you are to worship. Come, just as you are before your God. One day every tongue will confess You are God. One day every knee will bow. Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now." And in that moment, the divine mystery of worship at the funeral of a newly impassioned disciple of Jesus made perfect sense. What a gift!
John Grys pastors the Burr Ridge and Naperville churches in Illinois