I attend a lot of funerals, whether I’m paying my respects or serving as the officiant.
Some funerals are awesome. You hear stories about the person who’s died, in such a way that even a stranger would come away feeling like they’ve lost a friend and the world is now lacking a spark of light. We’re given space to laugh, cry, and offer profound thanks.
Some funerals are awful. You may hear a load of theological reflection on death and what happens after, but scarce attention is paid to the life and legacy of the one we’re there to celebrate and remember.
And then there are funerals where the preacher drones on about themselves. Ugh.
In seminary, it was hammered into me and my classmates that a proper funeral service was a “witness to the resurrection.” So, our primary job as Christian clergy was to point out that death is not the end of our story. I believe that’s true, but it often meant the story of the person who’d died was of secondary importance.
In subsequent years of boots-on-the-ground ministry, I’ve determined what’s needed at funerals are fewer pearls of religious doctrine and more substance about the person we’re mourning. Besides, there are only so many ways basic faith concepts can be told before people start surreptitiously glancing at their smartphones. Such things should certainly be expressed, but please. We get it already.
On the other hand, every individual is a spiritual being, I believe. And every life contains a wealth of stories. When viewed as a whole, our lives form a narrative. Like any good book – or compelling movie or play – we all have a beginning, middle, and end.
The arc of our tale is filled with growth, struggle, triumph, courage, persistence, defeat, redemption, loss and love. There are funny, sad, compelling, magical threads that weave us together, and those are the sacred cords our memories grasp when we’re missing and giving thanks for a life.
The best funeral I ever attended was 18 years ago, for my first wife, Carol. I don’t recall anything the preacher said, although I’m sure it was lovely. What I needed to hear in that moment, and what has stuck with me like glue, were the friends who rose to bear witness to the positive difference made by Carol’s life. They expressed her impact and legacy by sharing stories. Their spoken words were paint-strokes portraying the essence of her life and faith in ways no sermon ever could. As I stumbled through a wilderness of pain and loss, those stories were stepping stones on my path of healing, that day and beyond.
If you’re ever called on to eulogize someone, don’t concern yourself with being religiously correct. Be honest. Don’t sugar-coat what everyone already knows that particular human being could’ve done better. No one lives a perfect life, or we’d never have the opportunity to grow. Mostly, share why that person mattered to you and continues to matter; what you learned from them, how they moved through the world, and what you’ll miss most about them.
That’s bearing witness. One day, someone will do the same for you and me. In the meantime, let’s make sure we have a really good story to tell.
David Green is the pastor of Salem United Church of Christ in Doylestown. He can be found there on Sunday mornings, or anytime atsalemstrong.org.