I said a few weeks ago that two of my favorite parts of ministry is being able to do funerals and weddings. That may sound a bit strange, but I believe they are really two sides of the same coin. These are the most sensitive moments in a family’s life,filled with great joy and great pain, but they are also holy spaces where we get to see Heaven and earth get a bit closer.
And this is the primary job of a minister. You get the privilege to enter into the some of the most sacred spaces of a family’s life and stand with them in a time of grief. It will help you get to know the people in your church better, and the people who don’t go to church in your community. Think about this, there a ton of people who rarely turn to a minister for anything, but this is one of those moments that they do, and you get to point them to a God who is willing to enter into grief.
And so this is a very important part of ministry, and all of it probably needs to start with getting to know them better.
Interviewing the family
No matter how well I know the deceased, I want to talk with the people closest to them. Chances are they knew an aspect of the person that I didn’t. And if I didn’t know them at all, then this is my first place to start.
1) Gather the closest friends and family: There always tends to be one or two people who raise to the top in helping shape this meeting. Most of the time, the spouse or a child of the deceased are the ones who decide who come to this. Remember, Everyone grieves differently, and every situation is different, so I want to try and enter this space as sensitively as possible. In weddings and funerals, family dysfunctions (and all families have them) tend to rise to the top. So be prepared for awkward comments and moments, I try to enter into this as non-judgmentally as possible. If anybody had to peek into my family at a raw time like this, we would be the same way.
A lot of times this is one of the heaviest parts of ministry, people are still in shock and trying to process how they are going to move forward with life. But I’ve also had some of the most joyful, laughter-filled moments in ministry, sitting around with a family as they look back on a life well lived.
2) Learn the Deceased person’s story. Whatever the surrounding situation is, the goal for me here is the same: Getting to know the deceased person’s story. I want to start with the beginning, where were they born? How did they start off in life? What were they passionate about? What did they do with their life? What mattered to this person?
I don’t have an interview questionarre for these situations, that seems too canned. But I do tend to ask similar questions each time. If the spouse is still living, I’ll ask questions about how they met, how he proposed, how long were married, what kind of spouse were they?
If there are children or siblings there, I try and find out what kind of parent they were? What stories stand out to you about your mom or dad?
What did they do with their life? What mattered to this person? What words stand out to you about their lives? You will find out that some of the most fascinating people have been right under your nose the whole time.
3) Honor the Deceased Person:
Almost every person, at one time in their life, has done something noble, and I’m looking for ways to brag on the deceased. This is a great chance to celebrate the right things. We live in a really superficial culture, and we are bombarded by ideas about what the good life is. But nobody ever talks about how nice of a car the deceased person drove. Because it’s in these moments that we are reminded about what really matters in life, and what doesn’t.
4) Be Appropriately Honest
Just because you are going to brag on the deceased person, doesn’t mean that you are going to make them into a saint. You don’t want people coming by, checking out the casket to make sure they are at the right funeral. The people who have gathered know who this is, and you aren’t honoring them by pretending they were somebody else. That doesn’t mean that you tell their darkest secrets, but you’re job is to help these people say goodbye, and part of that is being honest about the person they are saying goodbye to.
If they weren’t a perfect father, don’t paint them that way. If they weren’t able to stay faithful in their marriage, don’t hold them up as a role model for marriage. When it’s appropriate, I will try to speak into these situations when appropriate. I want to assume the best in these stories, and as I listen to them I might try to say something like “He loved you, he just didn’t know how to show it.”
5) People Die the Way they Lived
I think one of the important things to remember is that this person’s personality is going to almost always shape the funeral. How a person lives is how they die.
I remember one time, there was a gregarious, funny and well-loved person who had died in a tragic accident. So I prepared a very somber funeral, but the family went before me in the service, and they just told incredibly funny stories that were filled with hope. They weren’t in denial. They were being true to the person who had passed away. And my portion of the funeral was out of sync with the rest of it, because I hadn’t considered the personality of who we were honoring.
6) Be Prepared to Not be Prepared
Death is never convenient, and there has never been a funeral that I’ve thought, “Well at least this is a good week for it.” We’ll talk in a couple of months about the importance to try and work ahead on the things you can, so that you can have a little margin in your ministry for the unexpected. But remember, if you’ve been asked to and have accepted this responsibility, than it is now the most important thing in your week. Don’t be impatient, don’t rush anywhere, because of course this is inconvient for your weekly schedule, but this family’s life has just been turned upside down, and you might just miss God. He’s always present when people are hurting.
Last week Josh Graves wrote a Theology of Funerals, but the truth is that you don’t really have a theology for funerals. As a minister you will develop a theology that is shaped by funerals. You will begin to see how much faith matters, and what This is a moment of allowing the most basic truths of ultimate reality into our everyday realities. It is to put on display an embodied gospel that is honest about grief and death, but hopeful about God’s future and resurrection of us all.
There’s no amount of reading or tips that can prepare you for this. You just have to go into it knowing that you are probably going to make mistakes and be occasionally awkward. But If you will enter in to these moments anyway, doing funerals will change your ministry, it might even change your life.
It might just make you want to start helping the minister who is going to write your funeral.
You might want to start giving them a better story to work with.