Funeral Conversations

“Give sorrow words;

The grief that does not speak

Whispers the o’er-fraught heart

And bids it break.”

William Shakespeare –

I want to share four different stories that made it clear to me why involving those who gather to celebrate the life of one who has died is so important.  The first example happened when I was serving a church in the Cincinnati area.  I had been very close with the members of the young family.  The husband died leaving a young wife and two small children.  Because of the involvement of many persons in the area with the Ecumenical Institute of Chicago, several persons were coming to Cincinnati from Chicago for the funeral.  We decided to have a dinner at the church the evening before the funeral.  The make-up of the group included a wide age span including several children and youth.

At the end of the dinner one of the persons from Chicago led a conversation.  He asked persons to share an early recollection of Roger, the deceased.  A number of persons shared a variety of stories about Roger.  During those first questions asked of the group, all of the answers were coming from the adults.  The next question was directed specifically to the youth.  The question was, “What was it about Mr. Emig that impressed you?’  A young boy, about 11 or 12 years of age responded.  He said that Mr. Emig was one of the few adults who, when he was talking to a young person and another adult came close to them, Mr. Emig finished his conversation with the youth before he acknowledged the presence of the other adult.  He said it made him feel important.

The impact of that response was palpable.   It reminded me of the many times I had not kept my attention on a youth when approached by an adult.  It also lifted up a quality of Roger’s life that many of us would not have noticed.  The level of the conversation with the group as a whole was taken to a new level.

After the funeral I began to reflect on how a conversation might be used as a part of the funeral service.  I began to think of the kinds of questions that might be answered in a relatively short amount of time.  I created a series of questions that would tend to move the sharing to a deeper and deeper level.  I asked myself what I would do if no one was willing to answer questions in the setting of a funeral.  I decided I could affirm the fact that everyone gathered today had stories they could share, and that there would be numerous opportunities to do so.  It could happen at the meal scheduled to follow the funeral service.  The stories could be sent to the family in the form of a note, letter or phone call.  Any way they wanted to share the stories would be a demonstration of their desire to share the burden of loss with the family.  It was about six months later that I tried a guided conversation as a part of the funeral service.

The second example is of a funeral I was asked to do for a person I had never met and whose family I did not know.  It was one of those funerals, like many pastors have, when the family has no real connection with the church and the funeral director suggests your name as a person they would recommend.  After getting the phone call from the Funeral Director I had two days to prepare—not very much time to gather helpful information about a person and a family I had never met..  I shared with the family that I wanted to lead a guided conversation with those who attended the service and that I had used it many times before. I told them that I found it very helpful in celebrating the life of the deceased, but that I would only include the conversation time if they felt comfortable with it.  The family decided they would like it included.

During the funeral service conversation I asked the question, “When did you experience awe in your relationship to the deceased?”  The daughter-in-law stood up and shared this story:

“When Mother called my husband to let him know that she had been diagnosed with a terminal disease, she asked if she could move up to Ohio and spend her last days with family.  We immediately said yes and made preparations.  I drove down to help clear up things in Florida and pack everything needed for the trip back to Ohio.  During this process I saw a large box of sea shells in the living room and asked what needed to be done with them.  Mom told me there was a group of “old people” who met down town once a week and made shell craft.  She said she wanted to give the box of shells to them for their projects.  This was done and when we returned to the apartment I found a much smaller box of shells in one of the drawers in the bedroom.  I called this to Mom’s attention and asked if we shouldn’t make another trip down to the Shell Craft Group.  Mom’s response was, “No. These are very rare shells and since this is our last night here, I thought we might go down to the beach after dark and scatter them along the shore so that others might find them tomorrow while we are driving to Ohio.”

For me, the celebration of the funeral was complete.  Without the conversation, I probably would never have learned of this story, nor would the daughter-in-law have had the chance to be the primary bearer of the Good News of God in this situation.  Probably the only thing they will remember about the preacher of the day was that he gave her the opportunity to shape both the form and the content of the Celebration.

The third story is about the funeral of our daughter.  Shelley died of leukemia at the age of twenty-four.  A woman who had made the decision to go into ordained ministry during my time as pastor of the church asked if she could lead the conversation at the funeral.  My fear was that the pain of the event would be so close to the surface that the conversation might turn into huge crying “jag” for many.  When I shared that sentiment with her, she explained to me that I had demonstrated, in the funerals in that church, a method that transformed them into a meaningful celebration, and begged me to let her lead that conversation.  I relented.

During the funeral conversation Susan asked the question, “What is the one gift that Shelley’s life has given to you?”  The doctor, who was the head of the Oncology Department at The Ohio State University Hospital and who was the head of the medical team which supervised Shelley’s bone marrow transplant, attended Shelley’s funeral. He stood up to answer the question.  He began by telling those gathered that Shelley had given the world a gift.  That gift was the new knowledge that had been learned about the disease and its treatment.  Shelley was the first to receive a bone marrow transplant from a sibling that was not a perfect match.  Much was learned from the autopsy that would help increase the chance of survival for others in the years to come.

After the doctor sat down, my family knew that the Celebration we longed for had happened because of a clergywoman who stood her ground and a physician who attended that funeral.

The fourth example happened when I was asked to officiate at the funeral of my sister-in-law’s brother, John.  The family had lived their whole life in the area in and around Charleston, South Carolina.  John had never married.  He had lived by himself on the old family farm northwest of Charleston.  He loved the people in the area, the hard physical labor involved in farming and the deep roots of the place.  During the guided conversation I asked the question about experiencing awe with John.  An African-American neighbor stood and shared this story:

“I bought enough baled hay from John to last the winter.  He helped me move it and store it in my barn.  The barn burned to the ground a few weeks later and John came to visit me.  At the end of the visit John told me he was replacing all the hay free of charge and would help me to find a way of keeping it under cover.”

There was a long pause after the neighbor sat down.  Awe was present in the room.

Let us now look at the structure of a Christian funeral.  There are four acts to the funeral drama, and these four acts incorporate all four of the levels dealt with in the art form method.  The first act is the rehearsal of the ancient and modern wisdom about life which has been a comfort to persons through the ages.  This act includes readings from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and poetry

The second act focuses on celebrating the very particular life of the deceased.  The pastor can share a brief homily.  I have often asked families to gather up a few items which held deep meaning to the deceased and place them on the Communion Table prior to the service.  If that has happened, either the pastor or a member of the family can share the meaning of those items.  Then the directed conversation can be used.    A context for the conversation could be:  “One of the ways that we can share the burden of grief carried by the family is by sharing memories of the deceased that are important to us.  The family has already begun to process their stories.  At some time in the future the family will decide which stories must not be forgotten.”

The questions I use are variations of the ones listed below:

Objective questions:

1.  Who would share an early recollection of (the deceased)?  This allows persons to respond whether they have known the person for a long or a short time.

Reflective questions:

1.   Who would share an experience of laughter as a result of your connection with (the deceased)?

2.  Who would share an experience of having your life audited by the presence of (the deceased)?

3.  When was a time you experienced iritation as a result of knowing (the deceased)?  If this question seems appropriate I usually preface it with the context that we are celebrating the life of a human being, not a white-washed version of a human being.

4.  When was a time you experienced awe as a result of knowing (the deceased)?

Interpretive questions:

1.   What was the one gift to your life, given by (the deceased)?

The third act of the funeral celebration focuses on what are we being called to do with our life as a result of being given the gift of knowing (the deceased).  It is an illusion to believe you can fill the shoes of anyone else.  It is an impossible task.  We are only called to be the unique person we are and can be.  However, when someone we knew and loved dies, that death becomes a part of the context out of which we decide what we need to do and become.

The fourth act usually takes place at the cemetery where the liturgy for the committal of the body to its final resting place is celebrated.

Again, the event of the funeral can incorporate the unique contributions of laity and clergy alike.  The only persons who need to be “the audience” are those who choose to be. The richness of the funeral experience was infinitely expanded for me when I became aware of the possibilities of including the wisdom and insight lurking within all of those gathered.  All that is needed to set it free is the skill of the pastor to release it.  The skill of the laity to tell the meaningful stories is already there.

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