Another Funeral Rant
I’ll never get it as long as I live.
Maybe it’s as simple as a difference in personalities, but I still can’t quite fathom it.
Why is it so hard for some pastors to express sympathy and break out of their ministerial routines when they officiate funeral services?
I attended a service today that I really wanted to go to. I know members of the family from the community. I was part of the hospice team, and we only had a brief chance to visit and provide support until one of their beloved family members died. She was about my age, which is to say, far too young.
In the first visit I got to know her daughter, her husband, her son, and couple of her adorable grandchildren. Great family. They had built houses within a stone’s throw of each other down a gravel road in the country near where I live. They planned and toiled together, shared a remarkable communal family spirit, and from all accounts mom — the patient — was the glue that held it all together.
One of the skills a chaplain or social worker or anyone who works with people needs to develop is an ability to connect quickly, to earn people’s trust right away so that you can have conversations that cover sensitive and intimate topics in a sympathetic and reassuring way. This family welcomed me right into their home, the kids were delightful, they shared their thoughts and feelings openly, and we made that connection well.
Only a couple of days later, when the patient died, I went by myself in the wee hours of the morning and spent an extended time with a couple of them again. Again, we connected well as the husband in particular opened up and shared how stunned and lost he felt. I waited with them until the folks from the funeral home came (local people who have a good sense of compassionate engagement with hurting people). I assisted in handing their dear loved one into the care of these good folks, prayed with them before she left the home, and left with tears and embraces.
I went to her funeral today and joined a host of well-wishers in greeting and sharing our condolences with the husband and family. A DVD played on screens, setting forth snapshots of their life story and experiences. Comforting Christian music, well chosen, wafted over all of us. The funeral was held in an impressive facility, and the staff was readily available to help those in attendance. It felt like a real community, one in heart and mind, come together for one of life’s most blessed and painful small town rituals.
It was all as perfect as can be, from my perspective. Then the pastor got up.
Immediately, even though he said that the main purpose for us being here was to honor the deceased, he began to talk about himself. It was as though he had to give us his credentials for standing up to speak at this occasion. This 70-something evangelical minister came across as a salt of the earth Hoosier — plainspoken, commonsensical, grounded in his respectable, sensible midwestern upbringing, and what he saw as a simple, straightforward reading of the Bible.
After a rather perfunctory overview of some of the deceased’s admirable qualities, he prayed and then said he had a message for us. Without a trace of sympathy that I could detect, this pastor treated us to a didactic lecture on apologetics. With little emotion, he encouraged us to ruminate on a host of historical, philosophical, and literature references and cliches, despite his earlier announcement that he would simply talk to us as neighbors and friends.
He tried to get us to think about who we are and why we’re here as human beings. Nothing wrong with the subject, mind you, if presented in a proper way and with personal sensitivity to the occasion. But he gave it as a discourse, a presentation, a teacher talking to a class, and not a pastor taking a flock in his arms and reassuring them. I’ve no complaint with giving people something to think about, but in the context of a funeral, that requires a special touch — nine parts sympathy to one part information.
I won’t complain that there was no liturgy, no sense of mystery or transcendence, no “rites.” I would never have expected that in this situation. However, I expected a whole lot more than what was given. How about a bit of humanity? How about some words of consolation to the family and friends gathered? How about some sense that we were not attending a lecture but the commemoration of a life and an empathetic, pastoral offering of reassurance through faith, hope, and love? How about being a pastor?
In fact, and I just realized this as I was writing, even though he appealed to the Bible and set forth an apologetic case for a theistic worldview and the hope for an afterlife, he made no explicit reference to the cross or resurrection. No mention that Jesus walked among us, died our death, lay with us in our grave, and rose in anticipation of our own reawakening to life. No Christus Victor, no harrowing of hell, no evisceration of the power of sin, death, and the grave. No forgiveness, no new creation, no community of Word and Spirit in which to find solace and companionship in the darkness. For an avowedly evangelical pastor speaking to a family connected to his church, I find this unacceptable.
Pastoral malpractice is what it is.