Saying the Right Things at the Right Time at the Right Funeral

In a chapel at a local mortuary . . .

I had never met the dearly departed.

In my first year of ordained ministry, interning at a church with three full-time clergy, I got the leftovers. Who preached on the Sunday after Easter or Christmas? Why not the kid? With a lone exception, none of the church members wanted the youngster for their weddings. I saw numerous baptisms, but had no hands-on, wet-and-wild-in-the-Spirit moments. They all preferred experience; a minister with gravitas. Being only a Christian witness does have its downsides.

However, there were those desperate calls from families, perhaps tangentially connected to the congregation, searching for a pastor’s help with a funeral.

They’d take anyone.

Grammy died. A favorite uncle died. The mother’s brother’s son’s girlfriend’s step-father died. The church secretary would answer the phone, gleaning enough of the family’s needs to pass them along to the senior pastor. The senior pastor, a fine fellow by the way, might quietly commiserate with the grieving caller. They beseeched him to preside over the graveside service or share kind thoughts at the funeral parlor. Alas, Rev. Senior Pastor was busy on that particular day. But good news! He had a young pastor that would be . . . perfect!

Would they want to talk to said young pastor?

You betcha!

And so, in a year of sermons on the “low” Sundays and mostly watching baptisms and communions done by the “real” ministers, I did funerals.

Most of the funerals already had the date, time, and place set in stone, but were missing one itsy-bitsy item to complete the to-do list: a minister.

Let the intern do it!

One funeral was a woman who was dead before I got to know her. She had friends in the congregation and that may have been a contributing factor in their quest for “any pastor.” I met with the family. The woman was elderly, and had “lived a long, good life.” Her death was expected. Her arrival at “the better place,” aka heaven, was also expected.

They told me about her. Nice things all.

Did she have any favorite scripture, I wondered?

No.

Poems? No. Hymns? No. Prayers? No.

We loved her. Everyone loved her.

The day of the funeral came, with friends and family crowded in a chapel at a local mortuary. I recall offering my church’s sanctuary, but everything had already been organized, so I went with the program.

All went well, until it didn’t.

After the brief service concluded, I eased to a spot near the exit. The family, once sitting in the front pews, had already departed, greeting folks out in a larger, brighter space adjacent to where we’d held the service.

I shook hands and tried, in a student intern kind of way, to sympathize with each person before they expressed their condolences with the family in the next room. Three women—gray-haired and with glum expressions—stopped by me.

One weakly grasped my hand, then quickly let it go like I was Typhoid Larry.

“Nice service,” the second one muttered.

“It would’ve been better if you’d actually used her real name,” the first one scolded.

The third one sighed. Loudly.

The grumpy trinity, as if chained together by mutual irritation, shook their heads in unison and then trooped from the room.

I was staggered. Ashamed. How could I have done something that insensitive?

The deceased woman had several friends from my church, attending to pay their respects. Though preferring to crawl through a secret door and escape, I approached the church members. Like most present, they were well past retirement age. But, bonus, I knew and trusted them.

I shared the accusations about my name errors.

“Oh Larry,” one said, “that’s not true. You did fine. Everything was okay.”

“Did I mispronounce her name or—”

“No. You always correctly said her name. Don’t worry about it.”

And yet I did.

I still wonder, decades later, what in heaven or hell happened? I trusted the church members who comforted me. My recollection is that those reassuring words were from Jesus-loving, blunt-speaking, truth-telling folks that would’ve told me if I’d made a dull-witted mistake.

Perhaps the grouchy trinity were at the wrong funeral at the right time?

Perhaps what they heard and what I said, in their ears at least, was different?

It is hard, hard, hard work to listen to others.

In my years of preaching, I had multitudes of folks shaking my hand after the service, expressing how much they liked the sermon. Not often, but often enough, the friendly person at the exit would reference Jesus’ resurrection or how I helped them understand John Wesley or that my story about forgiveness was exactly what they needed to hear that day.

Thanks, I’d reply.

And yet the subject they “needed to hear” wasn’t in the sermon.

What you say is not always what people hear.

A speech communication major in college, I had a professor share about the minefields of public speaking. He cautioned that words can transport people into places beyond a speaker’s control.

Say, for example, I mentioned Jesus striding beside the Sea of Galilee. With that established, I plunged deeper into my sermon’s brilliant points. But one person in the pew imagines a walk along a sandy shore, reminiscing about his recent vacation on the Oregon coast. Another recalls the early morning walk with her parents, when her mother shared about a cancer diagnosis. And still another, beside his bride of twenty years, grasps her hand, suddenly remembering their simple beach wedding before their life got so complicated with jobs and debts and regrets.

As the preacher, I may proclaim Jesus’ words of mercy, but there are those in congregation who have “traveled” to the past or future, in private locales filled with joy or sadness, satisfaction or dread, and they haven’t heard a word I’ve said.

I think it’s worse now. And it’s not just with preaching.

The peculiar era of fake news confounds us. (But is it fake if we agree with it?) Social media lures us into believing we have hundreds—thousands, millions—of friends. (How can people we’ve never met so profoundly upset or anger us?) We ignore research proving it’s fatal to drive distracted by talking or texting on phones. (But I’m different, and nothing will ever happen to me.) We are bombarded with bullying tweets and zillions of cute kittens. Everything becomes a meme. Our life is a slurry of words, images, opinions, accusations, and marketing.

How can we hear anything? On our own, we are deaf and dumb.

It is hard, hard, hard work to listen to others.

To this day, I remain grateful to those blunt-talking church members who reassured me that I’d said the right things at the right time at the right funeral.

I tell ya, we are all interns in this overwhelming world. Listen for and to those who love you.

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8 Comments

  1. How true. But sometimes people hear what they need to hear. It seems that the spirit may be working.

    One Sunday morning I gave a message that I had not had time to prepare adequately for. It felt empty to me. But one young man left in tears saying that he needed the message I brought. I am sure he heard something that I didn’t say, but it doesn’t matter. God is at work.

    Thank you for all you share. Sometimes it is so meaningful that I can’t find words to respond.

  2. THAT PHRASE …’CAN’T FIND WORDS TO RESPOND’, RINGS A LOUD BELL WITH ME. I CAN NEVER FIND ELOQUENT WORDS TO YOUR POST, BUT WANT YOU TO KNOW I’M STILL READING YOU. THERE, I JUST SAID IT. lol

  3. Thank you! Needed this today. Our beloved 13 year old dog died last night. Each one in the family of five grieving in their own way.

  4. Is that what they’re doing? All starting in the same place and within two sentences, off and wandering down some rabbit hole I hadn’t intended? Well, don’t you think that in the end, all those sermons we write are really for ourselves? I’m pretty sure after all these years I understand and accept that I’m writing for me – out of my experience and lots of times to tame those demons that are still lurking. Great if someone else is dealing much the way I am with all the realities or fake news.

    1. Pat . . .

      Thanks for reading and commenting! And I so agree. Whether they were “good” or “bad” sermons, the ones I felt best about were first preaching to me. Yes, I hope I honestly and openly helped my congregation sense the “Good News,” but preaching is a fluid relationship, a “trinity” including God, the folks in the pews, and the person hanging ’round the pulpit.

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