Putting the “Fun” Back in Funeral

I’m just kidding about the “fun” in the title.

Or perhaps not.

How many funerals have I done? Were they fun? Not one.

But were they tenderhearted, memorable, and—if not a Hollywood happy ending—a way to provide some solace for the living who eventually retreated from the freshly turned earth?

I hope so.

Several years before wearing my official ministerial robe, before a Bishop laid his hand on my head to bestow ordination, a seminary professor assigned me to Presbyterian Church in Southern California. A student pastor, I shadowed church staff to witness their work. I probably had to write a paper about my experiences. Thankfully, any paper I wrote was lost. However, decades later, I have a note from that church’s associate pastor. Near the semester’s end, he told me to wait in his office while he scribbled on a blank 3×5 card.

“Here,” Bob said (and his name was Bob), “This is what you’ll need for the funerals of folks you won’t know.”

He handed me the card.

“Trust me, Larry,” Bob continued, “you’ll do lots of funerals for people you’ve never met. Just keep this card in your Bible, and you’ll be ready for any of ‘em.”

I still have Bob’s guidelines, tucked inside the worn Book of Worship handed to me on a sweltering night at my ordination by Bishop R. Marvin Stuart on June 19, 1977:

Funeral Sermon Points 

1. Thanks for this unique life.

2. Misery, suffering is over – victory is won, now a totally new existence.

3. At time of death, lean on each other, & be courageous.

tomorrow is a new day, fill the vacuum,

live life well.

Thanks, Bob! I kept and treasured it, but never used it.

And yet, maybe I did. With many funerals, it was what happened before or after the formal service that stuck in my soul. Thanks for this unique life . . .

+      +      +

We were cruising along the highway, with me riding shotgun in the hearse. The driver, likely twice my age, sixty-something, confidently steered the modified Cadillac.

“We’ll get her, and you, there safely,” he said, with a quick nod toward the vehicle’s rear. “Her” being the body in the coffin behind us. The driver’s eyes returned to the road.

I nodded too. Not much to say.

He then asked, “Say, Pastor, do you know where the cemetery is?”

I was a new minister and new to the area. The woman in the back was not someone I’d met (see, Bob was right). And though I’d been with the family to plan her funeral, I’d never wondered where her future permanent residence might be located.

“Not sure,” I replied.

“No problem.” This was long before GPS and Google Maps. “We’ll find it. It’s gotta be close.”

The driver flicked on the turn signal and exited the highway. We weren’t alone. Behind us, about a dozen cars in the “funeral procession” followed. The woman in the coffin’s family and friends were trailing the hearse, and had been since leaving the service at the mortuary.

Seemingly calm, dressed in black, the driver scrutinized the countryside. We approached an intersection with a fast food joint and gas station. Without warning, the driver steered the hearse into the station and slowed as he approached the pumps. He stopped by a guy in greasy overalls with the gas company’s logo on his shirt. The driver rolled down his window.

“There’s a cemetery around here,” he said, “Do you know where?”

“Yup.”

We got directions. We were close!

The hearse accelerated back to the road and a cemetery only a mile and a left turn away.

I gazed past the coffin and the lady on the last ride of her life for a glimpse through the rear window. Every vehicle behind, linked together by respect and mutual ignorance of our destination, pulled into the gas station and slowed to a crawl by the pumps. Then they swung back on the road. Jesus once said, according to Luke 9:62, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.” Well, maybe an occasional glance back is allowed.

Anyhow, no funeral starts until the minister and the body arrive.

+      +      +

A church member called. Though not unusual—after all, church folks phone their minister anytime and anywhere—her reason surprised me. Mrs. Wilson (not her name and the Mrs., honestly, suited her better than a Ms.) made a request.

She wanted me to bury her husband.

I’d never met him. Mr. Wilson had died about twenty years before.

Mrs. Wilson had also received an unexpected call. Along California and Oregon’s mountainous border, where snow could linger from one year to the next, and hardly any hardy hikers ever hiked, a combination of unlikely circumstances had occurred. Snow, stubborn in the shadows created by peaks, had melted. A few backpackers wandered off trail and stumbled into the wreckage of a plane.

It was Mr. Wilson’s airplane. While flying a friend to Oregon, a nasty storm roiled in from the west. It hadn’t been on any weather summary for the flight plan. One bad thing likely led to another bad thing and the plane never arrived at its destination. A search followed.

Nothing was ever found.

Who knew where they’d crashed? There are miles of rugged wilderness where California and Oregon meet. A year or more later, Mr. Wilson was declared dead.

Life went on.

And then a surprised hiker discovered remnants of a once jovial, generous man in the form of bones and teeth.

Mrs. Wilson wanted me to help her bury Mr. Wilson.

It was family only, which meant grandkids who’d never met their grandfather. The Wilsons weren’t young when he’d plunged from the sky, and now—having lived many years and having seen her own children die—there weren’t many left to mourn with the surviving widow.

But mourn she did.

We buried him where he already had a marker. We buried him where she would be one day. We buried him with comforting words and helping Mrs. Wilson conclude the waiting. I recall, after hugs and then leaving the family to some final quiet moments together, of glancing toward Mrs. Wilson. How sad she seemed. And yet, also serene. I noticed, ever so briefly, that she smiled.

Earlier in the ninth chapter of Luke, Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

I suppose, in a way, Mr. Wilson had been buried twice by the living. Jesus, alas, ignored again! However, since I knew Mrs. Wilson had dearly loved her long dead spouse, there were hints of God’s realm in her fleeting smile.

+      +      +

Lean on each other, & be courageous, the associate pastor jotted in his note to me.

We’ll all roaring along a highway. Regardless of occupying the front seat or the back where the coffin is secured by hooks and cables, we’re headed for the grave. Though we may appear to know the directions—hoping we’re heaven-bound and well-remembered—mostly we’re stumbling forward, hapless and mapless.

Mrs. Wilson could’ve gone to her own grave without knowing what had happened to her beloved. Unlike many widows in wartime or peace that never learn where a loved one died, she received bone shards with enough DNA for a burial. It was sufficient.

I didn’t know the woman in the hearse who was briefly lost on a road with me. I didn’t know Mr. Wilson, other than through his wife’s stories.

And yet I had the privilege of saying words about them and for God’s merciful ways. Thanks for this unique life. Of course, whatever words come at the end, reminding people of God’s forever love, and honoring the too short life of a beloved, the words that matter most are the ones said to each other every day we wake and take a deep breath.

We’re on this “fun” journey together. All carry vibrant remnants of hope and love.

Thanks for your unique life!

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8 Comments

  1. I remember an episode in “The New Dick Van Dyke Show”, wherein Dick portrays a talk show host in Arizona. His uncle had just died and wanted Dick to conduct a “fun funeral” for him. So instead of a eulogy, he proceeded to tell a series of jokes. The only one I remember: “My uncle always said don’t marry a beautiful woman because she might leave you. Of course an ugly woman might leave you too, but so what.” Hey, it was a different time.

    Apropos of nothing, I saw Dick in the airport at Lindberg Field in San Diego a long time ago. A young lady with a group of pre-teens on a tour spotted him and my first glimpse was of him posing with them for a photo, flashing that 24 carat smile. What a gracious guy.

  2. You never fail to feed my mind and soul and to give my day a lift. May God richly bless you, Larry.

    Personal note: When Robert died March 17, I never thought that huge event in my life would lead to what is now almost seven months of glorious blessings. God has been so close to me and, through his many servants, has sometimes filled my cup to overflowing. Being with Robert for 17 years made me a better person in numerous ways. God was always there, with both of us. I believe God is still with both of us.

    1. Thanks, John.

      And I too believe that God continues to be with both of you. I am thankful to have known Robert . . . and continue to be blessed with your kindnesses.

      Take care!

  3. When I was in Divinity School, my field ed experience was at a really great church which refused to move to the suburbs and found itself smack, dab in the middle of a red light district. The members remained loyal and hardly any stayed in their comfy suburban homes on Sunday morning. My first funeral was for someone I didn’t know. My pastor (supervisor) told me to go to the funeral home and “Jake” would fill me in. My first funeral was for a prostitute. I don’t like to use that label because I got to know many prostitutes during my year there. Jake told me there’d be a few other “women” there so I shouldn’t make it dark. HOLY COW! I learned so much from the “women” later but I remembered Jake – Don’t make it dark. “She really had fun,” was how I began –

    1. I was dead serious. I was not trying to make a joke. I spent a lot of time talking to two women who were there. I asked them “what would Sheila want me to say?” Mona said, “she had fun.” So that’s how it started – my relationship with women on the margins. Because I listened, Mona said, “you’re okay.” Every preacher we’ve ever said that to – didn’t listen.

    2. Thanks for sharing, Pat! Years ago, a retired pastor was involved in a church I served. He told me about his time as a minister in a small town in Nevada. Some of those he counseled were prostitutes. He did funerals, a few weddings, and was available for “just talking.” But they trusted him because he listened and didn’t judge. How much those two qualities matter in every relationship.

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