Or perhaps not.
How many funerals have I done? Were they fun? Not one.
But were they tenderhearted, memorable, andâ€”if not a Hollywood happy endingâ€”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 churchâ€™s associate pastor. Near the semesterâ€™s end, he told me to wait in his office while he scribbled on a blank 3×5 card.
â€œHere,â€ Bob said (and his name was Bob), â€œThis is what youâ€™ll need for the funerals of folks you wonâ€™t know.â€
He handed me the card.
â€œTrust me, Larry,â€ Bob continued, â€œyouâ€™ll do lots of funerals for people youâ€™ve never met. Just keep this card in your Bible, and youâ€™ll be ready for any of â€˜em.â€
I still have Bobâ€™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 PointsÂ
1. Thanks for this unique life.
2. Misery, suffering is over â€“ 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 . . .
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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.
â€œWeâ€™ll get her, and you, there safely,â€ he said, with a quick nod toward the vehicleâ€™s rear. â€œHerâ€ being the body in the coffin behind us. The driverâ€™s eyes returned to the road.
I nodded too. Not much to say.
He then asked, â€œSay, Pastor, do you know where the cemetery is?â€
I was a new minister and new to the area. The woman in the back was not someone Iâ€™d met (see, Bob was right). And though Iâ€™d been with the family to plan her funeral, Iâ€™d never wondered where her future permanent residence might be located.
â€œNot sure,â€ I replied.
â€œNo problem.â€ This was long before GPS and Google Maps. â€œWeâ€™ll find it. Itâ€™s gotta be close.â€
The driver flicked on the turn signal and exited the highway. We werenâ€™t alone. Behind us, about a dozen cars in the â€œfuneral processionâ€ followed. The woman in the coffinâ€™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 companyâ€™s logo on his shirt. The driver rolled down his window.
â€œThereâ€™s a cemetery around here,â€ he said, â€œDo you know where?â€
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, â€œNo one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for Godâ€™s kingdom.â€ Well, maybe an occasional glance back is allowed.
Anyhow, no funeral starts until the minister and the body arrive.
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A church member called. Though not unusualâ€”after all, church folks phone their minister anytime and anywhereâ€”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.
Iâ€™d never met him. Mr. Wilson had died about twenty years before.
Mrs. Wilson had also received an unexpected call. Along California and Oregonâ€™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. Wilsonâ€™s airplane. While flying a friend to Oregon, a nasty storm roiled in from the west. It hadnâ€™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 theyâ€™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 whoâ€™d never met their grandfather. The Wilsons werenâ€™t young when heâ€™d plunged from the sky, and nowâ€”having lived many years and having seen her own children dieâ€”there werenâ€™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, â€œLet the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of Godâ€™s kingdom.â€
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 Godâ€™s realm in her fleeting smile.
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Lean on each other, & be courageous, the associate pastor jotted in his note to me.
Weâ€™ll all roaring along a highway. Regardless of occupying the front seat or the back where the coffin is secured by hooks and cables, weâ€™re headed for the grave. Though we may appear to know the directionsâ€”hoping weâ€™re heaven-bound and well-rememberedâ€”mostly weâ€™re stumbling forward, hapless and mapless.
Mrs. Wilson couldâ€™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 didnâ€™t know the woman in the hearse who was briefly lost on a road with me. I didnâ€™t know Mr. Wilson, other than through his wifeâ€™s stories.
And yet I had the privilege of saying words about them and for Godâ€™s merciful ways. Thanks for this unique life. Of course, whatever words come at the end, reminding people of Godâ€™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.
Weâ€™re on this â€œfunâ€ journey together. All carry vibrant remnants of hope and love.
Thanks for your unique life!