I presided over my first two funerals this week. A colleague of mine told me, “You are going to want to write about those.” I shrugged it off at the time, but he was right. I offer a few reflections the morning after:
1.) I don’t take it for granted that pastors are invited into the most intimate moments of life and death. I realized this as I sat with the dying and a grieving community. This is a gift and I try to cherish it as much as I can.
2.) God does not fix all of our crises but can transform our tragedies into something beautiful. I read Scripture with a woman during her last moments on earth. After we read for a while, she said “thank you” over and over—at least six times. She asked me to keep praying—those were her last words. Then, she gently closed her eyes. We have lost the ars moriendi (the art of dying); most folks want to die instantaneously. Contrarily, this death was artful and a beautiful illustration of her life.
We worship a God who made something beautiful out of dust and a God who transformed public execution into salvation. Grief and despair feel at home during the time of death, but we must endure the suffering while keeping an eye toward the beautiful. You can choose to perceive the world as heartless, but never forget about the mystery and wonder of God.
3.) Holy Communion is important during funerals. Since the 4th century, the community of Jesus Christ has celebrated a farewell meal with the deceased. Communion accomplishes a number of purposes. It is thanksgiving for the life of Christ and the life of the deceased. It is fellowship—with Christ, the gathered congregation, the universal church, and with those that have passed. It is remembrance—we remember that Christ entered into our brokenness. It is grace—the Holy Spirit provides strength and nourishment to the body as we go through this hard time. Lastly, it is hope—communion is eschatological as it points toward the heavenly banquet. As the body gathers around the table, we long for the day where we will all eat together united in peace and perfection.
Sometimes our words fall short, but Communion fills that void.
4.) It’s very difficult to put together a funeral service that honors the wishes of the family and is also theologically astute. Overall, a funeral should be presented as the intermingling of two stories: the story of Jesus Christ and the story of the community, which includes the story of the deceased. The point of focusing on these two stories is to allow the funeral to place the story of the deceased and the story of the grieving community into the story of God. The funeral can easily slip into just “a celebration of life” at the expense of the most important story—Jesus Christ. A “celebration of life” is important, but it is a dead end without Jesus.
5.) Pastoral care during a time of death is exhausting.