The death of a loved one rips away the facades of life and causes deep pain within the souls of those who remain. I see and feel relationships acutely when I am in the presence of death. It is both fearsome and wonderful.
A happy marriage, a solid bank account, and a sense of control over life offer some sense of stability in life. But such assets also set the stage for a particularly difficult adjustment to the death of a spouse or other loved one.
It is fearsome to sit with a family whose child has died tragically before reaching the prime of life. It is fearsome to minister to a husband whose young wife has died of cancer and left him with two small children—especially when he has a marginal relationship with the church and little more than a passing acquaintance with God. It is fearsome to bring God's comfort to those who suffer.
Yet, it is also wonderful to bring God's comfort in times of loss. Part of what I attempt to do with the people I minister to in these hours is to glorify God, bring assurance of the presence of God, speak the Word of God, and confirm Christ's promises of abundant life into the lives of those who mourn.
Although our faith and confidence in the gospel of the resurrection sustains us, there is a deep sense of emptiness when those whom we love pass away. Even when comforted by deep faith, there is still a hollow place in life when a loved one is gone.
Sometimes funeral arrangements are made easily. At other times, they are quite difficult. Two different processes could help the family and the minister in those preparations.
Most ministers already will have confidential files of information about parishioners.
When I complete a call on a church member, I immediately write data about that person in my personal, confidential log book: family information, interests and hobbies, interesting anecdotes about the person's life, and beliefs that the person has expressed during my call. Doing this takes a bit of time following the visit, but it is invaluable for future calls or for funerals.
Most ministers are computer literate in the twenty-first century. Storing such information on the computer with a confidential password to retrieve data is a far better way than having it in a log book that might become accessible to others.
I note the date of my pastoral call in my personal copy of the church directory. When I make a future call on this person, I look in the directory and find the dates of previous calls and review the information in my log book prior to my visit.
I prepare the funeral in the same manner. By looking back in my calling log or accessing information on the computer, I am able to retrieve a great deal of information that I may have forgotten over a period of several years.
Another version of the confidential record is a questionnaire completed by an individual.
This tool could also be valuable to the minister and family at the time of death. A confidential file in the church office containing certain basic information regarding the person, his or her desires at the time of death, and requests regarding his or her own funeral or memorial service would help the family in making difficult decisions. This information could also be given to family members. Either way, it benefits the officiating pastor in funeral preparation. This record could contain:
- the name, address, and phone number of the nearest relative
- member's occupation, place(s) of employment and years employed at each
- organizations to which he/she belongs(ed)
- choice of funeral a home
- whether the funeral will be held at the funeral home or at the church
- any funeral pre-arrangements
- is the cemetery preferred; has a lot been purchased?
- burial, cremation, or donation of organs
- open or closed casket, if burial
- location of the will
- executor of estate
- safety deposit box location
- memorial gifts or flowers
- designation of memorial gifts (church or favorite charity)
- preferences of hymns or scriptures to be used in the service
- other specific requests
Gathering such information should provide for the wishes of the deceased, rather than forcing family or friends to make those difficult decisions at the time of death. When my mother passed away several years ago, she had most of her funeral arrangements finalized and had an insurance policy that covered the costs of the funeral. The only decision I had to make was the rental of a limousine for the transportation of family members.
Prearrangements by an individual are very helpful to family members and to ministers. They save precious time and energy, especially if there are several children who, otherwise, might be conflicted about decisions.
The family interview
Although I may have sufficient personal information about the deceased, I attempt to have a personal interview with the family in the time immediately following first viewing and preceding the arrival of visiting friends at the funeral home. One half hour is usually the minimum amount of time needed for this period of remembering.
I inform the family on the previous day that I will want to spend some time talking about their loved one, asking them to recall any anecdotes, beloved poems or songs, or other remembrances of the deceased when I meet with them on the day of visitation. They are, then, able to consider those questions and give them some forethought over a 24-hour period.
This brief interview with family helps me to understand the things that are most important to the family at the time of the funeral. This is in keeping with my belief that the funeral service is for the living, not the deceased.
This process also becomes a catharsis for the family and helps them move through their grief by remembering. As they sit and talk with me, more and more stories pour forth as a son's tale leads to the recollection of another incident by a daughter. The grief is temporarily relieved as they tell of their precious memories.
One letter of thanks that I received following a recent funeral indicates the appreciation that families have for this time of remembering.
"Thank you for suggesting the remembering session. It meant a lot to us. Your comments at the service were uplifting and positive. After several years of moving through the effects of what Alzheimer's disease does to an entire family, it was good to close Mother's life in that manner."
Most times, I will share these stories and certain key words describing the deceased near the beginning of the funeral message. It is a time for relating turning points, struggles, joys, and heartbreaks that I have learned from listening to the family.
This is not pretense or dishonesty. It is simply a time to remember and relate the life that has passed from us. Most people appreciate candor and humanness, especially at times like this.
When this is a life that God has impacted, these stories and words glorify God and illustrate His presence in one's life. This is different from "sermonizing" or pressuring people into an altar call at a funeral service; it is storytelling at its best, truth that is translated into a person's life.
I understand that the funeral service, like any service of worship, should focus upon God and glorify Him. Could a minister actually forget this important aspect of the funeral service? Yes, it is quite possible merely to make a secular event of this service in which an obituary is read and a few memories recalled.
If the person has been a strong Christian, it is most appropriate to hold the service in the church sanctuary. In that setting, we sing hymns together. Often, a solo is sung or the choir provides a special anthem.
At some point in the service, it is necessary to speak a word for the Lord—to tell of God's presence and read words of God's comfort from the Scriptures. It is an opportunity to speak of God's provisions beyond death, to assure listeners of God's great love that always seeks us.
Sharing the good news of an always-seeking Shepherd who brings the lost home is part of glorifying God. When we have done all we can, we can trust that our loved one is cared for in God's compassion. "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ" becomes the focal point and the conclusion of the message.
With this glorious message and from the church setting, we then commend the person to God's keeping, acknowledging that God's love in Christ now provides "a new home, not made with hands that is eternal in the heavens" (2 Cor. 5:1, author's translation).