Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a place of winter For the Years of Winter…


{Once more I must apologize for the length, twice what it should be. If you’re pressed for time, skip to the last three paragraphs.}
I was willing to accept the $10 the county would pay for the graveside service for the “homeless bum” who died, without identification, while passing through town, but I was attracted more by the honor.
I arrived at the cemetery at the appointed time. The funeral director and the sheriff were chatting beside the hearse. I walked up to them. “Oh, he’s over there,” the funeral director said, motioning in the direction of a very plain coffin suspended over a grave. He went on talking with the sheriff. I wandered over to the grave. I opened up my Book of Worship and read the entire funeral ritual, aloud. I was the only speaker.
Pastoring in a retirement community, Suzanne Schaefer-Coates has done a lot of funerals over the years. Sometime back she conducted a discussion group on Facebook about whether it’s appropriate to have an “open” period in the funeral/memorial service for people to share their memories of the deceased.
Those of us in the winter years have a vested interest in this discussion, since our own funerals are not that far away. We hope that there will be more folks at our funeral than a marginal pastor who inserts “homeless bum” in the funeral ritual whenever the decedent is to be named.
Any of us who have opened up a funeral service to the congregation, or been to one where that was done, know there are a lot of potential pitfalls. There are people who want to talk, whether or not they have anything to say. They use acquaintance with the deceased to talk about themselves.
In most of the years of my ministry, open sharing wasn’t even an option. The minister conducted the funeral, period. He [and it was almost always a “he” in those days] was the only one who talked.
In fact, in seminary we were encouraged not to talk about the deceased at all! The reasoning of our seminary professors was that a funeral is a worship service and it is about God and eternal life and such and not about the person who died. That sounded right, but it didn’t feel right, so I didn’t buy into it, not very far. I’m sorry, though, that in my early years I too often gave scant mention to the life of the person we were memorializing.
At some point I read, in one of those very helpful preacher periodicals that don’t exist anymore, a simple little funeral formula: Say a word about God, a word about Christ, and a word about the deceased. That worked for me.
If you’ve been to seminary, you don’t have much problem saying a word about God or one about Christ. It’s sometimes hard, though, to say a word about the deceased. Pastors don’t often get homeless folks no one knows, but we often have to conduct funerals for people we barely know. Twice in my career I had to do funerals for long-time members within the first 3 days after I had moved into town.  I’ve done funerals for children whose families never brought them to church.
Mourners usually want to talk, share their memories with the pastor prior to the funeral. I have always done my best to contact everyone I could who knew the deceased, to listen privately to their memories, to learn where the contradictions were [so that I didn’t extol someone in a way that half of the family would think inaccurate] and to learn what the themes of that person’s life were. Then I tried to pull those memories together in a coherent way in the service.
I have no problems with sharing the service with others who are designated beforehand, some family members or friends who are selected by the chief mourners, but I do think it’s best not just to open the service up to anyone who decides on the spur of the moment that they would like to say something. I’ve been to “open mike” funerals where words were spoken that hurt good grieving instead of helping it.
Helen and I happened to be back in Sterling, Illinois, taking our granddaughter to see a friend, when we saw Eunice Snider’s obit in the online edition of the Charleston newspaper. We drove down to LaSalle from Sterling, even though we had no funeral clothes with us. [1] When we walked into the church, Art asked me if I would be a “sharer” in the service, as their former pastor, who had done their son’s funeral, along with Max Chapman, as a long-time friend, and Susie Hay, who had shared a career with Eunice. That strikes me as a good approach, a few people selected ahead of time who can speak to different aspects of the person’s life.  
The main person who should speak at a funeral, though, is you. At George Paterson’s memorial service, which featured a lot of jazz, the kind of worship for which George was so well-known, Pastor Barry Tritle read a message George had left for us. “Don’t burden yourselves unnecessarily about my passing.” George lived his life as hospital chaplain, and as a chaplain to everyone who knew him. Even in death, he was still teaching us how to grieve well.
I’m not saying everyone should leave a message, but in case you’re wondering, it’s okay. Write your own obit if you wish; that’s okay, too. Old friends Pat and Lyndon Dean recently asked me if they could print my poem, “I’ll Walk the Last Mile with You,” on their funeral bulletins, because they were going to talk details with their pastor. Talking with your pastor and your family ahead of time is an excellent idea. Tell your pastor who you want to speak at your service, and if there’s someone you want to be sure does NOT speak, tell him/her that, too.
So, here is the list of those I want to speak at my funeral… oh, wait, I’ll probably outlive them all… so if there’s ANYBODY who wants to say something… even a marginal pastor to homeless bums…
John Robert McFarland
1] I’m not exactly sure what “funeral clothes” are anymore. I’ve been to funerals in recent times when I was the only person wearing a shirt with a collar, and where at least one pallbearer wore shorts so low that he must have been training to be a plumber.
The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!
You are always welcome to Forward or Repost or Reprint. It’s okay to acknowledge the source, unless it embarrasses you too much. It is okay to refer the link to folks you know or to print it in a church newsletter or bulletin, or make it into a movie or TV series or Broadway musical.
{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

I tweet, occasionally, as yooper1721.
















No comments:

Post a Comment