Funerals/Memorial Services

Today’s question comes from Stevie – who wrote:

“Last Saturday I attended a funeral. John was a well known and well respected businessman in a small town. About 400 people filled the auditorium of the local high school. I know nothing of John’s spiritual path, but I know that he was not a “church goer”.

Because they were not members of a church, the family called on a local pastor, who visited him in hospice during his last days and officiated at the funeral.

The funeral was 2 hours long. There was a slide show, a nice message from his daughter in law, and they passed the mike. Seems every old timer in town had a nice story about John. That all took about 45 minutes. The rest of the time, the pastor talked about his church and his faith, and had a call to the altar. Many folks left before it was over.

It seems to be that more of the time should have been spent honoring John. If you ask a pastor to speak, of course he will base the message on his faith. But–it was John’s last party. I almost felt as if some grand standing was occurring. How do you strike a balance, in this situation, between respecting the beliefs of the person (and his family) who has passed, and also honoring God and your faith.”

The question brings so many thoughts rushing to mind.  I’ll try to sort through them and pull them together in a semi-coherent manner.  J

The first thought that comes has to do with who the funeral/memorial service is for.   A lot of folks might think the answer to the question is obvious: the funeral/memorial is for the person who died.  While that is true sometimes, a funeral is often really “for” the loved ones who are left behind.  Let me take a moment and remark on the difference between the two.

A funeral/memorial service that is for the deceased individual is one whereby the service is carefully created in order to honor the life and memory of the deceased.  Special care is given to celebrating the person as the person was – not how others might have liked him or her to be.

A funeral/memorial service that is for the loved ones left behind is an entirely different matter.  In these cases, the funeral/memorial service is often created to present the deceased in a manner that is acceptable to the survivors.  A survivor of the deceased, for instance, might have been uncomfortable with the fact that their loved one was an atheist or agnostic – so the family member will intentionally have a service designed to imply a sense of spirituality that was not consistent with the individual and her or his beliefs.

So the first thing that comes into play is getting a sense of who the funeral is for.  You can often tell this by things like the location of the service and/or the officiant of the service.

The second matter that jumps to mind has to do with where the funeral/memorial service is being held.  A lot of people these days treat churches as if they were fast food restaurants.  They come to us expecting to order funeral/memorial service elements as if we were fast-food restaurants (i.e. “I want a service that has a couple old-time Gospel hymns, a psalm, and a eulogy – hold the sermon, Gospel reading, and prayers.”)

Churches (at least ones with a sense of integrity) will have a particular theological take and approach to a funeral/memorial services.  Many Baptist and Non-Denominational churches, for instance, will have a lengthy sermon that includes a specific appeal to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.  They often will include some form of an altar call.  Many mainline churches, on the other hand, will spend more time talking about the individual and his or her life, have a much shorter sermon/homily, and use broader, more inclusive language when addressing spiritual matters.  You can often tell a great deal about what type of service it will be based either upon the location or the pastor officiating.

With those two things in mind, let me offer this word of friendly advice.

Remind yourself that attending a funeral/memorial service is NOT the only way you can honor/remember someone.  If there are things about the funeral/memorial service that make you uncomfortable (i.e. it’s being held in a church/mosque/synagogue that has views that are radically different from your own, or if the service was planned by a family member(s) who were either completely estranged from the individual or has/have radically different agendas than the deceased) do yourself a favor and find another way of honoring the individual.  You could do things like find time to take one of the individual’s family or friends out to a meal to celebrate the individual’s memory; send a card and/or pictures to the family that includes more written remarks than usual; make a donation to (or volunteer at) a charity the person cared about as a way of connecting with the individual’s memory; or find some other way that has integrity for you.  Don’t set yourself up for an uncomfortable experience by forcing yourself to attend a funeral/memorial service that sets off red flags for you.

These are just a few thoughts I had in regard to your question.  What about you?  What are your thoughts on the matter?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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3 Responses to Funerals/Memorial Services

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    As an atheist, I’ve gotten used to funerals where the pastor talks about God more than the deceased. As long as they’re okay with me staying quiet and respectful while they recite creeds, take communion, and perform other rituals I can’t legitimately participate in, I can live with that. It’s more important to me to make sure the bereaved know I am there for them and respect that the service is intended to meet their needs and/or those of the deceased, not mine.

    But I do wish that the pastors who use funerals to push unbelievers to accept Jesus knew how much that tends to accomplish the opposite of their purpose. Being told at the funeral of a young relative that he is sad in heaven because he knows he won’t see me there only drives me further away from the belief system of any person whose God apparently thinks it’s cool to use such crass manipulation of emotionally vulnerable people.

  2. capete67 says:

    I hear you, Beverly. I once went with a friend to his aunt’s funeral whether the preacher basically said, “This woman died so that you would be brought here today to accept Jesus.” Needless to say, it was not a helpful remark for so, so many.

  3. ybabb001 says:

    We had a funeral for my Dad, an atheist–not for him mind you–but for us. You see, it was a place and time for us to say Good Bye; and also to kind of tell the family and friends who thought that he was burning in Hell, that he didn’t believe in Heaven and Hell, so shame on them. I remember we asked the same pastor that was officiating our wedding–He was well known in Spokane–maybe the rebel pastor–I do not remember him much focusing on the God, forgiveness, nor Heaven part of the sermon. I remember him telling stories that we related to him about our dad. I remember him asking for people to come up and share, and I remember saying that My Dad would always be in our hearts.
    Other than that, any other Funeral I remember was focusing on the afterlife, the acceptance of Jesus. A bunch of scripture usually– and lately people looking at their watches– to get the show on the road. Not too impressive.

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