I recently received an email from a younger minister asking me for advice on how he should handle a difficult funeral. Some years previously there had been a row in the family, which resulted in a massive breach in relationships. As a result nobody in the family was willing to give a tribute at the funeral – for the deceased had died an angry, and unforgiving man. My friend wondered whether I had ever had such an experience, and – if so – then what on earth did I say in my address?
I wrote back that I had indeed taken funerals where people refused to give a tribute. I remember one occasion in particular where, for all my probing, not one person had a good word to say about the deceased. As far as the family was concerned the world was well rid of her. Sadly that was not a unique experience. So what do ministers do when they have to take such a funeral? I wrote back to my friend:
“In such a context I have been honest and said something along the lines: ‘Although I did not know XX [well] I am conscious that there were times when XX was not the easiest of people. Hopefully, however, along with the difficult memories, there are also some good memories too. Let me encourage you to reflect silently for a moment or two on some of those good memories, and then thank God for them’. You could then move on to say something like: ‘My task today is not give a eulogy, but rather as a Christian minister to speak of the difference that Jesus makes to life and to death’.”
Sadly, much bitterness can surround a death. Families can become totally dysfunctional, and parents and children can be appalling to one another. Yet even where everything has gone wrong, where words and actions have been totally out of order, the reality is that there are few people who are bad through and through: before relationships totally broke down there were at least some good times, and for that we can give thanks.
The same is true of the breakdown of a marriage. At the time of divorce there is often much bitterness, and sometimes understandably so. Yet there are few marriages where there were not also good times. In Serving God’s People (Living Out the Call: volume 4) I advocated a rite of passage for divorcing couples, in which they could not only ask God for healing for all the hurt and bitterness which they (and their family and friends) had experienced, but also thank God for the good times they had together. Part of the sadness of most divorces is that the marriage was not all bad. I gave as an example a rite of dissolution created by an American pastor:
“I John/Mary give thanks to God for the love and joy which have been present in this marriage. I pledge to keep sacred the memory of everything good and lovely we have experienced together. I further acknowledge my own sins of word, thought and deed, which have contributed to this failure. I ask forgiveness of God, of you (John/Mary), of our own children, and family and friends. Finally, I promise in both attitude and in word to refrain from anything which may be hurtful to you, our families, and our friends. I pray God’s leadership in our separate lives.”
There can be other forms of relationship breakdowns. As I write some of the members of a service club to which I belong are in the process of falling out with one another. In what is a very difficult situation I have been seeking to be the peacemaker. This has involved some plain speaking to one or two individuals, but primarily it has been appealing to members of the club to look at the positives. In an email I wrote:
At a time like this it is tempting to turn in on ourselves and emphasise our short-comings as a club. However, I believe that this is the time when – in the words of the old Bing Crosby song – we need to ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative’.
In conclusion, even when things go wrong, we need to recognise that in spite of the messiness and of the hurt it has not all been bad.
Funeral can be difficult. Many years ago I was approached to take one. There were only three mourners: two from one side of the family and one from the other. I was told that the two sides were not on speaking terms, and the funeral was indeed a chilly occasion.
A few months later I was contacted again: one of the “two” had died, would I take the service? I did so; but before the service it was made clear to me that the two mourners were there because they had to be and, once the service was over, would be very happy to never speak to each other again.
We arrived at the Crematorium on a gloomy afternoon. It was to be a simple ‘said’ service. The undertakers closed the doors and the three of us were left with the deceased. At first we idly chatted and even giggled nervously, all recognising the grotesque situation. After about five minutes I said, “Shall we begin?” and I went through the service in a pretty formal manner.
After we’d finished the mourners thanked me. I never saw them again, but I always wondered what had been the feud that had divided this family so decisively.
Funerals are difficult, but the aftermath can be very distressing as I found out after my father’s death. The deceased may have left his estate in a chaotic condition, even if he/she has left a will, and this brings out the worst in relatives.”I did more for Dad, but he has left the lion’s share of his assets to you” is a common argument among siblings and can lead to lifelong rifts.
The Golden Rule is “Do not do anything which would have upset your deceased relative”.