I went to a funeral today. That's sort of an occupational hazard as a hospice chaplain. I go to a lot of funerals. I go to so many funerals, in fact, that sometimes I get a little bit, how shall we say? Um...critical of funerals. I sort of, well, let me just lay it on the table here, I sort of, um...rate them. And today's, well it was probably, on a scale of one to ten, about a two.
I liken this rating system to the summer after college when everyone was getting married, and I became an expert critic of different wedding styles. For instance, when lighting the unity candle, I would find myself mumbling under my breath, "Don't blow out the individual candles. Don't do it, woman. Don't do it! You're still your own person." And when the individual candles were blown out with a satisfied puff, I'd practically drop my head in my hands and sigh, "Well, they just lost points there..."
Today's funeral was a two not because of the musical selections, while I'm not a big fan of the Gaithers singing "Because He Lives," (actually I sang a pretty wicked rendition of it while at our seminary talent show while dressed as my alter ego Faith Fay, along with my partners in crime, Chastity Fay and Charity Fay, while we were all wearing 4-inch heels, teased hair, and long fake red fingernails, ala Tammy Fay in her prime. Oh, and I also may have partaken a teeny, tiny, wee bit too much of the "communion wine" at the time, which only added to the vibrato of the Fay sisters singing...but I digress) while I'm generally not particularly fond of funerals that involve an altar call at the end, what truly led to the unfortunate two rating was a particularly distasteful eulogy by a nephew of the deceased.
Now, before you think I have become the most negative and sarcastic of hospice chaplains, let me speak in my defense over why aforementioned eulogy was so utterly painful to hear.
Usually I find family eulogies delightful. I often feel as if I get the best sense of who a person was when I hear their families speak. Indeed, when I perform a funeral, I spend hours with the family, asking questions, questions like, "What really made your father laugh?" "What legacy does your mother leave you?" "What was your brother's favorite story?" "What did you grandmother teach you?" "How was your sister different than other people?" I love the stories about the special Coney island sauce that someone made their son every year on his birthday, or the fact that someone went out on the mornings that it was below freezing and took the garbage man a cup of coffee. I believe that families and close friends have much better insight than I, as a pastor could ever have, to remember a life. My job is to listen to the stories, and then to tell them, to tell the stories of this child of God.
So, why was today so bad? Well, the nephew, let's call him, Joe, was a young whippersnapper. I'm looking at him and thinking, "Hmmm...perhaps a young Oral Roberts University seminary student?" He wore his expensive navy blue suit with his American flag lapel pin and he told a few happy stories about how his aunt liked to kiss little kids, and how she was good at remembering birthdays. And that was all well and good. And then he went on to talk about his aunt's faith, about how she loved Jesus and wasn't afraid to die, and this too was nice.
And then, he turned to his cousin and her family, the deceased woman's only child's family and looked each of them in the eyes where they sat weeping in the front row, a young family with small children. The nephew licked his lips and said, "Jennifer, Scott, Caden, Ariel, your mother, mother-in-law, your nana loved you all so, so very much. Never forget that..." and this daughter began to sob and nod her head...and the nephew continued, "And she loved you so much that she would want for you to find Jesus Christ, and to welcome him into each of your hearts...because she doesn't want you to go to hell. She wants to see you again. That was her last wish."
Can you say "pastoral misconduct?" Can you say "family cruelty?" Can you say "manipulation?" Can you say, "Guilt trip?" I wanted to stand up and yell, "Out of order! Objection! Time out! No fair!" But, instead, I had to sit with my hands folded quietly.
And so I did what I do best in those moments...I began to pray, "God, help me to forgive this young man, just as you have forgiven me for my own inadequacies and judgments. And may this poor woman who grieves recognize Your unconditional love, and may she know You cradle her in her arms, just the way her mommy once did."
And perhaps in that moment, the fact that it was a two didn't matter so much anymore.