If you’re feeling out of touch at the funerals you’re officiating, here are five tips I think will help.
One: Try Orthopathos.
It’s too easy to major on orthodoxy and minor on orthopathos, but perhaps there’s nothing more in line with orthodoxy and orthopraxy during the time of death than for us to attempt to feel with the bereaved family.
It’s easy to say the right stuff. It’s easy to memorize a funeral sermon or two. After some practice, it’s easy to visit the families. It’s too easy for this to just become a job. And it’s rare to feel as Jesus felt upon learning about the death of his friend and actually weep.
Sure, it may not be your friend that you’re eulogizing; it may not even be an acquaintance, but I wonder how the Holy Spirit would minister through a pastor who communicates orthopathos at funerals? And while you might get your orthodoxy right, and even your orthopraxy, if you can find orthopathos, the family will never forget you or the God you represent.
Two: Try the Passibility of God.
I’ve rarely seen very religious people weep. They’re so used to putting on a front and/or trying to accept the belief that “it all happened for a reason” that when it comes to grief and loss, they have a hard time realizing it and can only eek out a couple tears. In my opinion, they’re trying too hard to act like an immutable God that doesn’t exist.
Jesus wept. Part of the reason death doesn’t affect us is because we have a theology that promotes an unaffected God. I wonder how we’d approach funerals and the bereaved if we really believed that Jesus not only wept, but he probably still weeps today with us.
Three: Try Holy Saturday.
In traditional religious calendars, the day in-between “Good Friday” and “Easter” is called “Holy Saturday.” “Holy Saturday” is the day the disciple’s hopes and beliefs were engulfed in death and silence as they viewed their Messiah’s death without the knowledge of the resurrection.
And in some sense, the family that you’re addressing is presently in “Holy Saturday.” Sure, you can tell them about Easter, but Sunday hasn’t come for them…yet. But doubt and silence has. And while you might be living in Sunday, they’re living in Saturday, and I’m not sure if it’s our job to celebrate Easter when their loved one has just died.
Take time (maybe hours) to sit with the family a day or two before the funeral. Sit in silence. Let them express their memories, their joys, and let them express their doubts as you enter with them into the holiness of Saturday.
Four: Try Not Preaching the Gospel.
Pastors are losing touch, and celebrants are taking their place. The reason for pastors losing touch is that their Gospel is out of touch with the present, as it’s so focused on the future.
Most Christians are more worried about getting the individual soul to heaven than about bringing the kingdom to the world. We’re more worried about getting “decisions for Jesus” than we are about making Jesus disciples who will transform the world now.
In the context of a funeral, part of “transforming the world now” is addressing death as real, our grief as real, acknowledging the sorrow of God over death, and yet planting that seed of hope in the Kingdom come and resurrection. It’s bringing our memories of this world together with our hope of the world that’s been inaugurated by Christ and is here but is still not yet. The Gospel isn’t about bringing somebody to heaven. It’s about bringing heaven to us. Wasn’t that the Good News– that the Messiah had come to dwell with humanity?
If heaven can be brought to a funeral through good memories, love, tears, laughter, correction, and the hope of Christ, then by all means, preach it.
Five: Try Silencing Your Voice
Allowing others to speak. Less is more: more laughter, more tears, more people paying attention, more life amidst death, all by allowing the plurality of others’ voices to shape the life of the deceased during the service. Learning the art of encouraging people to share takes time, but it’s well worth it and starts with a simple question, “Who’d like to share some memories?”
Sure, the service might take longer. Sure, there might be a story or two that makes you feel uncomfortable.
But then, when everyone’s done sharing, they’re ready for you. You, the pastor, who has shared in their bereavement and shared in their Holy Saturday – they’re ready for you to share with them the fellow suffering of Christ in death and the hope of the resurrection.