The reason for these notes is “buried” in the fact that the manner in which funerals are done nowadays is quite different to what was usually done in the past. In former days, the minister led the service and was the only person speaking. If there was someone who wanted to say something on behalf of family or friends, then this took place before or after the service. A family member spoke some words of thanks after the gathering.
Quite often there was a gathering in the home of the person who had passed on — at times, a lengthy gathering — for the immediate family, and afterwards a full service for everyone took place in the chapel of the cemetery. Nowadays there is usually a service in church/chapel, where everything is said and done. And that…can also present a problem.
It is often a matter of course that the person who passed on, together with his or her family, form a church community. Subsequently almost every gathering is now being called a service, even when is it purely a secular event that takes place.
The end result is that as visitor you sometimes feel annoyed because it may come across as some kind of cabaret play, where the minister is also given a little time to say something. This brings to mind the next question: As minister should you then pass up on the “honour” to say a few words, or should you cooperate under all circumstances up till the point where you start seeing yourself as a small town artist?
Two Main Forms
To answer these last questions, it seems practical to me to differentiate primarily between two forms. In this I am led by a double consideration. The first one is a comment by Prof. J. Hovius: when you are asked to speak during a funeral ceremony, then always do this, because for some people this is the only opportunity to hear the gospel. Subsequently: a church funeral — what other name you further attach it — is a service of Word and prayer. I think that is a principled fact. To deal justly with both considerations, I make a distinction for myself between a church funeral and a non-church funeral. This also creates clarity for most people, who perhaps experience this as steering a course between Scylla and Charybdis (two immortal monsters in Greek mythology).
A Non-Church Funeral
The minister is at times requested to speak at the funeral of someone who does not have a clear relationship with the church anymore. Sometimes he is asked by family to whom the same applies, sometimes by family who is marginally involved in church. Sometimes you wonder what is in people’s mind when they ask you to speak. Do they like the minister whom they only met a few times at different occasions, or do they believe that the minister ought to be present at funerals? Or does that weak connection go a little deeper? There seems to be a need for certain rituals. Perhaps ministers just belong to the ritual, and so we touch on the first question, and it does not really matter…
We are not here to judge people’s considerations. We are not experts of the heart. We should not therefore act as if we are. Our task is to witness the hope that is within us, to speak with the words of the apostle Peter. Subsequently, we do not speak about the dead, but we do speak to those who are alive. This will be a good starting point for what we say. In any case, we do not speak about the deceased’s last judgment.
When we take this into account, there is much that we can accept, even when what is said or done would not be our choice. This also applies to the choice of music. In time, you will get over the latest pop songs that were played. Perhaps this also applies to other expressions of endearment, from the burning of candles to the smack on the coffin as a final farewell. But we do have the opportunity to pass on something. And we have something to pass on. But when we are asked to do this, it is important that the minister shows from the start that he is a minister and not an entertainer. So, people ought to realize this and to accept that, therefore the Bible will be opened and read. The minister should not be limited by someone else in what he can or will do. Of course, there are limits, but a good minister knows these, and these include the limit of time.
We have something to pass on. Therefore, we do not have to be afraid of our audience, not even a possibly critical audience. But please, from the beginning till the end, take your audience seriously — as fellow citizens — with pain and struggles and questions, just like we all have. When that happens — and at times that is more of a shared feeling than rationally thought-through words — there will also be the willingness to listen.
In a service under comparable circumstances where a few hundred people in their thirties were present — friends of the person who passed on, most of them non-church people — the words spoken were from Ecclesiastes 7:4, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” People paid attention to these words. What it did to them we do not know. We do not need to know that either. What is real, is that we were able to pass on the hope that lives within us.
A Church Funeral
This is — regardless of what people call it — a service of Word and prayer, as a rule set up approximately as follows: Votum — greeting — singing — prayer — Scripture reading — preaching — prayers — singing — blessing, and closure at the cemetery. This service is at the same time the farewell of someone who is dear to us as family member, member of the congregation or an acquaintance. The last one can certainly have a place in the complete picture. It wil — more than in the past — be expressed in parts of the service which are being done by the family: a spoken word while looking back in time, where memories have their place, a poem or a prayer or Scripture reading. With this there can also be a need to show a sign of love and respect in e.g., a burning candle or something like that.
There can possibly be things where your primary reaction is: that would not be my choice. But that does not really matter here. In my life as minister I have seen things during funerals that I would not have thought of, but that were so sincere and loving, that they not only were inoffensive, but especially impressive and awe inspiring.
Decisive is not if this — perhaps in our circles — has never been done before, but if it can have a place in a service of Word and prayer. And then the well-intentioned family wants to have input of course, and even the perhaps not so well-intentioned family. With some explanation most families can be reached. But exactly for this reason there also needs to be good contact between the minister and the funeral director. There should be no friction or matters which are not clear. Sad to say, there are insurance agencies (we will mention no names) who connect people with funeral directors who church-wise are clueless. In connection with this, here are a few (hopefully not needed) pieces of advice.
When the person who died is a member of the congregation, then — as per your letter of call — you should take the lead. Be strong and perhaps visit the funeral director beforehand. But also visit with the family. The family is not always into all of church-life. If things are fine, it is not necessary. If things are not fine, then it is very necessary. Make sure that you are not confronted with fait accompli (when people have already decided things), but make sure you are there when decisions are being taken. That will perhaps take extra time, but it prevents hassles afterwards.
The gospel has the last word. Allow what the family contributes to take place early during the service, possibly after the opening prayer and before the Scripture reading. This way you have the opportunity for some adjustments or perhaps correction.
Be aware of the time and let others do the same. Point to their responsibility if needed, e.g. when you see potential problems arise. Some people who quickly find that a service is taking too long, do not know their own (time) limits when they are speaking. A service where three-quarters of the time is taken up by family-driven phenomena, does not meet the requirements that one sets for a service of Word and prayer.
Finally: Be honest. A message on the evening before the funeral: “Reverend, the man you will bury tomorrow was a pillar in the church, but a jerk in his family.” Do not act as if you did not hear this. It does not have to be repeated literally of course; it is an emotional statement about emotional family history that often has more sides to it. But do not salve over this. For then every word, and therefore also the proclamation of the Word, will bounce off an unfinished past. But above all: especially under these circumstances, Scripture has something — a lot actually — to say. It would be really sad then if it were not said at that time.