A difficult funeral

February 4, 2011

I have a friend at a funeral home who has me on his speed dial. He’s a funeral director, and many of his clients experience a death in the family without being connected to a local church. They’ve often fallen out of the habit of churchgoing or have their church membership in another state, and they need a pastor. Even if they’re not nominally Christian—perhaps just believers in God—they’re willing to let a Christian minister solemnize the proceedings.

I take this part of my ministry very seriously. I talk to the families, at least by phone, and gather enough information about the deceased to write a meaningful eulogy. I offer pastoral support. And I proclaim the gospel to a group of people who may never darken the door of a church.

This week, however, I had my most challenging funeral. The deceased was not only not a Christian, he was an atheist who was hostile to religion and church. His wife and children at least believed in God. Before he died, he told them that they were permitted to have prayers at his funeral for the sake of friends and family but not for himself.

How do I create a liturgy that honors him and respects both his integrity and my integrity?

I spent an extra amount of time trying to get it right. I looked at the resources in our Book of Worship for people who don’t profess Christian faith, but they weren’t terribly helpful: they presume that the person professes some religious faith. I did follow its suggestion for scripture. I used Ecclesiastes 3 (“For everything there is a season…”) and the Beatitudes from Matthew 5.

After eulogizing him, I concluded my homily with these words:

Name didn’t believe in God, as you probably know. And I’m sure I would have enjoyed having a spirited discussion with him about that if I could! [People in congregation laughed.] I don’t know whether or not you share Name’s skepticism, but if you do I would gently encourage you to be skeptical of your skepticism. I strongly believe that the way in which Name’s life has been a blessing to your life is a gift from an infinitely loving and merciful God.

May God comfort, encourage, and strengthen you in these days ahead.

The service was very well received. One of the man’s daughters told me, “I just couldn’t imagine the service being any better.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.

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