At the ripe old age of 33, I’ve been to more funerals than most my age. Some I’ve attended as a friend or family member, but most I’ve officiated at as a pastor. Each one has been as unique as the person who died, each has been an honor, and each has had its own lessons to teach.
So for today’s Top 10 Tuesday – 10 Lessons from Funerals.
10. Everyone grieves differently
That fifteen-year old over in the corner with his headphones in? He’s grieving the loss of his grandmother. He may not cry at the funeral. But listening to Blake Shelton is helping him grieve, and that’s ok.
That eighty-three year old who insisted on wearing a loud, flowery dress to the funeral? It’s her way of grieving the loss of her colorful best friend.
You might cry at the funeral. You might not. You might feel right wearing black. You might not. You might cry at the grocery store checkout two weeks from now when you can’t decide whether to buy the spearmint gum or the wintergreen. You might need to wear red to the funeral and black for the next three months. Grief is unpredictable and it’s different for everyone.
Be patient with yourself. Be patient with those who are grieving. And when you can’t be patient anymore, be as kind as you can be. Realize that the impatience is probably part of your grief, too.
9. Let the stories out
I did a Continuing Education seminar at Duke Divinity a few years ago where I spent time learning about how to walk with people through grief. The best thing I learned? Start with stories.
As a pastor, I’m often in charge of crafting the funeral message. Sometimes I know the person who has died really well, but other times I’ve literally never met them. So when I meet with the family, I start with story. I encourage the family and friends of the deceased to share their stories with one another in the months and years ahead.
Some good questions to start stories flowing?
When he was at his absolute best, what was he doing?
What was her favorite time of year? Why?
Did he have an article of clothing that you’ll always associate with him?
When you picture her in your mind, where is she?
What will you miss the most about him?
8. Don’t hold people hostage
Long funerals can be brutal for attendees. Not every story needs to be shared at the funeral. Save some for the reception. Write others in letters and mail them to the deceased’s spouse or parents or children.
Grief is exhausting, and long funerals can wear out elderly relatives, young children, and, well, just about everyone. As a pastor I occasionally have to encourage families to keep things on the shorter side – an hour or less – because they will undoubtedly be more tired than they realize.
A funeral can’t sum up someone’s life. It is just a start.
7. The funeral is just the beginning
After someone dies, much time and attention goes toward planning a memorial service. The date, the time, the location. The flowers, the songs, the food. Arranging transportation and lodging for out of town guests.
Then after the service, everyone goes home. Those facing the most serious aspects of grief are left alone. The meals eventually stop coming. The laundry eventually has to be tended to once again.
It’s helpful to remember that the funeral isn’t the end of the grief. In many ways, it’s just the beginning. It’s a communal remembrance and send-off that starts the long, long process of adjusting to a new normal.
If you want to bless someone who’s grieving, bring a meal or ask them for a walk a month or two after the funeral. See if they want to talk about their loved one who died. Give them permission to grieve in your presence. The funeral really is just the beginning.
6. Food helps
At the funeral. After the funeral. Months later, even.
When my great-grandmother died at the incredible age of 103, my husband and I stopped at a Fannie Mae store in Chicago and bought boxes of chocolates. At the funeral reception, we handed out a chocolate to each and every person. Almost everyone – her friends, her children, her next-door neighbor, the lady who shared a pew with her at her Catholic church – smiled knowingly. To know Gram was to know her love for chocolate.
Food is love. Food is memory. Food brings people together. Food helps.
5. Music helps
Sometimes people hem and haw about including music in a funeral service. I’m always for music. It opens up doors of memory and emotion and grief in unique ways. Whether it’s Grandpa’s favorite hymn or junior’s love of Star Wars, adding music gives people permission to let tears out and space to process the service itself.
I’ve been in funerals with full choirs, Dixieland jazz, Appalachian hymns, a capella spirituals, and yes, the Star Wars anthem. There’s no right or wrong way to use music at a funeral, so bring in music if you can.
4. Advanced planning can help
I don’t mean having a sit-down with a funeral home to choose your own casket (though some people swear by this type of thing – I’m just not one of them!). I mean jotting down a few things that’d be meaningful to you at a service to commemorate your life.
Maybe you hate, hate, hate the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” but love “Amazing Grace.” Great! Write that down. Your loved ones will be grateful.
Do you have favorite Scripture passages, meaningful memories, a beloved poem or song, or people you want to acknowledge in some way? Write it down. Even a few notes about your wishes will be a blessing to your family.
If someone close to you is near their life’s end, encourage a conversation about these things. One of the hardest parts of planning a memorial service is having a family feel paralyzed because they want to honor their loved one but aren’t sure what that person would have wanted.
If you want to be buried in Ohio or cremated in Florida and scattered (illegally, probably) over the Keys, say so. Now’s your chance.
3. Having something physical to do can help
My husband attended a funeral of someone who died in a freak accident much too young. After the graveside committal, everyone stood there waiting. The prayers had been said, the songs sung, the Scriptures read, but no one was ready to leave yet. It felt so final. So wrong. So unjust.
Finally someone grabbed a handful of dirt and sprinkled it onto her coffin. One by one, everyone in the crowd grabbed some dirt. Her college friends started shoveling it with their arms. There were still many, many tears that hadn’t been shed at the funeral itself. The air was thick with grief, but burying this dear young girl together was such a powerful experience that my husband still talks about it nearly ten years later.
If you can do something physical – place a flower on an urn, shovel dirt together, walk the long road to the cemetery – it can help.
2. Writing can help
Get those memories down. Things fade faster than you might expect.
1. Presence is a present
If you’re ever on the fence about attending a memorial service, remember that your presence is a present to the grieving friends and family. You just being there is a support.
If you’re the one in deep throes of grief, remember to look around that room and take in the faces of those came to honor the one who died and to support you.
Those of you who’ve experienced loss (so, everyone…), what would you add?