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10 Things Funerals Have Taught This Pastor

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At the ripe old age of 33, I’ve been to more funerals than most. Some I’ve attended as a friend or family member, but most I’ve officiated at as a pastor. 

Here’s what I’ve learned.

10. Everyone grieves differently.

That 15-year old over in the corner with his headphones in? He’s grieving. He may not cry. But listening to Blake Shelton is helping, and that’s OK.

That 83-year-old who insisted on wearing a loud, flowery dress to the funeral? It’s her way of grieving the loss of her colorful friend.

You might cry at the funeral. You might not. You might cry at the grocery store checkout weeks from now when you can’t decide whether to buy spearmint gum or wintergreen. Grief is unpredictable, and it’s different for everyone.

Be patient. And when you can’t be patient anymore, be as kind as you can be. Realize the impatience is probably part of your grief, too.

9. Let the stories out.

As a pastor, I’m often in charge of crafting the funeral message. Sometimes I know the person who has died; other times I’ve never met them. So when I meet with the family, I start with story.

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 at her happiest, where is she?

8. Don’t hold people hostage.

Long funerals can be brutal. Not every story needs to be shared. Save some for the reception. Write others in letters.

Grief is exhausting, and long services can wear out elderly relatives, young children and, well, just about everyone. As a pastor I encourage families to keep things on the shorter side — an hour or less — because they will likely be more tired than they realize.

7. The funeral is just the beginning.

A funeral can’t sum up someone’s life. It is just a start.

After someone dies, much time and attention goes toward planning a service. Then everyone goes home. Those facing serious grief are left alone. The meals stop coming. The laundry has to be tended to once again.

It’s helpful to remember the funeral isn’t the end of the grief. It’s a communal remembrance that starts the long, long process of adjusting to a new normal.

If you want to really love on someone who’s grieving, bring a meal a month or two after the funeral. See if they want to talk about their loved one.

6. Food helps.

At the funeral. After the funeral. Months later.

When my great-grandmother died at 103, my husband and I stopped at a Fannie Mae store in Chicago and bought boxes of chocolates. At the reception, we handed out a chocolate to each person. Almost everyone — her friends, her children, the lady who shared a pew with her at her Catholic church — smiled knowingly. To know Gram was to know her love for Fannie Mae.

Food is love. Food is memory. Food brings people together. Food helps.

5. Music helps.

Music opens up doors of memory and emotion. Whether it’s Grandpa’s favorite hymn or junior’s love of “Star Wars,” music gives people permission to let tears out.

I’ve been in funerals with full choral anthems, 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, but use it 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. I mean jotting down a few things that’d be meaningful to you.

Do you have favorite Scripture passages, a beloved poem or people you want to acknowledge? Write it down. Even a few notes will be a help 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 service is when loved ones feel paralyzed because they want to honor the person who died but aren’t sure what he or she would have wanted.

3. Having something physical to do can help.

My husband attended the funeral of someone who died in a freak accident much too young. After the graveside committal, everyone stood waitingPrayers had been said, songs sung, Scripture read, but no one was ready to leave. It felt so final.

Then someone grabbed a handful of dirt and sprinkled it onto her coffin. One by one, everyone in the crowd picked up some dirt. Her college friends started shoveling it with their arms. 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 service, remember that your presence is a present. You just being there is a support.

If you’re the one in deep throes of grief, look around and take in the faces of those came to honor the one who died and to support you.

Originally published: May 4, 2016
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