There have been three funerals in my church over the past year. One of the people I knew fairly well. None were in my circle of close friends. Two of them were a couple married fifty-four years, Jim and Barbara. Barbara lovingly cared for her husband in their home until his Alzheimer’s became so severe that it was too difficult for her. Once he was moved into a care facility, she visited him daily, looking out for his needs. She picked him up and brought him to church every Sunday. One of the holiest moments of my week was seeing her pull into the church parking lot on Sunday morning. Several men kept a look out for them and would hurry out to the car to help get Jim settled into his wheelchair. They sat together in the back of the church where she cheerfully greeted everyone who stopped to say hello. At Thanksgiving, Barbara, the picture of health, fell ill with pneumonia and died suddenly. Jim lasted two months without her and then he, too, passed away.
I was surprised by how small the attendance was at both funerals. Granted, Jim had been less engaged for almost a decade due to his illness. Many newer church members did not know him at all. More people attended Barbara’s funeral. Still, it was not a large crowd considering the size of our church. They had been faithful members and fellow travelers for over fifteen years. Where was everyone?
I want to be careful. I am not writing these words to make people feel bad. I know it is complicated and sometimes impossible to get off work or get someone to watch the children. (Although, I would suggest that children might also benefit from attending a good funeral or two.) Sometimes, you just simply can’t come. I am not advocating attending funerals for random strangers, but if I know them at all, or am close to someone who loved them, and certainly if they are in my church family, I feel somehow obligated to show up. No, not obligated, privileged. Here are my reasons.
I go to honor the life of the one who has died. Life is hard. Faithfulness is not a given. If someone makes it to their grave still doing their best to live for Christ, that is reason to pause to worship God and take time to say, “Well, done, friend.” Each life is a holy thing. Each of us is made with purpose in the image of God. This was a brother or sister in Christ who lived among us. They served, suffered, worshipped, and loved alongside us. Maybe they brought a casserole to the church picnic. They were doing their best to follow Jesus just as I am. Their race is complete. Now, they see Him face to face.
I go to bless and encourage the family. When my dad died my mom decided to have his service in the small chapel at the funeral home. After all, not that many people would likely come. He was 86. He had largely been out of circulation for a couple of years because of his health. Many of his friends were long gone. Due to an oversight on our part, the notice and obituary only ran in the paper the morning of the funeral. Imagine our surprise that afternoon when we arrived to a chapel filled with people. Standing room only. I think that says something about my dad, but there were many people there who did not know him well, or hadn’t seen him in years. Some did not know him at all. They came for us. They came to hug our necks and tell us they loved us. One elderly friend of our family had just fallen that week and broken his arm. He came in his pajama top. Two of my friends drove hours to attend. They came to say, “You are not alone. We are here for you.” I felt so blessed by that room full of people.
I go because it’s an opportunity to stop and reflect on my own mortality. As my pastor likes to say, a funeral is like a window where we stop for a minute and look into eternity. Long ago I memorized Ecclesiastes 7:2. It’s a weird verse to memorize but by now I don’t suppose it will surprise you that I did: “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” No matter how long I live, life is short. One day I will go to be with Jesus and my body will lie in a coffin. I welcome the chance to pause and ask, “Am I living for what matters most?” There is no place better than a funeral to get clear on that.