Someone said that cliches are cliches for a reason, which is to say that they are generally true. I don't disagree all the time, but funerals are certainly an exception. Two funerals this week. I heard Old Rugged Cross at both, Amazing Grace at one, and a host of cliches, as if those two songs don't function as cliches in the face of death.
Let me say that funerals are hard to do. I did several when I was a pastor, and in no case was the deceased of an age where people think, "He lived a good, long life." The worst was an infant who died in the womb during the 32nd week of pregnancy. Even if you know the people involved, it's difficult to find anything worthwhile to say. I should also say that the funeral industry does not help the plight of preachers, as they bring a certain plastic tackiness to the whole affair: practiced sympathy, grating muzak, faux elegance, and dark suits...always the dark suits (folks, it's in the mid-90's outside. maybe go with the safari outfits and pith helmets.). The unfortunate minister, who if she knows the family, has already spent several hours with the bereaved trying not to feel like there ought to be something hopeful or consoling she can say, walks into this artificial environment where everyone just hopes her homily is short. If you don't know the person, and even if you do, you have to hope you don't screw up someone's name in the obituary. Add to that the feeling that you need to strike just the right balance of somberness and ease, and you have a very difficult one-hour affair. Having said that, I have met ministers who are very good at funerals; it can be done well. The important things are to eliminate cliches, speak truthfully and tactfully, and to genuinely care about the bereaved. (It helps if you cared about the deceased as well.)
I heard two "Come to Jesus" sermons this week. Now, it may have been the wish of the deceased that the minister say something about Jesus, and it's absolutely part of a Christian funeral that you mention "I am the resurrection and the life," but it is possible to do a funeral in such a way that people who are there to pay their respects, support the family, and aren't Christians don't have to feel preached at. Normally the minister realizes that they have to say as much as possible about Jesus in the shortest time possible, so the shorthand begins: died for your sins, way, truth, life, heaven, better place, eternal life, relationship with God, etc. Now to the uninformed this all sounds like code words, or worse, they sound like words they've heard before but are being used in different ways. Without fail they sound like cliches. To be honest, some folks want to hear the cliches. I remember when I read McLaren talking about sermons as massaging fingers that lulled the church folk to sleep, comfortable with the same phrasing and promises they were conditioned to hear. In no particular order, here are the worst cliches, what they are supposed to mean, and the words that should replace them.
1. She's in a better place. This one means she's in heaven, in perfect health, hanging out with family members who have gone before, chilling with Jesus. I recommend, we have no idea where this person is. She might be in the ground with no hope of resurrection. She might in fact be "in heaven" but we have no way of knowing whether it is in fact a better place. We just don't know, and that uncertainty should lead us to do the most we can with whatever years we have left because this may be all we get. That too is a cliche, but a true one, I think.
2. He's no longer hurting. You should feel better in your grief because your loved one is now perfected. Again, we know no such thing. We hope it's true. They could just as easily be in hell, Tartarus, or purgatory, swimming the Styx, or living as an animal in Madagascar in their new incarnation. What is undeniably true is that the loved ones are hurting, and if they believe these cliches, at least part of the ministers job ought to be to disabuse them of some of these notions.
3. God has made a way for you to go to heaven. You need to get saved, and do it now while you're thinking about your own death. I have said so much over the years about salvation that I will spare you another sermon.
4. She is watching over you from heaven. Your loved one is still with you "in spirit." The memories you have shared and the love you had for each other will have to be sufficient until you yourself know what happens after death. You will not see this person again until then, if then. Honor their memory and your love by continuing the process of becoming a morally aware, ethically sound creature.
That's probably enough. I will share a couple of out-of-context quotes with you though. They made me laugh during a funeral. Not a bad thing to do, by the way, but I'm pretty sure the minister didn't mean for them to be funny.
"I'm old now, so I'm stiff all the time. When you get older, you're always stiff." Eek. And I thought the little blue pill was created because the opposite was true. There were more than a few snickers for that one.
"This old body is just like an astronaut suit." Really? I can go to space with it? The real me is some ghost trapped in this shell? And who says astronaut suit?
Enough. I don't want to go to another funeral for a long time. So, none of you reading this die. Peace.