I spent much of yesterday officiating at a funeral. That's nothing terribly new to me; I've done it plenty of times. I've preached at funerals for people I didn't even know. But yesterday was the first time I had preached at a funeral where I didn't know the deceased or even any of the family. I was a complete stranger to them. The closest any of the family even lived to my church was over an hour away.
How did this happen? It turns out that Mrs. D (the deceased) had attended my church as a girl and her husband was buried in this area. She had Altzheimer's for the past ten years and had no church affiliation that I know of. She lived with her only son, who, as it turns out, is a friend and neighbor of my sister and brother-in-law. Talk about providence. (I'd talk about coincidence if I thought that's what it was.)
Funerals are emotional times. There is usually a mix of grief, relief, sadness, and joy of being reunited with family all blended together in the room. Mrs. D's family and friends went through most of these emotions. Her Altzheimer's was so bad that she hadn't spoken in over three years. Her son was her caregiver, taking her on the road as he delivered trucks across the country. It wasn't until a few months ago that he finally had to take her to a care center. I'm sure he felt a bit of relief mixed in with the sadness.
As I looked over the assembled people crowded into this tiny funeral home, I saw many faces. One belonged to Mrs. D's twin sister, now also afflicted with Altzheimer's. She knew things were going on around her, but I am not sure she really comprehended what was happening. It was more like she was just following instructions. Sit here. Walk this way. Stuff like that. I wonder what her emotions would have been like. The twins were active as twins, even becoming presidents of the International Twins Association, and appearing together in a national ad for General Electric. I would think that the sense of loss for a twin would be greater, but I really don't know.
Another face I saw was that of a lady who later told me that she played the piano at Mrs. D's wedding. (It was actually a double wedding - twins, you know.) She was one of a handful of old school friends who were present. There were a mix of distant relatives, neighbors and acquaintances also, many of whom hadn't seen Mrs. D in years. And then there was me.
I've always wondered how people see my role as a minister at a funeral. At a wedding, the minister is to signify God's approval and acknowledgement of a marriage, but certainly God doesn't need a preacher to make a death official! For many people, a funeral ceremony is done simply because of tradition or simply to honor the deceased in some way. I'm sure God doesn't enter into the equation for some. At least they try not to let Him enter. Thoughts of death can change that though. Perhaps the overriding emotion at a funeral for many is a sense of fear about the end of their life and the sheer joy that it's not them in the casket.
My emotions yesterday were mixed. I felt the sorrow and the relief from those gathered in that room. I also felt a large sense of uncertainty about what I needed to do. Could I in good conscience assure those people that Mrs. D was in a better place when I had no idea of her spiritual condition during her life? Should I give some kind of false comfort that would confirm the hopes of many that heaven is open regardless of how you treat Jesus Christ?
I preached the Gospel - the Good News that Jesus saves, not that we are saved by being a "good person". I reminded them that the love that Mrs. D had for them was but a dim reflection of the love that God has for them. And we celebrated Mrs. D's life. We prayed. We went to the cemetery where I read Scripture and prayed again. Then we all left and went our separate ways. Mrs. D's son went back to his home. Her twin was taken back to the care facility. The rest of the crowd took their emotions and went home as well, hopefully with a better understanding of what this life is about and with a great sense to get to know better this God who loves them so much.