(Love Lies Bleeding)
Sermon by Michael Usey
February 28, 2010
One of the oddest funerals I’ve ever been to took place in Abilene, Texas, in 1976. The man who died was a professor and a Mason, and I was just a freshman in college. We were graveside, when the Shrine Masons were walking around the open grave. It had been raining all week; this day was sunny, but the ground was still wet. The green fake grass carpet was everywhere, even under the coffin. Picture the scene: an open grave, over which the coffin of the professor was suspended; that fake green grass they use at graveside to cover up exposed dirt; and around all of it, wrist-high polls and ropes, like you would find at a movie theater. The man’s fellow Shriners were encircling the grave inside the ropes on the fake grass, chanting their esoteric burial ritual. It was solemn serious moment of spectacle when it happened: the boards holding the coffin broke, and it started to slide into the open grave, slowly at first then faster. The fake grass was under the coffin so it slid into the muddy grave too. The four chanting Shriners standing on the carpet started to slide into the grave; in a panic, they reached for the polls and ropes, which, as it turns out, were also on the fake green grass. The whole Seuss-like mess—boards first, then coffin, then Shriners, polls, ropes, and carpet—tumbled into the gaping grave in a huge muddy jumble. Most onlookers gasped in horror; the history professor I was with (and the dead man’s best friend) burst out laughing, and I was in pain trying not to laugh with him.
This Lent we are talking about death, and how to live with it. Last week we reminded ourselves that we are all going to die. This week we plan for it. This is a little different type of sermon as we consider our funeral, our theology of funerals, and our funeral preferences. Later in the service you’ll have a chance to fill out the enclosed forms. I invite you to do as much as you can, then drop them in the offering plates. We’ll Xerox them and mail them back to you for you to complete or to make any changes. This form is for your benefit, and for those you love, that they might know and honor your wishes.
In the Genesis passage we read this morning, Joseph is honoring his father with a majestic funeral. We have many records of similar events. Since ancient times people of all different kinds of faith have considered that the loving disposition of human remains as a sacred duty. In our branch of the Christian tree, a funeral is called a service of witness to the resurrection. This mean that that it is a worship service to God, that acknowledges grief at the loss of the one we love, gives gratitude to God for that one’s life, and give witness to the Christian hope for the future bodily resurrection of the dead.
If you’ve gone to a funeral in the last 10 years then you know they tend to fall into one of two extremes: an intense and exclusive focus on God, or an extreme preoccupation of the dead person. If you’ve been to one that is more or less exclusively focused on God, then you’ve heard sermons on the glories of God and heaven and perhaps how you need to be saved. (We all need God to save us from ourselves, but whether a funeral is the time or place to make that commitment is debatable.) You might not hear much of anything about the person who lived and died among us. On the other extreme is a service focused on the dead person: their life story, their virtues, their life work, but you might hear precious little about God and what God-in-Christ has done for this one and all of us.
Not surprisingly, our theology at College Park is a blending of these two extremes, a service that is first and foremost a worship service to God, but one that celebrates and remembers how God shone through the life of the one who has died. We believe that a service that just focuses on God without mention of the dead person is too anemic in the essence of a funeral: celebrating, remembering, grieving over the lost of one of God’s own children. Funeral are not generic moments into which we insert some person’s name. They are instead unique opportunities to commerate how the love of God touched us through this person’s life. To neglect a person’s life at this crucial juncture of life and death is to miss the splendor and wonder of that unique son or daughter of God.
On the other hand, to only mention the person and not to thank God for him or her is idolatrous. It is God who overcomes death, making sure that love and not death has the final word. To ignore God or to give God short shrift is make an idol of the self, and is a form of cultural narcissism. Honestly, I have been to a few funerals that did not mention God, and they were sad, sentimental affairs. I have been to scads that did not the mention the person, and I left wondering why I’d come at all.
So what we offer is not a sermon (about God) or a eulogy (about the person) but what we call a memoir, an offering of the good and bad about a person’s life vis-à-vis scripture, theology, and God. It’s noteworthy to say that we as ministers of the living God first try to tell the truth.
Time for a joke: Stanley Goldfarb died and his relative and the congregation gathered for an evening of prayers and mourning. When the time came for the congregation to offer eulogies, no one stirred. After waiting several minutes, the rabbi became vexed; he reminded them that it was their duty to find something good to say in Goldfarb’s memory. “Someone must have something nice to say about him!” After another period of silence, an old man rose in the back and stammered: “I’ll say this about old Stanley. His brother, Morris was worse.”
We don’t tell it all, or take glee in listing someone’s sins, but we do try to speak the truth. A funeral service was being held for an unsavory character who had never been near a place of worship in his life. A minister who had never heard of him led the service. Carried away by the occasion, she poured on the praise for the departed man. After 10 minutes of hearing the dead man described as an ideal father, husband, and boss, the widow nudged her son and whispered, “Go up and make sure its Papa.”
Thom Long, a preaching professor at Emory, recently wrote in The Christian Century magazine about several things he loathed about funerals. For example, Long does not feel pictures of the deceased are appropriate; I feel completely the opposite. Photos and picture are excellent reminder that the time we had with someone was not the sum total of their life, and that in fact we may have gotten to know this person late in their life. Long also lamented that dead bodies were rarely present nowadays in funerals, and that graveyards were not commonly connected to church buildings. I find both of these rants weirdly anachronistic. I am grateful we don’t have a graveyard attached to our building (no telling what my boys might have done with that), and I prefer the body not to be present at a funeral. Face it: it is difficult for some people to think about anything else when a corpse is in the same room.
I want to offer two short sets of suggestions to you, the first for planning your own funeral, and the second for planning one for your loved one. As you consider your own funeral, think about these few things. First, let us know your preferences. Most families would love to do what the dead person wished for his funeral if they know what that is. I have seen many families deep in grief try to make significant decisions about a relative’s funeral when it would have taken the one who died a mere 5 minutes to let them know their preferences. This is what that form in your bulletin is all about: letting us know what is your one of favorite verses, a favorite hymn, the disposition of your shell, the body. Make plans, and tell the people around so that they know, or at least have some idea. This may be uncomfortable: I am well aware it violates an ancient Southern taboo against talking about death, but it’s necessary if you want to care for your relatives after you’ve gone on.
Secondly, you may list all the outrageous things you want, but the church staff does not represent that we will do any of them. We will not have a troop of orangutans as your pallbearers; we will not have the assembled at your funeral sing a medley of your favorite ZZ Top songs; we will not have a tiny bottle of Irish whiskey given to all the guests as they leave; we will not contact Lady Gaga to see if she can sing Amazing Grace graveside. You wishes are your wishes, but we clergy are not the make-a-wish foundation for dead people. Even less outrageous requests are not always honored: one funeral here a while ago wanted to have eight hymns—we said no. No one wants to come home from a funeral with a hoarse voice after being forced to sing for an hour.
Lastly, consider some low cost alternatives. Holly Stevens is a member of New Garden Friends Meeting in our city, and she is funeral consumer advocate of the Undertaken with Loveproject. She assists people with what some are calling home funerals, which is a noncommercial, family centered response to death. She involves the family in the care and preparation of the body for burial and cremation. You can find out more atundertakenwithlove.org.
Of course you don’t want to settle for a discount mortician. Mickey has just passed away and his wife Judy goes to the mortuary. As soon as Judy sees her husband she starts crying. An attendant tries to comfort her. Through her tears Judy explains that Mickey is wearing a black suit, and he always wanted to be buried in a blue suit. The attendant explains that they always put the bodies in a black suit, but he’d see what he could do. The next Judy returns to the mortuary for her last moments with Mickey, and she smiles through her tears: he is now wearing a blue suit. Judy asks the attendant, “How did you manage to get a blue suit?”
“Well, yesterday, after you left, a man about your husband’s size was bought in, and he was wearing a blue suit. His wife was very upset, as she wanted him buried in a black suit,” the attendant said. “After that it was simply a matter of swapping around the heads.”
True story: Father Carl Roth, an Episcopal rector, faxed his bishop asking him if it was all right for him to conduct the funeral of a Baptist. The bishop faxed back, “Bury all the Baptists possible.”
If you are planning the funeral of a friend (and love lies bleeding in your hand), please don’t forget the following: first and foremost, GIVE US TIME. I’ve lived and worked a minister in cities all over: San Diego, Atlanta, Louisville, Waco, but I’ve never been anywhere like Greensboro, in which people are obsessed with burying their loved one within three days. To say the obvious: a funeral is a schedulable event. The deceased is not going anywhere. In my limited experience, there is not this intense rush in other cities.
The best funerals I’ve ever been a part of—ones like Andrew Russoli’s, my mother’s, or Sylvia Previtte’s–are ones for which we had 7 days to plan and execute. We don’t do generic services here; each one is custom to the deceased and the life she led. But we need time to create something beautiful and lasting. People wrongly think that, if they can just get the body into the ground, then their grief will lessen, but this is not true. In fact, the exact opposite is true: better the funeral, the more it will help you with your grief. The more thoughtful the funeral, the easier it is to feel like you’ve done right by your loved one.
Relatedly, we hope you will plan a funeral at a time in which more people can attend. If you want our choir there, most likely it will need to be a Saturday or Sunday funeral, or one in which people have enough time to get off work. All of our talented musicians have other jobs. Several times people have wanted funerals the next day. Give us just a little time, and I promise the funeral will be both memorable and beautiful; give us a week, and we’ll make a worship service the memory of which people will cherish for years.
Secondly, remember that we clergy are professionals and not caterers, funeral directors, or florists. We will try to do what we can, but we will not do or say things we don’t feel are good or right or true. We’re not going to read a poem that goes against our theology; we not going to have canned music, no matter how much your uncle wanted to be carried out to Boot Scootin’ Boogie by Brooks and Dunn. When I was 15, I wanted to have Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wildplayed at my funeral. Luckily, my 52-year-old self knows better. If you have the service at the funeral home, graveside, in a wake at a bar, or at your home, you can of course do as you wish.
Thirdly, give us some specific stories about the one who died. When was he the happiest? What was the low point of her life? How did she treat her job? What kind of father was he? What are a couple of stories from his childhood? This is significant for you all to realize: your words become our words as we weave a memoir. I hope you will value this, and not be offended by it. We want to show people a small window into that person’s life by those who loved them best. This is why it so crucial for people to take the time to share memories of the dead person before the funeral. It’s holy time, but the temptation is to get caught up with the minutia of planning. As any good English teacher will tell you, specific stories have power; generalizations are wimpy. If I say that Sam was generous, that has zero impact. If I tell you a bout a time that I was out to lunch with Sam at Elizabeth’s Pizza and he paid for the table of police officers next to us, without them knowing it before we left, that story has power, and listeners make the connection that Sam was generous without me ever saying so.
Lastly, if the deceased belongs to another church or temple, you may not just invite any of us to participate in his funeral. Professional courtesy demands we need to be invited by his clergy if the funeral is at another place of worship, or if he’s member somewhere else. Conversely, when the funeral is here, please speak to us first before you invite others to speak. We’ll plan the service together. And every most every service we plan ends with these hopeful words: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.