A sudden, surprising death. The death of a young person. A funeral for someone with only distant connections to faith and the church. How can pastors and congregations at large respond in light of Christian hope? What does it mean to grieve, but not as those who have “no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13)?
On April 20, a group of pastors and interested laypersons gathered at Western Theological Seminary to discuss these, and other, pressing questions. The following adaptation gives some highlights of that conversation. A full video is available at https://www.westernsem.edu/panel-resurrection-hope-difficult-funerals/.
Share an experience of a difficult funeral in which you’ve taken part.
David Blauw: I’ve had a lot of difficult funerals in my 35 years of ministry in the RCA as both a pastor and chaplain. I think of the three Vietnam veterans, of two whom died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head, one from cumulative bottles of whisky. I think of the funeral of a 9-year-old boy who was run over by his dad backing up a blueberry truck. And a gut-wrenching experience of a 32-year-old mother of an almost-3-year-old. I will always hear the pitiful calling out of that almost-3-year-old at the graveside, saying, “Don’t put Mommy down in that hole.” I’ve also had hard experiences of leading funerals at the request of a begging funeral home director who didn’t have anyone else to ask. The family had literally nothing to say about their loved one – who he was or what he did. That was one of the hardest I’ve ever tried to lead.
Death is just messy.
Denise Kingdom-Grier: I’ve had the privilege to speak the last words over many difficult funerals. I would say all of them are difficult for me. I’m always so keenly aware of a life, even if I don’t know the individual, and I recognize that the air is different because their breath is gone. One funeral in particular that was very difficult for me was the twin sister of a young woman who had lived with us for a time. They had just turned 21, and her sister had been killed in a car accident on the way to Chicago.
At the funeral, there were probably 250 or 300 people, two-thirds of whom probably didn’t go to church. This was the difficult part of the funeral. Not just that she was a twin, that she was 21, that it was so tragic her mom couldn’t even view her because of the state that she was in after the accident. All of those things made the temperature extremely difficult to navigate. On top of that, in the midst of absolute chaos, I was trying to hold space for God and for a life lived. People were walking in and walking out, some had been drinking profusely and smelled like they’d been smoking profusely. There was no sense of reverence or order to be had in that place. Every once in awhile there would be outbursts, and people would just lose control in their grief. It was so audible and so palatable.
Then I realized that this is exactly what it is – death is just messy. The crucifixion is messy. I contrast that with all of the neatness and cleanliness of the other, less difficult funerals I’ve had to do, and I realize that funeral is just like our hearts on the days when we have to say goodbye.
Jonathan Elgersma: I’ve been (in my current position) for 16 years, and the longer you’re in a place, the more often you find yourself in the spot of doing difficult funerals. Probably the most vivid one for me was one Friday afternoon I got a call from the Ottawa County (Michigan) police. They needed me to meet them at a family’s home. They were going to tell a mother and father that their 18-year-old son had been killed, murdered by one of his friends over a girl. It was a long-drawn-out suffering. He tried to stab him 37 times, and it didn’t kill him. He took a shovel and bashed him over the head and that finally did kill him. He then proceeded to bury him in a two-and-half-foot grave in his backyard. The police were going to tell the family, and they wanted me to go alongside. I stood next to the police officers as they told the parents that their son had been murdered.
For the next three hours it was just a journey in a place of not saying a whole lot and trying to be present, trying to live into a gentleness and grace in a place of confusion and hurt and pain with them.
What is your theological vision when leading a funeral, especially a difficult one?
Blauw: Leading funerals is a ministry of the broken ministering to the broken – you and I are broken people ministering to the broken at the worst of times. It is excruciatingly holy ground. When I lead funerals I know this is the Holy Spirit of Pentecost at work, and I have almost nothing to do with it … except that through no strength of my own, I pay attention to the Spirit’s lead. That’s our task at every difficult funeral.
Kingdom-Grier: Heaven is about God. Grandma might be there, and we sure do hope and pray and believe in our hearts that our loved ones who have died are there. But if we don’t want to see Jesus, we don’t want to go to heaven. Because heaven is about Jesus.
At the end of the day, when (the funeral mentioned earlier) was all said and done, I was left undone because I don’t know if I did what I was supposed to do. I don’t know if anybody even heard me or any of that. But I do know we honored a life that day. I do know that the name of Christ was lifted up in our presence. And I do know that we were there together. In the midst of difficult funerals sometimes that’s all it is.
Elgersma: Walking that journey with that family, I was coming to a funeral trying to live into the hope of the resurrection when the reality of what had happened meant to be honest about the pain, the incredible pain. I think that’s one of the pieces of the resurrection that we don’t think about near enough. The resurrection gives us the permission to be honest in the most difficult of times. And that honesty, it also begins to point us to a hope.
You lean into honest and authentic language because that’s what people want. But you also become the one who has to believe on their behalf because they’re struggling to believe. And you live through the short-term journey of funerals only if you’re willing to live through the long-term journey of walking alongside those who will continue to grieve.
That’s our call – to live in the full spectrum of the honesty of this brilliant, beautiful, historically true story of the resurrection but also to live in that place of hurt and pain that leads us … to a genuine hope of the resurrected Jesus and our experience of being raised with him as well.
The larger culture offers different hopes for the future that may contrast with true resurrection hope. What are some situations you’ve encountered like these?
Blauw: It’s amazing how parallel the cultural narrative of what happens after death is, whether someone is a card-carrying member of a mainline denomination or a Pentecostal, a Jewish person or a Buddhist. I hear the same thing over and over: They are seeing their loved ones, and they are doing something they love. And you would be amazed, there is going to be a lot of deer-hunting in heaven. I wonder where this comes from and what this means to people. Far be it from me (as a hospital chaplain) to challenge it, because it’s bedrock. You can’t tweak theology in a crisis. So, when do you do it – what do we do in formation for people in Christian education about this?
Kingdom-Grier: I had a conversation with a young woman at a vigil who said, “I think heaven is like an amusement park, except you never have to wait in line, you get all the cotton candy you want, you win all the games every time you play.” I just tried to hold the space; I probably said something like, “Wow, that’s interesting. I never heard that before.” The difficult thing about being in a space where people don’t necessarily go to church is that they don’t want me to preach at them when I ask them a question.
As I asked her further questions, she said, “I think heaven is whatever you want it to be.” So I might ask something like, “Do we sort of discard all of the things that heaven is supposed to be by definition?” In other words, Jesus doesn’t have to be there, maybe the righteous don’t have to be there, maybe there don’t have to be angels there? Do we just dump it out and then fill it with whatever we want to fill it with? Of course, I don’t always go into that kind of detail, but those are the kinds of questions I’m poking at. Asking questions allows the Holy Spirit to continue to percolate in them to ask more and more questions later.
It’s often not appropriate when someone is in the midst of loss to challenge their assumptions about heaven. How do you cultivate a genuine resurrection hope in the discipleship of the church so that when a person is in crisis they don’t get caught up in lesser hopes?
Elgersma: We sometimes think that we’re going to change our view of heaven in a single conversation. And it’s never going to be that. It’s going to be a constant revisiting of a conversation. Part of me wants to say that we will only begin to shape our understanding of heaven when we begin to approach it the same way as we do when learning about finances or learning about sexuality or learning about what it means to be a parent. I think we need to have a better eschatological verbiage within the church … to recapture the mystery of the journey that we don’t always do well with. And then we need to create places that can provide the conversation. So sitting down and being able to ask, when nothing’s happening, about heaven or what happens after this. It continues to stun me when I think about this, that the very end of the Apostles Creed is “and I believe in everlasting life.” That’s all. There’s no explanation that goes beyond that. It’s important just to simply ask, “what does that mean?”
Kingdom-Grier: Sometimes, I think in the desire and the longing to provide clear answers is a temptation to smooth it over and say things we don’t know. I did a funeral once for a lady who was probably 32 years old. She had committed suicide. I didn’t know her; I was her mother’s pastor. In conversations with the family beforehand, people wanted me to say something that was nice and that was gentle. But instead I said, “God so loved the world, and God loved her.” And I went through her life about all the times that God loved her. And I said, “We know this is a hard day and there are a lot of questions about what happened and where she might be today, but the important thing we need to know is that God loves us. Where will we be in our time is called?” It’s important to stay with the same gospel of continuity from Sunday to Saturday (most of my funerals are on Saturdays) and back to Sunday, not breaking that continuity just because we want to have a nice day at the funeral.
Jonathan Elgersma is senior pastor, Faith Church, Zeeland, Michigan; Denise Kingdom-Grier is lead pastor, Maple Avenue Ministries, Holland, Michigan; and David Blauw is a chaplain at Holland (Mich.) Hospital.