Ann Wroe, obituaries editor for The Economist, was a guest on the August 29, 2007 edition of NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She was there to talk about what someone says when they must eulogize a not very nice or good person. The obituary she wrote for the “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley prompted the interview.
It was an interesting segment about a challenging task and, like most things, it got me to thinking.
Not long after I announced my intention to go into the ministry, my father gave me a piece of advice about funeral messages. He said, “Son, just remember: you don’t have to preach everyone into heaven because everybody’s not going.” I’ve tried to remember his advice but it’s difficult for several reasons.
For one thing, at a funeral people expect to hear good things about the dearly departed. Sometimes that’s a challenge. In the Beatles’ movie Hard Day’s Night, Paul’s grandfather is along for the ride. The boys constantly remark about him, “He’s very clean.” Occasionally you feel like that’s about the best you can do. But you try to find at least one good thing to say. It’s important, though, not to go overboard. My mentor Dr. Howard Giddens likes the joke about the funeral where the preacher went on and on about what a fine man the deceased was. Finally, his widow elbowed one of her children and said, “Go look in that box and see if that’s your Daddy he’s talking about!”
For another thing, at a funeral people don’t necessarily expect to hear the truth about someone. Let’s face it: if someone was a bad person everybody knows it and there’s not much reason to say it and there’s certainly not much reason to deny it. If the truth hurts, we usually just leave it alone at the funeral.
For a third thing, and this may be the most important thing, from my perspective as a Christian minister, my main task at a funeral or at any other service at which I speak is to proclaim the good news. Many times I have been asked by the family of a fine Christian person not to talk much about that person at the funeral but to focus my remarks on Jesus and on the message of salvation. That’s what I really should do at every service. If I can use the departed’s life as an illustration of how the good news can affect someone, well and good. But the focus should be on Christ.
So it’s important, as my father said, not to try to preach someone into heaven. It’s tempting, though. And maybe, just maybe, at those times when we have reason to believe that someone isn’t going to make it, it affords us an opportunity to make a bold statement about the radical grace of God. When I took preaching in seminary, we read Henry H. Mitchell’s book The Recovery of Preaching. In it he offered a “reconstituted rendering” of an account given by Ned Walker in 1936 of a slave narrative from some seven decades earlier. The narrative was about Uncle Wash’s funeral. Uncle Wash, a blacksmith, had been a member of the A.M.E. church but had fallen away and had been sent to the penitentiary for stealing a pig. He got sick in prison, came home, and died. Let’s pick up the narrative there.
Uncle Pompey took his text from that place in the Bible where Paul and Silas was a-layin’ in jail. He dwelt on Uncle Wash’s life of hard work and bravery—how he tackled kickin’ horses and mules, so’s crops could be cultivated and harvested and hauled. He talked about how he sharpened dull plow points, to make the corn and cotton grow, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. He told what a good-hearted man Uncle Wash was, and then he allowed as how his goin’ to jail didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t go to heaven. He declared it wasn’t eternally against a church member to get put in jail. It it hadda been, Paul and Silas wouldn’t ‘a made it to heaven, and he knowed they was there. In fact, they was a lot of people in heaven what had been arrested. Then he went to talkin’ ‘bout a vision of Jacob’s ladder.
“I see Jacob’s ladder. An’ I see Brother Wash. He’s climbin’ Jacob’s ladder. Looks like he’s half way up. I want you all to pray with me that he enter the pearly gates, Brothers and Sisters. He’s still a-climbin’. I see the pearly gates. They is swingin’ open. An’ I see Brother Wash. He done reached the topmost round of the ladder. Let us sing with all our hearts that blessed hymn, ‘There is a fountain filled with blood.’”
When they sang the second verse, ‘bout “The dyin’ thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day,” Uncle Pompey cried out over the crowd, “I see Brother Wash as he enters in, and that dyin’ thief is there to welcome him in. Thank God! Thank God! He’s made it into paradise. His sins has been washed away, and he has landed safe forever more.”(pp. 52-53)
Every opportunity to preach is an opportunity to proclaim the possibilities inherent in the bold grace of God.
But that’s really about God. We still shouldn’t make someone sound better than he or she was. And I may be guilty of that sometimes.
Once, after I had preached a funeral and finished the graveside service, a young lady came up to me and said, “Mike, you’re a Baptist preacher and I’m a Methodist, but I’ll tell you right now that I want you to preach my funeral.” “Why?” I asked. “Because you can find something good to say about anybody!”