Committing the Non-Committed
by Charles Austin
Funerals for non-members and their families who have little spiritual formation can be a frustrating experience. Can we find ways to enhance our funeral ministries with these persons who are outside our communities of faith?
I consider it a weakness in, if not a failure of a part of my ministry. I am almost never able to "connect" to people significantly at funerals.
This is not true of funerals for members of the congregation I serve. On those occasions, I have been at the sickbed with the deceased and their family. Often we have used the very powerful "Commendation of the Dying" in the Occasional Services book within hours of the death. The funeral is at the church, where we sing and celebrate Holy Communion and remember the saints and God's promises.
Following the committal, depending upon the ethnicity of the family, we go to a restaurant for a nice long meal or to the home for cold cuts and potato salad.
But pastors are often called to do funerals for non-members. I almost never refuse, but I have rarely found the situations satisfying. It is a time when I must rely solely on the power of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Little Spiritual Interest
Conventional wisdom suggests that a time of loss and grief is an opportunity for spiritual insight. My experience suggests otherwise. I nearly always go to the funeral home the night before the service, if there are "visiting hours." The intent is to meet the family of the deceased and try to discern what their needs are.
Usually it is at this point that I begin to sense the spiritual wasteland that exists in far too many people. I am saddened because the people do not realize that they are in a desert. My presence usually puzzles them. Queries about the deceased or the family don't elicit much response; and not surprisingly, I feel like, and am seen as, something of an intruder. I've stopped asking about hymns or favorite Scripture passages. There aren't any.
Frequently, there is not even enough "grief" to connect with. Family and friends may just be "doing the right thing" for Aunt Mildred or Grandpa Harry. They were old, cut off from family years ago, and now must be buried — an onerous duty indeed.
"I think he went to a Lutheran Sunday school when he lived in Jersey City," they say, or "Well, we don't go to church much" (which means, at all), "but I'm sure Grandma would have wanted a reverend at the funeral." So my job — in their view — is to show up, say some words, and get out of the way.
The funeral rites of the Lutheran Book of Worship and Occasional Services book allow the construction of different types of burial services. Phrases from some prayers, such as entrusting the deceased to God's love which "sustained him/her in this life," sound inappropriate, as do the references to the church and the body of Christ. I pick those segments which address the mourners and call for an increase of faith while we are on our earthly journeys.
Successfully addressing such a mixed and often spiritually illiterate gathering seems to me to be virtually impossible. Standard burial Scriptures, I'm sure, sound meaningless to those who never hear the words in any other context. In the brief homily, I stress the sacredness of life as a gift from God and that God's love in Jesus Christ shows that God intends to triumph over death, granting us grace, forgiveness, comfort, faith in this life, and the glory of eternal life.
Occasionally, there is significant and satisfying reaction from mourners, friends, and neighbors who do indeed have an active faith. They may have known that Minnie and her family were essentially unchurched, but for the sake of their own faith and sense of loss are glad to experience the rites of the church. They do provide sort of a "faith community" for a person who may not have had much of a faith.
At the service, we stand for the prayers, and I sometimes provide a two-page bulletin that has the prayers and responses printed on it, along with the 23rd Psalm. Often these are ignored by the mourners. Often, virtually the only "participation" is at the benediction where at least the Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross.
One Final Contact
As the mourners leave the funeral home, I try to make one final contact with family members. But since there has been no significant relationship established previously, this is often a futile gesture. They are polite — "thank you for a lovely service" — or silent, or seem eager to move to the cemetery or crematorium and get it over with.
I have one last chance at the committal; but I do not get my hopes up. Most of the time that part of the rite ends with everybody simply turning and walking away after having laid a flower on the coffin. I may get a handshake from one or two mourners or a "thank you" from a family member, but often not.
Years ago, if the family was local, I tried to follow up with a call suggesting a visit a week or so after the burial. This was usually unsuccessful. A lot of funerals I do are for people whose children now live far away, so there is no possibility for future ministry.
I do not take these things personally, for I do not believe that I am such a lout as to be inept at funerals; and other clergy have related similar experiences. Certainly God's Word has power and will be effective whether we see it or not. Certainly these are opportunities to preach the gospel which should not be ignored.
Nevertheless, I am saddened because I see people so bereft of spirituality that it cannot be a help for them at a time of loss. Or I see people who have a "generic" faith that is vapid and ritualistic.
So I wonder — how can funeral ministries be enhanced when we are dealing with people outside our congregations? Where are the contact points? What are the techniques that will reach people on these occasions? Do hospice chaplains have a chance to connect with people who will soon be mourners at a funeral? Do support groups for the gravely ill and their families have a spiritual component?
Or are we simply to rely upon the power of the Word, do our "bit" at the funeral home, and trust the rest to God?
The real issue, of course, is an evangelism that will bring people into close contact with the body of Christ, so that they will be familiar with and bound to the words of Scripture and prayers of the church that attend the end of mortal life.
Charles Austin is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, as well as the columnist for Lutheran Partners' "Church Computing."