Reward: helping tell funeral stories

August 5th, 2014

We pastors are no strangers to death, loss, and grief. As we respond to the phone call that someone has died, we enter into multiple stories that unfold before us.

Five Funeral Stories

The  first story we hear is often the death story: “Her breathing kept getting slower. And then there were no more breaths.” Or, “The hospital called and said he had been in a car crash. . . .”

The death story is the  final chapter in a person’s life story. What is that life story? Perhaps the deceased was a ninety-two-year-old life-long Christian who had declared to the hospice chaplain that she was ready to go “home.” Or perhaps he was an agnostic twenty-four-year-old son of a new church member, and the pastor had never met him. Perhaps she was a sixty- two-year-old heart attack victim who had not been coming to church since her second divorce. 

As family and friends gather, the pastor has the chance to hear more stories— about the deceased, the ones left behind—about their relationships, memories, regrets. Each griever had a different relationship with the deceased. Each has different memories, different stories. Each will grieve differently.

And then there’s the congregation’s story. The congregation may be in shock and dismay because two youth group kids died in a car crash. They may be grieving a beloved Sunday school teacher who has taken his own life. They may not even know the deceased. Or they may not know how to reach out to a church member who has lost his partner to AIDS.

And fourth, there’s the pastor’s own story. Perhaps the pastor’s story lacks experience of loss or feels inadequate in the face of death. Perhaps the pastor’s story is one big sigh—this week is already overbooked. Perhaps the pastor’s story is one of competence around the funeral but feels overwhelmed by the ongoing needs of the grieving. It is important that we as pastors recognize the ways in which this story of death is intersecting with our own stories or experiences of death—and life.

Fifth is God’s story—the story of all God has been, all God is doing, and all God has promised to do. The pastor knows God’s defeat of death in the resurrection of Christ, the raw anguish of the lament psalms, and the promise of God’s loving presence and hope—which grievers often find elusive.

Integrating the Five Stories

As pastors companion the grieving, they stand at the intersection of these stories. How does the pastor integrate these stories in a way that informs the funeral process and shapes care for grievers?

First, listen for the various stories. What are the grievers saying? What needs emerge? Is there a need to make sense of this tragic accident of a teenager? Is there a need for permission to grieve the death of a 92 year-old? Is there a need to address the stigma of suicide? Are emotions being triggered in the pastor? In other words, let each grieving person teach you about the contour and contents of his or her own story of grief.

Second, recognize the repertoire of stories the pastor represents from the tradition. Yes, we represent God’s story of victory over death in the resurrection of Christ. And we also represent the stories of lament in Psalms and Lamentations. Laments offer space for God’s people to bring all emotions to God, including disorientation, anger, despair, dismay, and hopelessness. Pastors represent and embody God’s loving, suffering presence as grievers walk through the valley of the shadow of loss and death. Pastors represent the truth that nothing, not life nor death, can separate anyone from God’s love or from the love of one another. And pastors represent the present and future hope of eternal life in the company of God, Jesus, and the communion of saints. Which of God’s stories is most appropriate for this particular situation?

Third, in preparing the funeral, engage in the art of weaving the stories of the deceased, the grieving, the congregation, and the pastor together with God’s unfolding story of suffering, loving presence, and hope. During the funeral and throughout the grieving process, the pastor can affirm the various emotions that each person’s grief story expresses while also knowing that these stories of disorientation are not ultimate. As pastors, we represent the ultimate story that in life, in death, and in the raw suffering of grief, we find new ways to enter God’s unending story of love.

comments powered by Disqus