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Learning from a Lifetime of Funerals

After my first funeral, I thought I would never be asked to preside over another. Yet people are willing to forgive mistakes when we care for them. And after many years in ministry, I have had the opportunity to reflect on a lifetime of funerals. Here, I want to share few reflections about my mistakes as well as what I’ve learned. Perhaps these stories will encourage you and help you see the importance of funerals.

Visitation

My first funeral was for a man in his late fifties. I had met him in the hospital and led him to Christ. His Sister Edna the family matriarch faithfully attended Islington where I was the new Pastor. I was about twenty-four, and I had never officiated a funeral before. I had been an apprentice funeral director, and so I suspect I was a bit cocky. That was soon going to change.

Butler’s Chapel Turner and Porter Islington was packed, and I was a bundle of nerves. The night before we formed a circle held hands and prayed before the visitation. Following that, my oldest daughter who might have been all of six put her faith into action. When we as a family went up to the casket, she placed her hands on the casket and said, “come alive young man.” Fortunately, only a few heard and those that did thought it was cute.

Funeral

The next day the place was packed, and I was ready to reach the world. I had three goals: to share Christ, to celebrate and help create a legacy of positive memories, and finally to help the family transition into the new norm. Sometimes that involves encouraging them to hold on to the good and let go of the bad.

It is a service I will never forget. I got the man’s name wrong. The elderly organist was snoring loudly. And the worst was yet to come. I meant to say immortality but instead said immorality.

It would have been easy to recover except the organist woke up, stood up, and publicly corrected me.

At the end of the service, I held the doors open for the family as they got into the limo. The funeral director’s wife came and kissed me and assured me that things could only get better. I was certain I would never preach again. But I was wrong. The director, his wife, and the family all said they were deeply moved and sensed genuine concern and compassion.

In the Lord’s providence, I presided over four or five more funerals for that family. The mistakes were quickly forgotten, and I learned that people recognized care and compassion despite my mistakes. The family overlooked and even laughed at me, a young Pastor, who became the hands and feet of Jesus.

Another funeral

Another funeral emerges in my mind. A day-old baby. Her Mother was a young teenager who had been sexually assaulted. Butler’s called. I was available. And there, I saw the director and a small white cloth covered casket.

The lessons learned from this funeral are hard to acknowledge They reveal part of me that I would like to pretend does not exist. On the way to the Mt. Pleasant cemetery, I could see the white casket in the back of the car.

Instead of weeping I talked to the director about the Blue Jays and their quest for the pendent. I talked about the Maple Leaf’s and Gordon Sinclair who lived just a few blocks away. I got to the cemetery and I said a few words, prayed the Lord’s Prayer and picked up my honorarium.

It was not until I had cashed the cheque and got back to the church that I started to weep.

I had dealt with the greatest tragedy known to mankind the death of a child, and all I could think about was the Blue Jays, the Maple Leaf’s. I was an old cynic with my honorarium. I had become the very person I said I would never become, a man who was indifferent to the sufferings of others seeing the honorarium and not the soul.

That day I decided I would never become callous cold and untouched by human suffering again. I confess at times I have failed, but I have never forgotten. We are called to weep with those who weep, and when they are so broken that they do not know enough to weep, perhaps we are called to weep on their behalf.

The next funeral

The next funeral is really two funerals on the same day. The story really begins with a prayer time that I had with Pastor Kenyon who at ninety-six was a gifted evangelist, and a gentleman by the name of Walter. Two or three morning a week, early in the morning, we would get together at McDonalds and pray. I loved the man, together we talked to Stephen Harper, and I could unburden my deepest sorrows without fear of judgement.

There was one morning I will never forget. A young professional lady drove in. She had the fastest, hottest Camaro that I had ever seen. She sent her boyfriend to go get coffee and breakfast and she sat right down beside us. I asked her about the car and Pastor Kenyon quickly interrupted and said, “we don’t have a lot of time, do you know Jesus.”

Five minutes later the angels were celebrating, and a life was changed. God is interested in insignificant details, the young man she was with got held up when the order was mixed up and he did not get back until both her and Pastor Kenyon had finished praying.

Pastor Kenyon often mentioned that he wanted me to say a few words at his funeral. I was humbled, here was a man who had walked with the giants of the faith, he had led thousands to Christ, and he trusted me with that high honour.

It almost did not happen; I got another call. A young fourteen-year-old girl had been bullied to death and I was asked to officiate the funeral. Obviously, this young girl’s funeral was my priority they were in crisis. God had called. Fortunately, Pastor’s family was kind and gracious, I spoke, and I left immediately after.

I recall leaving Pastor’s funeral after I had spoken on faith, soul winning, patience and perseverance and contrasting the two. Overwhelming joy versus devastating sorrow. While heading to the next funeral I recall thinking I wish Pastor Kenyon could pray for me right now. Fortunately, Pastor had prayed for me often and God did move. The service was broadcast live into her high school, we talked about bullying, we talked Christ, and we talked about changing the world and making it a better place.

One year after her service I got some feed back from her high school, some of the kids had listened and decided that things had to change, and bullying had to stop. Hopefully, some lives were saved.

God instilled some important lessons into my life. Our Father is not interested in hot cars; he is interested in the hearts and souls of people. He is interested in healing the broken hearted. He is interested in bruised reeds. He is interested in using men, women, children, and Churches who are available, flexible, caring, and compassionate. He seeks to change the hearts of people, but he looks for men and women after his own heart to accomplish that task. The world is broken and while we cannot fix it, we can seek to offer comfort and hope which is found in Christ.

Yes, there is a lot to learn, and there has been hundreds of other funerals. I could write a book and perhaps someday I will but for now I hope you have been encouraged and found something to ponder over.

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