One thing that having reverend in front of my name gives me the authority to assert: Funerals aren’t designed to be sucky.
No one gets up in the morning and says, “Today I’m going to perform a terrible funeral.” We don’t stand barefoot in our burning-bush jammies while our coffee makers bubble thinking of the best ways to alienate half of the sad people while boring the other half. There aren’t interfaith clergy conferences on How to Make the Final Goodbye a Bummer.
In fact the opposite is true. Everyone I know who has the honor and responsibility to lead a funeral or memorial service spends considerable time, some of it sleepless, discerning what to say and how to say it. Music, scripture and poetry are considered. The perspectives of generations are consulted. Palms sweat. Deodorant claims are tested.
And we still fall short. I have a professional reputation built on not falling short too often on funerals, but it happens. I mispronounce a Czech maiden name. I don’t talk enough about his work for farming families. I ramble on about her pony-button obsession. My voice is hoarse. I wore or forgot to wear purple. A distracting curl falls on my forehead. A 5-year-old has the hiccups in the middle pew.
In other words, someone goes home ticked off. But only rarely is it my fault.
I accept my responsibility as a religious professional at a funeral. But no matter how snazzy my elocution, how respectful and true-to-life my eulogy, how reassuring my theology — we’re at a funeral and we’re going to have to talk about death. At the end of the service, one of us is still dead — and that’s where it gets touchy. Funerals would be so much more popular if people like me would stop insisting on talking about death. I mean, really — the nerve.
Doctors, who sleep in spleen- and aorta-dotted jammies, by the way, get to talk about death as a scientific concept: cease to breathe, body turns to off position, no longer a patient. They can be perceived as cold for this, but they’re talking about a clinical concept. Lucky dogs.
Funeral directors, who must sleep sitting up and half-dressed in case you get a call at 3 a.m., usually talk about death after it’s happened, with people who are dealing with their kooky family and the fallout. Death is the fact at hand, the reality of which must be dealt with immediately — which may explain why so many people have discomforted feelings regarding the profession. Funeral directors confront what most avoid — the deadness of the dead, and they handle it for us. And yet still no National Kiss a Funeral Director Day. It’s a crime.
But my ministerial role is an interpretation of death. I don’t diagnose. I don’t embalm or cremate. I deal with emotions, ideas, the eternal and ephemeral. It’s a wonder I sleep at all. At a funeral I’m called to answer some essential questions: Who was this person to us? Who are we now that they are gone? Where is the meaning in the face of their death?
Interpretation is personal, subjective, emotional and dangerous. The danger is why you call the Reverend Me instead of your Uncle Elrod. We all have answers. But I’m the one who’s willing to broach them in the face of loss and existential crisis, which is pretty much the worst job in the room. I can’t tell you how many doctors and funeral directors have told me, “I couldn’t do your job.” Not a comfort.
When a funeral or memorial service goes wrong in someone’s eyes it’s often because an interpretation was put forth that didn’t ring true for someone else. The offense can be taken as disrespect for religion, diversity, personality or culture. The minister did or didn’t let the outsider family member speak. The truth was or wasn’t skirted around. We’re called everything from pompous to lazy, tree-hugging to hatemongering.
I am a repeat offender in that I will talk about death every time. My defense? The person in the casket made me do it. What I need from those in attendance is to remember that you aren’t there to hear from me.
A funeral is a multipurpose community gathering, not a show. If you’re agonizing over that curl slipping into my eye you’re missing the point. No one owes you anything at a funeral. You are there to pay, not cash in. You are there to say goodbye in a human, public act of goodwill toward your companion on the journey who now is gone. You are in the family of those who mourn, even if you’re only tangentially connected, so that the closest person who is shaken to their core by this loss doesn’t feel alone. You are there to take the hiccupping kid outside for his crying parents. You are there because someone needed you to make your patented pimento cheese recipe. You are there as an act of honesty to yourself — this person mattered to me and I will take an hour out of my life to mark their passing even though I will know no one at the service. You are there because your rock in this world has gone and where else would you be but beside them?
If the person in my role doesn’t nail the service, you’re there to do your part — say the right thing, bring meaning to the family, interpret the loss when things seem meaningless, and keep Uncle Elrod from telling the strip-club story. You are a participant, a guide, a friend and possibly even a guru at every funeral you attend.
That is the role of those who mourn and those who love. You’ll find that when you serve your role you may require a stronger antiperspirant. You’ll also discover that the person in my role becomes virtually incapable of ruining the funeral. S
Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.