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Outline for a Funeral

What is one to say when life gets interrupted with death?

Whenever I am called upon to answer this question (in the form of sharing at a funeral), I am always filled equally with dread and honor.

I’ve spoken at many funerals… my family, close friends, nearly perfect strangers, religious and irreligious, old and young, tragically unexpected and comfortably natural. Last week I spoke at the heart-aching funeral of a 3-week-old baby named Ryson. This week I will speak at the soul-stinging funeral of a young woman who committed suicide, the wife of one of my friends and mother of 3.

Do you feel me? Equal parts dread and honor. Each and every one has provided a unique stress on me, and also a unique blessing.

I’ve tried to be all “preachery” and develop some sort of “form funeral” outline (well, not really tried…but have often thought it would make things easier) that fits each and every circumstance of death powerfully but generically, with some sacred space inside of it to pack with personal stories or circumstances in order to serve and honor the family of the loved one. But that has never come for me. It has for weddings, but not for funerals.

So I find myself “attaching to the emotion” of each death with my whole heart as best as I am able, by “being with” the family and friends left behind (sometimes physically, sharing and remembering, but sometimes just emotionally and from a distance, observing and empathizing). Somewhere in the midst of this exercise, words come.

I feel they come from God. Why? Because I’m not smart enough to come up with them alone, and the reaction to them is always mysteriously good.

So when the come, I write them down next chance I get. They provide me with some comfort (“shew…I have something to say”), but they usually provide some more dread (“Are you serious, God? You want me to say that?”).

At any rate, some thoughts came to me for Ryson’s funeral last week that I found very useful for me in general, concerning the emotional roller coaster ride that loved ones find themselves on when death interrupts their lives.  I thought them worth sharing with you.

These thoughts come in the form of four perspectives on death that each of us unintentionally (and usually uncontrollably) jump between, each one with it’s corresponding emotion attached. They are all appropriate perspectives (as are the emotions attached to them), and they all serve a role in ushering a human being safely through the experience of death, but two of them are meant to be temporary, and two are meant to be permanent.

The first perspective has us looking at “what was, that is not anymore.” Attached to this perspective is the emotion of mourning. We had a person, and now we do not. As human beings, we seem to grow accustomed to the presence of someone (or even some things) once they are in our lives. Our lives, expectations, and even schedules get influenced and revolved around them quite quickly, and we attach our happiness to all of this. So… mourning is the process of adjusting to the loss of someone (or something) we have attached to. It can be seen when a friend moves to a new city, when we retire, when all the kids leave, and yes, when someone dies.

The second perspective has us looking at “what could have been, but will not be.” The emotion here, to distinguish from mourning, is grief. This is more of a future perspective on our loss, the loss of something that we feel was supposed to be, but isn’t going to be. It’s why our loved one’s birthday will cut to the heart a little each year, holidays are difficult, and milestone events (graduations, weddings, family reunions, etc) will have their sting.

Pause here for a minute. We must beware of shortchanging or shortcutting either of these powerful feelings of loss…in the days immediately following and in the years to come. While we aren’t meant to live in them every day (praise God!), they are meant to be visited. Though we place stone monuments in cemeteries, these are the monuments of their memory and evidence of our capacity to love, truly worthy things to hang on to and cherish. While it is natural for humans to always want to escape pain, our love for those we lose is something we never want to escape. And if Christ taught us anything in his story, it is that love and pain are bedfellows. So don’t let the ongoing feelings of loss spiral you to despair…instead let it elevate you to your love.

The third perspective, which causes the emotions of gratitude and even rejoicing, is “what is, that is so much better than it was.” Death is many things, and one of the things that it is, is the ultimate escape from the pains of this life that we are all vulnerable to. When we dwell on the pains and sufferings that our loved one no longer must deal with, the emotion of gratitude slides into our hearts. For example, baby Ryson fought hard for his life for 3 weeks in the hospital, which is courageous and admirable, but he wasn’t meant to have to fight at that intensity daily. This perspective allows us to feel gratitude for the rest and relief of this pain. And for those who believe in Christ, there is the additional surge of gratitude that comes from knowing that the life Ryson was fighting so hard for, is now his in all it’s abundance without strain.

Pause again. I might add that there is a guilt that tries to creep in on people here. Our Enemy loves to poison this healthy and positive perspective, making people feel like they are selfish for feeling any gladness… as if they are only grateful because they themselves get to be done with the loved one’s pain. We need to guard our own hearts from this, and the hearts of others. Else we (or they) will get trapped in mourning and grief out of a false sense of duty to prove that they love who they lost by doing so.

The fourth perspective is only available to people of faith. And this one is the one that gives the human being the feelings that make life abundant presently no matter the circumstances faced, that is, the feeling of hope and confidence that leads to joyful perseverance. It is the the perspective of “what will be, which is the perfection of our heart’s deepest desires.” Those who follow Christ have a story that tells us that death is not the end and does not win. It says that there is a time coming when we will have our loved one and they will have us and all of us will have God. Jesus said that the Greatest of all Commandments are those that speak of love for God and love for one another. I believe he chose those two because they are what will remain when all of what we know now is gone. The complete perfection of every desire that the human heart longs for and can never attain in all of it’s glory here on earth… is coming.

I have found that the healthiest people who have suffered loss are the ones who progress openly and honestly through each of these perspectives, embracing and deeply “being with” them all, until finally they become able to control this emotional roller coaster, living primarily in the 4th perspective, and choosing to visit the other 3 when necessary and desired. For the 4th perspective is the major theme, the first two are true, but minor themes, and will not last. And the 3rd perspective, while very helpful in ushering us to the 4th, is as far as the atheist can go for comfort, and it does not seem to create lasting joy in them.

I hope this helps someone who reads this, because I’m not quite sure why I’m writing it, or where these thoughts have come from. I’m grateful to Ryson’s family, however, for most recently inviting me into the dreaded and honorable position that they did, that I could get these words for myself.

I needed them.

They confirm to me that death isn’t really a interruption to life, but a powerful and potent and relentless part of it. Necessary for life to the full, which I am daily after.

I love you.

P.S. At risk of being a bit trivial after such a weighty subject, I have some more books for sale here. Perhaps you know someone who might be interested?

Death and Tragedy

3 Comments to “Outline for a Funeral”

  1. Brian – This is one of your better posts (not that the others are not good…they are incredibly good). This speaks to something deep in all of us that we tend to shy away from unless we are faced with it directly.

    I have also never thought about love being the only thing left. It makes sense though…hope and faith will no longer be needed along with many other things.

  2. Brian…I agree with Adam, this is a great post that speaks to the deep in us. I love it when someone articulates some truth I have observed in such a concise and profound way (your lesson Sunday did the same!). Your words made me think that while physical death evokes the four things you mentioned, they are also the reasons why we might voluntarily choose to put to death some things in our life (nail it to the cross, so to speak) and move on. I’m thinking things like regret, guilt, anger, grief…parts of my past that didn’t turn out how I wanted but that’s okay. I see that now. Things in my life today that are not “ideal”…maybe never were or never will be…but that’s okay. I can put it to death and move on to Perspective 3 and 4, with “gratitude and rejoicing”. I mean…what am I really giving up???? Nothing compared to what I gain. Praise God for that! Thanks for helping me see that. =)

  3. This resonated a lot with me tonight as I read it. I started my new job as a nurse in the ICU and my fifth day on the unit, I saw, what I think, will be the most raw things I will see in my career. I saw death- but not the death of a 70 year old who was deteriorating slowly. the unexpected death of a 20 something person and a very aggressive fight (by the nurses and doctors) to save his life: surgery-which I was able to watch- code-which I was able to participate in- then pronouncing his death. It was very surreal and the rest of the day, all I could think about was death.

    It made me think of when my grandma died three years ago after slowly losing her to alzheimers-I was able to go thru those phases a little bit easier because I knew it was coming. I can only imagine the pain and devastation when someones death is so unexpected.

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