It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness, and less often than it happened in my first years at Old South: leading a funeral/memorial service for someone I’ve never met. In the almost fifteen years of serving Old South, I occasionally discover a person or an entire family who feels that Old South is “their church,” even though they haven’t attended in many years—not even Christmas Eve or Easter. When there’s a family death, I get the call to schedule a service. It’s an especially awkward moment when the funeral home calls to share the very sad news, only to discover that I have no idea who they are talking about.
In my first few years at Old South, I didn’t mind these services, strange as they were. I would meet with the family, plan for the service, etc. For the service itself, I always made sure that I didn’t pretend to know the deceased, but tried to be comforting and helpful. If nothing else, I felt like a good memorial service could offer an opportunity for a sort of evangelism. It got people into the church building and then I would do my best to suggest that the church is not so bad and scary, that it is a good place to be—and not just when mourning the loss of a family member or friend.
It took a while, but I finally realized that these memorial services did not bring the hoped for sense of good will. In fact, I noticed that there were some memorial services where people attended only out of obligation to the deceased or the deceased’s family. They made it clear that they didn’t want to be in the church, and no one was going to convince them otherwise. In looking out at the congregation, I could see people with their arms crossed over their chests and the look of distaste on their faces. I recall a couple of times when I actually heard someone audibly scoff during my homily, when I mentioned something along the lines of God’s comfort and Jesus knowing our suffering through his own experience on the cross. One time, the noise came from a member of the deceased’s family.
Now, I dread the phone call from the funeral home, when they mention a name I don’t know and then add that the family or the deceased “used to be active at Old South.” “Used to be” is usually counted in decades. Because it is a sad and difficult occasion, I refrain from asking the question that I always want to ask: how they could abandon the church, but then expect it to be there when they need a nice big place in which to offer a farewell to a loved one—along with a travel guide through the early stages of grief?
At a recent memorial service for someone I didn’t know and had never met, despite the fact that the family lives not far from the church, the sanctuary was almost completely full—with a bunch of people I didn’t recognize. Before the service began, the sanctuary was abuzz with people chatting in small groups, or coming forward to offer words of condolence to the family. Then, the service started and everyone quieted down. Near the start of the service, came the first of two hymns. And all that could be heard was the organ. Hardly anyone sang. Not even the family (even though they had chosen the hymns). And, when it was time to say the Lord’s Prayer together, hardly anyone joined in. For the hymn near the end, Amazing Grace, I hoped that its general familiarity would aid additional voices singing along. It didn’t.
It was the most painful memorial service I’ve ever led, or attended. It was clear that there were only a very few regular church-goers in attendance. It felt like a large group of tourists had come to visit my country, even though they didn’t really want to, and we didn’t share a common language.
I certainly don’t require any additional evidence for the decline of mainline churches, but it’s still a heartbreaking moment to recognize that the meaning that I find in church is now shared by so few and that it likely won’t survive until the day when it’s time for my family to say goodbye to me. Where will my funeral take place?
I find myself wondering about these funerals and what they signal. Is it too late for churches like Old South to turn the tide and, if it is too late, how do we embrace (or at least acknowledge) our decline in a way that is faithful and meaningful? Is the decline we are experiencing our own fault or was it inevitable, part of the natural course of human existence? How can we continue to welcome and include, even as we face the reality that lots of people think ill of the Church and by extension, local churches?
The days ahead will be tricky and painful, but I hope not full of despair. I hope that we’ll be able to maintain a steadfast hold on our faith and what it means for us to gather as God’s people, in this place and time, in the midst of obvious challenges.
The next time, though, the funeral home calls with a name that I don’t recognize, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. While I can’t imagine that I would ever say no to a family in grief, I don’t ever want to lead another memorial service like the one I led recently. But, perhaps I’ll find a way of asking why—why abandon the church, but then expect it to be there when the need arises? What will happen when the need arises, but there isn’t anyone there to answer?