Over the many years I’ve been in parish ministry, it’s not uncommon to find myself in a particular situation that I find especially challenging: dealing with adult children of a recently deceased church member whose spouse has already passed away or is not capable of making decisions or plans. It’s the children who are in charge. On more occasions than I would like to count, the children of the deceased do not go to church and more than that, they exude a veiled (thinly or otherwise) hostility to Christianity. So, what to do when the church member dies?
About a decade ago, when one of Old South’s most faithful members died suddenly, I was informed that the children did not want a service at the church. There would be a short service at the funeral home. I, as Old South’s pastor, could lead that service if I wished. If not, the funeral home would find someone. I was shocked. I had never met any of these people, but I could not fathom how they could dismiss their parent’s close connection to Old South. In the end, I led the service at the funeral home, but then I also organized a memorial service to take place after a regular Sunday worship service. I informed the children and invited them, making it clear that there was just no way to not have a church service for their parent, who had rarely missed a Sunday worship service. The children attended and were gracious about it. The swell of condolence and heartbreak of the congregation clearly made an impact on them.
During Covid time, it feels like it’s been a lot easier for adult children who are not connected to the faith to simply ignore it or push it aside when their last parent passes away. Several members of Old South have died during the pandemic. Most of the families have suggested that they’ll attend to a memorial service when we can be “in person.” One of these families is serious about that service, as the adult children involved are all church goers. For the others, I’m not so sure.
Recently, I was contacted about leading a service for a member of Old South who passed away. This woman moved away some years ago to live with a family member, but the family will hold visiting hours and a short service near Hallowell, in order to be closer to the cemetery where their loved one will be laid to rest. The funeral home called to see if I could lead the service to be held at the funeral home. If yes, great. If not, no big deal. They would find someone else. I said I would do it. I had known her. I had visited with her at her home. She had been an active member before she moved.
In the planning of the “service” that’s taking place, it’s become increasingly clear that the family mostly wants more of an emcee than a minister, someone to keep things moving. A few members of the family will share poems or stories. There will be a video with music. And, a soloist. What will I do? I’ve been told that I may lead an opening prayer. When I asked about reading scripture and offering a homily, I was informed that I could lead a prayer at the graveside. If I had something personal to say, I could do that after the opening prayer.
How many times has something like this happened over the course of my career? Too many. And, it’s hard to know how to handle it. I don’t want to pick a fight with the grieving, but I’m uncomfortable with the notion that I’m being silenced. When the service is on my turf, in the church, then I do what I do, and I organize a religious service. When it’s not on my turf, like a funeral home, it’s less clear. On the one hand, maybe I should be grateful that I’m being asked to do less work. On the other hand, I feel like a traitor to the faith.
What’s so wrong with recognizing the faith of the parent, even if one does not share it? What’s so problematic about incorporating something that was meaningful to the parent, even if the adult child does not understand it?
It’s often said that a funeral or memorial service is really for the survivors, for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. But, should the service really be fashioned solely around their needs and desires, especially when they have a different relationship with the church than their parent? What about the one who has died and her/his attachment to a faith tradition that has quite a lot to say about death, grief, loss and what happens to us after we shuffle off from this mortal coil? And, what about the poor clergyperson, stuck in the middle of this delicate tension? Stay true to the faith, regardless of the family’s expressed expectations, or succumb to those expectations, and refrain from causing difficulties, discomfort, and even anger?
The situation is a challenging one, to be sure. And, one that does not lead neatly to a clear solution. I suspect I will continue to find ways of, nicely and pleasantly, incorporating as much faith language as I can into every small opportunity I am given, to lift up and convey the hope and love of the faith, and the consolation available for those willing to open their hearts. Silence is simply not an option.