There are two specific events which I despise: weddings and funerals. I’m not a hermit and I really love people. But weddings and funerals have always been a problem for me. But no longer. Here’s the story:
I’m a keyboard guy. When I was young I was something of a piano prodigy. My father pastored a really small church in south Louisiana. I started piano at age 7, and by the time I reached 12, I could do a fairly good job playing in church. That was all it took! For every wedding and every funeral at our church, I was automatically “in” as the accompanist.
Just imagine how many Saturdays and Sundays a 12-year-old kid was “coerced” into giving up an afternoon and evening to play for people who I often did not know as they married someone else I didn’t know. Of course, I was stuck losing Friday nights too because there was always the wedding rehearsal I had to attend to get the next day’s plan in place.
And then there were those horrible experiences of sitting at the keyboard looking over at a stranger dressed to the nines lying in a coffin. It’s bad enough to be AT a funeral of someone you did not know, (and even for those who you really DID know) but having to play sad songs for sad people while listening to family members crying their eyes out is horrible.
Funerals were the worst.
Through all of these years and final get-togethers, I’ve heard several hundred funeral messages. Some of those messages have been pretty good, but far more have been less than “good.” Finding a minister with the confidence that he will do a good job at helping the family say their final goodbyes to the deceased is a daunting task. Why is that?
Two reasons: first is that just like in conducting weddings, the deceased more often than not was not a member of the minister’s church. Burying a parishioner is bad, but burying a stranger is a nightmare. Secondly, it’s true that the eulogy and obituary (which are usually read at funerals) are easy enough, delivering a message in a funeral is a tough task. There simply are not an abundance of topics with which a minister can set the family of the deceased at ease about their loss. So ministers often tell personal stories with personal examples of the minister’s relationship and interactions with the deceased. That is seldom consoling to family members. And other funeral attendees are simply lost in that process.
A few days ago, I attended a funeral that in my opinion was the best funeral service of my countless funeral experiences. The minister proved that funeral services can be more than simply sad and tearful send-offs. He has discovered how to draw every funeral attendee through the inherent sorrow and angst to a place of real peace. After all, isn’t that what those who have suffered the tragic loss of a close friend or relative really need?
How does he do that?
Gary Hinton was a quiet family guy. He started and operated a very successful national commercial construction company, employed many, and had a pristine reputation in the construction industry and in our community. Everyone loved Gary. Gary’s pastor conducted the service. Another pastor read the obituary. A tearful eulogy was given by a nephew. The music was extraordinary: great songs and really good singers. Then Gary’s Pastor gave the funeral message.
The pastor, Denny Duron, knew Gary well. I’m certain Pastor Denny had dozens of personal stories he could have shared about events from Gary’s life that included him. But he didn’t tell even ONE such story. But he did tell many stories about Gary — stories about Gary told to him by Gary’s siblings, his children, his grandchildren, and Gary’s wife.
Pastor Denny had spent hours preparing for the funeral. But his preparations were different from that of most ministers preparing for funerals. His prep is what made this the “best” funeral ever in my lifetime. What’s his secret? Face-to-face conversations with members of Gary’s family in which he draws from them pictures from Gary’s life — Gary’s life with them — individually.
“What was the best moment you can remember with your Dad?” He asked one of Gary’s sons. “What did Gary like to do most,” or “Tell me what Gary said at the Christmas dinner table last Christmas,” or similar questions were asked and answered in those chats with Gary’s family members. Pastor Denny knew that everyone in that family had countless personal interactions with their Dad, Uncle, Grandfather, and Husband. He looked for the special ones — the memorable moments they would never forget with Gary. He wanted to hear those so he could share with us in the audience so we could not just know about Gary, but could really KNOW Gary. And it worked!
How did we get there? By hearing the stories of the personal and intimate experiences these children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, brothers and sisters, and wife had with Gary. It put his family in a peaceful place. It put all of us in the chapel in a peaceful place. And isn’t that what funeral messages should all be about?
I hope Pastor Denny is still around when I leave this planet. I certainly want him to conduct my funeral. My children, grandchildren, and other family members will certainly be there to say goodbyes. They each have known me well. But somehow hearing their stories from a Pastor will certainly give them a sense of peace and finality at a normally gut-wrenching time.
If it ends up happening that way, I’m certain Pastor Denny will not build his message around his personal interactions with me. I’m certain he’ll instead tell those in whatever crowd assembles for my send-off the stories Kimbi, Kori, Kaleb, Mary Ann, and my six grandchildren will have told him. I hope he does.
But he COULD tell a whole bunch of personal stories about me — He’s my older brother.