When a local funeral home director called and asked if I’d officiate at a funeral, I said “Yes.” After all, things like this, presiding at funerals for strangers, were the things I was supposed to do as a minister. At least, that’s what I understood my new role to be. Even though I was twenty-two, maybe twenty-three, and had never officiated at a funeral by myself, this seemed like a good time to start. I had to start sometime somewhere. And it wasn’t as if I was a complete novice. I’d helped with other funerals, reading the obituary or a few verses of Scripture, offering a prayer at the beginning of the service. But this would be the first time I’d be responsible for the entire service including the funeral sermon.
After I said “Yes,” the funeral director gave me what information he had about the deceased and the family, which wasn’t much. The family had chosen to have the funeral in Abilene (where I lived while I was attending graduate school at Hardin-Simmons University) because it was halfway between their home and Huntsville, Texas.
The funeral director proceeded to inform me that the recently deceased individual had been imprisoned for the last fifteen years in a maximum security prison. While he’d been in jail, neither his mother, brothers, or even sisters had trekked to Huntsville to visit this imprisoned family member.
He informed me that the family planned to arrive about an hour before the service so there’d be little, if any, time to meet them. As the funeral director described it to me, the service was being held out of obligation, the family believing it to be the proper thing to do and all.
After getting off the phone with the funeral director, I made my first mistake.
Actually, my first mistake was saying “Yes.”
My second mistake was drawing conclusions about the family’s feelings for the deceased. If they’d chosen not to visit him in prison for the last fifteen years, then they’d probably written him off. Any positive feelings, any sense of love towards this family member, had been severed long ago.
I arrived at the funeral home thirty minutes before the service was set to begin, expecting to meet with the family, but they’d yet to arrive. In fact, they didn’t pull into the parking lot until fifteen minutes before the service was scheduled to begin. While we waited for the family, the funeral director went over the order of service with me- what songs would be played, the obituary I’d read, the Scriptures the family wanted read, and so forth. He then showed me to a room where I could sit and collect my thoughts.
My hands were shaking. I don’t know if the funeral director noticed this or not. This was my first funeral, my first funeral sermon, and despite the circumstances of the deceased, I wanted to do a good job. In the days since agreeing to do this funeral, I’d struggled to figure out what to say. I couldn’t exactly say he was a good guy who everybody would miss because nobody had visited him in fifteen years. I didn’t think it would be smart to say they’d have fond memories to cherish since he’d been in jail for a lengthy period of time. Still, I’d given my best effort in trying to come up with some words that might give a measure of comfort to the family. I sat at the desk and reviewed what I’d written one more time.
Have I already mentioned this was my first funeral sermon? By this point in my life, I’d preached at least a couple of hundred times so there was no fear of standing before a group of people no matter the size of the gathering. But this was a funeral sermon. My first one.
The family arrived and I met each of them, shaking their hands and offering my condolences. I then sat down behind the pulpit and waited for the service to begin.
After the first song ended, I stood up to read the obituary. Before I even finished reading the deceased’s complete name, the family burst into loud cries. The mother, who’d been quiet and demur before the service when I met her, whaled the loudest. A son and a daughter wrapped their arms around her to comfort her, but it was of no use. Soon, the entire family was crying loudly, which continued throughout the entire funeral service.
In the years since, I’ve spoken at other funerals, including those of my Mom and Dad as well as one of my Grandfathers and I’ve yet to hear anguished cries anywhere near what I heard on that Sunday afternoon in Abilene.
I could lie to you and tell you I delivered a great sermon, that I found the right words to soothe their pain, but it wouldn’t be true. I can’t even remember what I said, but I knew at the time, while I was speaking, that it wasn’t enough. Their cries had rattled me. The entire service was a blur then and remains one today.
I drove home confused. Why had this family, these people who’d intentionally cut off contact with a blood relative, who wanted nothing to do with him when he was alive, reacted with such violent and painful eruptions of emotions at his funeral? What had I missed?
Hadn’t the relationship died long ago?
One of the reasons I devour so many books, aside from the sheer joy of reading, is learning from the experiences of others. Some things, such as failure and agony, I would much rather learn vicariously through others than through first hand experience. Other times, a book or an article or a blog post will challenge me to do and learn new things.
What I’m not able to gather from reading, I seek to pick up through conversations, although others might characterize these “conversations” as more akin to interrogations. What happened? What were you feeling? Why did you do this instead of that? What was the result? What would you do differently? What might you do the same?
Despite my best efforts, some things, some lessons, can only be learned through experience. You just gotta go through it to learn it.
My Dad’s tacos were the best I’ve ever had. By far. No one else’s even come close. I can’t point you to someone else’s and say “They were like that, but better.” They were worth him filling the house with smoke and setting off the fire alarm. Mine own tacos are decent, but they’re nothing compared to his. When I brought home the girl who would be my wife, Dad asked what he should make for Sunday lunch. There was no question as to what my answer would be. “Tacos.” I don’t know what made them the way they were- the mix of spices, his seasoning of the lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, or the way he fried the corn tortillas until they were soft and puffy. I’ve tried true San Antonio puffy tacos at various restaurants (Jacalas and the Alamo Cafe, for example) and they don’t come close to his. I can tell you about them all day long, but you had to have one to understand how good they were.
Before I was married, before I met the woman who would become my wife, I quizzed my engaged and married friends about how they found the one. Where did you meet? And of course, how did you know? How were you sure? ”You’ll know,” they kept telling me. I hated that answer. But when I met her, I knew.
I’d read plenty of memoirs dealing with the loss and death of a loved one and I thought I understood. Then it happened to me. Those words I’d read took on a whole new meaning. I now understood.
I can read novels and stories about the disruption of friendship, of the ways in which people can be cruel and controlling to another. I can read the descriptions of how the poison of bitterness has seeped in and wreaked havoc. Reading about it is one thing, hearing someone else’s tale is something different, experiencing it first hand opens your eyes in a whole new way. To have your heart broken by betrayal, your dreams crushed by the cruelty of another, your future plans burned to ashes, and then to teeter on the edge of bitterness is somethng you only know by experience.
At the age of fifteen, I relented to a friend’s request and went to church with him. Part of me had agreed to go so he’d stop pestering me about it. I could go a time or two and be done with it. I thought I knew what the church gig was all about. I’d met plenty of church people and they weren’t exactly better or nicer or more together than me. Nothing about them had impressed me and made me wonder what they had going on that I didn’t. But I went and to my surprise I have kept on going for twenty-eight years. Some things must be experienced.
I would’ve never imagined accepting a friend’s invitation to church would send me on a path where seven years later I’d be speaking at some stranger’s funeral in West Texas attempting to offer words of comfort and encouragement to his family.
I thought a lot about the man in the casket and his anguished family. I didn’t understand their pain. I figured the answer wasn’t going to be found in a book and I didn’t know anyone I could talk to who’d done a similar funeral. It seemed to be a unique experience. Or at least I think it was. Still, I was perplexed. Why had the family reacted with such loud shrieks and cries?
Because it was over. When they heard me say his name and his date of death, the finality of his life became a reality. The opportunity for redemption and reconciliation, the hope for a new tomorrow was forever gone. Yes, the family had chosen to cut themselves off from this family member but as long as he was alive, as long as he was breathing, they could still cling to hope. There was the hope he’d change, that one day a letter might come in the mail apologizing for his actions and seeking their forgiveness. Perhaps they were holding out hope that one day he might be released and he’d emerge from prison a different man, a new man.
That day was never coming.
This was the source of their anguished cries.
With this funeral, I experienced, albeit by proxy, the loss of hope and forgiveness and the stranglehold of estrangement and bitterness. The latter are bitter pills darkening the heart and soul. I’d like to say I learned my lesson, but I too can be a slow learner. I can be slow to forgive, quick to lose hope, and I can walk the tightrope of bitterness when hard times and hard feelings last a little too long. Bitterness is not a pill we take, it is a lozenge we choose to unwrap and put in our mouth, letting it slowly work its way into our hearts and minds.
But, as the memory of this man whose name I’ve long forgotten remains, as the family’s cries echoe in my ears, as long as the sun rises and breath remains, there is hope. Hope for reconciliation, hope for change, hope for a brighter future, for pains to be eased, wounds to be healed, and for love to find its way.
Some things must be experienced.