Graveside Hope: A Passion for Funeral Ministry

By Fanestil, John | The Christian Century, March 6, 2007 | Go to article overview

Graveside Hope: A Passion for Funeral Ministry


Fanestil, John, The Christian Century


WHEN I TELL OTHER PASTORS that I hate weddings and love funerals, they smile knowingly. Of course, the dark humor rings true with them--every pastor I know can tell a "wedding from hell" story, and all pastors can think of a few funerals at which they'd love to preside. In my colleagues' smiles I also see an understanding, born from firsthand experience, that funerals--and the events that precede and follow them--present some of the most meaningful opportunities for pastors to witness to the grace and love of God.

My passion for funerals has led me to research the historic Christian practices of marking the arrival of death. Since so many generations of Christians lived before dying people were confined to hospitals, they spent their entire lives surrounded by death and dying. As pastors we can draw on their wisdom in ministering to modern people, who struggle so mightily when confronted with the reality of death.

As a shorthand expression for an authentic Christian ministry at the end of life, I have come to embrace familiar fines from the fifth verse of Charles Wesley's "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!"

   Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
   Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
   Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
   Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

"The cross" speaks to me of ministry with the dying and their loved ones; "the grave," of ministry with those who gather for funerals; "the skies," of ministry with those who must live on after losing a loved one to death.

Hospice physician Ira Byock, author of Dying Well and The Four Things That Matter Most, observes that in the modern medical worldview death is considered obscene. This understanding has a hold on the hearts and minds of most Americans, but a number of developments have begun to loosen its grip--most notably the spread of the hospice movement, but also the public spectacle made of deaths like that of Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman who lived for 15 years on a ventilator before dying in 2005. More and more Americans are realizing, even if they cannot articulate their reasons, that the prolonging of biological existence is not in and of itself an adequate goal for decision making near the end of life.

Christians have an important witness to make in the midst of this conversation. The idea that deaths can be inspirational--even redemptive--almost never enters modern conversations about death, yet this understanding lies at the core of the Christian gospel. For two millennia, across cultures and generations, Christians pondering the end of life have looked for guidance and inspiration to Jesus, who went willingly to his death on a cross because he perceived that by doing so he could become an instrument of blessing for others.

The idea that a "good death" can be a blessing to others suggests that a primary goal for Christian ministry at the end of life is to foster encounters between those who are preparing to die and those who love them. Christian pastors can remind parishioners that as they ate preparing to die, they are in some mysterious way being joined spiritually to Christ, who also suffered and died. Without burdening them with expectations, pastors can also tell parishioners that even as they are dying they can still be instruments of God's grace for others. Once their pain is controlled (as it can and should be through palliative care), I tell the dying, "Even as your body is failing you, you can still fulfill what Jesus said was the greatest commandment in the law: you can still love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and you can still love your neighbor as yourself."

Pastors can also teach this to the friends and families of the dying. As they gather around the deathbed they are being given the opportunity to become more like Christ's disciples, who also had to learn what it is like to follow a loved one to his death. …

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