Tag Archives: Funeral

Carrie Carter ~ Living Alive

I’ve seen a lot of death. Not just because my husband has a full-time pastoral calling, but also because my parents never shielded me from the reality of death. Many parents today hesitate to take their children to funerals because, “they wouldn’t understand,” and that is true, but only to an extent. As a parent, it is my duty (privilege?) to explain the mystery of death.

At the viewing of my grandfather many years ago with my own son…

“Yes, you may touch the cheek of Poppy. Gently, now.”

“Why does he feel weird? Wait! I think I saw him breathe!”

“No, baby, it’s your eyes playing tricks on you.”

A few weeks following…

“Look, it’s heaven!”

Trying to decipher small boy’s exclamation.


Pointing to the cemetery.

“Over there! You said that’s where Poppy was going, and we took him there, so that must be heaven.”

Insert awkward explanation to a literal-thinking three-year-old about the vague timeline between resting and eternal destination.

Over the next couple of years…

“No, you may not touch the cheek of ‘insert-random-deceased’s- name.’”

“Can I ask ‘grieving-relative’ if I can touch him/her?”

“No, this is not an appropriate time for that.”

Unfortunately, my son didn’t always ask me before he asked the grieving loved one. Grace was always extended and always resolved with a hearty chuckle.

He had such a fascination with death and a deeply sympathetic heart for the grieving at such a young age, that I wouldn’t have been surprised had he grown up to be a funeral director. It still wouldn’t surprise me.

It is this exposure to death and the traditional ceremonies that follow that calms the fear of the unknown. In fact, in most cases, I welcome the re-orientation that a funeral brings to me. There is a shift of perspective, a reminder that my priorities again need to be realigned. It makes me very aware that sympathy can only reach so far, and it is only empathy that can touch a heart. I have never lost an immediate family member or close friend, so I am always conscious of my lack of understanding of the intensity of pain those losses bring under normal circumstances.

Last month, my family suffered a loss and a near-loss that awakened me—not just to the familiarity of death, but also to the foreignness of life.

Foreign? How could something so natural, so normal, be characterized as foreign?

Unless you have seen over the edge of life’s precipice, it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of life itself. When you sense the fingers of death brush over your shoulder and realize that it has rested its hand on one close to you, life holds a value not recognized before – a value prompting gratitude that emanates out of the heart.

How then, shall life be lived? How do we step back from our story as a stranger and embrace our lives as our own?

Life, as it should be lived, is far more than a bucket list, more than another experience to cross off.

Life is being aware.

It is absorbing the sights and sounds around you. Feeling the peace as well as the pain. Life is allowing God to overflow you until he spills out on everyone around you. It is speaking for those who have no voice, standing for those beaten down. It is taking every opportunity to reach out a hand to someone in need. Life is treating your marriage as sacred, treasuring your children as a gift. Life pauses to hear context rather than anger; it speaks a gentle word instead of driving the blade deep.

Life begs to be viewed through new eyes.

Do you make an effort to appreciate gestures of kindness, even the smallest ones? Do you have the ability to recognize when someone is having a rough day? Can you sense a need without it being spoken? Can you say you’ve made others’ lives better as you walk out of the room?

Life is being aware. All in.

I feel it fading, this reality of life that always comes when I am faced with death. Aliveness lasts for two or three weeks. I write notes of appreciation to those who have contributed to my life. I send “thinking of you” texts. Suppers actually have love sprinkled into them rather than impatience and frustration. I’m on top of making sure everyone has clean clothes.

Then the mundane sets in. Routine, pressures, and conflict pull my focus away and I find myself distracting my mind with Tsum Tsum rather than reorienting myself with God’s gift of simply being alive.

Last year, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to live every day as if it were New Year’s Day—fresh, hopeful, and anticipating a bright future.

I lasted until about April.

This year, within the first two weeks of 2018, my mother-in-law passed away, and a friend faced a life-threatening medical emergency with a poor prognosis. Both were unexpected. One was released from life and one was given a new lease on life.

Death breathed on my cheek and with a whisper, reminded me to live alive.

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”    -2 Corinthians 3:5 (NASB)

Sneak Peek: How to Preach a Funeral Homily

It’s weird to admit. I get it. It sounds a little, shall we say, macabre.

But here goes: I actually kind of like doing funerals.

Okay, a lot of pastors like doing funerals.

There’s the captive audience, the getting to hear ourselves talk, and sometimes there’s even free fried chicken and banana pudding involved.

So maybe it’s not that weird.

But after three years of full-time ministry and exactly forty(ish) funerals under my stole, I can say that I like doing funerals for a different reason: I like placing the deceased person’s story within the broader story God has been writing since the beginning of time. I like funerals because they present an opportunity to be creative—to lead those present into the world of the Bible and help them find themselves there, too.

Let me explain.

When I’m asked to do a funeral, sometimes I know the dearly departed, and sometimes (maybe over half the time), I don’t.  So I sit with the family and ask some open ended-questions like, “what was their childhood like?”

“How did they meet their spouse?”

“What’s the one story you always tell at family gatherings about them?”

And,“what role did faith play in their life?”

And for an hour or three, I just let the family talk while I take as many notes as I can.

Then I tell them what I see as my role in this whole thing.  My job, I say, is to tell the story of God—to tell the story of God’s relentless love and tireless chasing-after-us-even-when-we-run.  Of creation and new creation. Of death and resurrection.  And my job is to place the story of their loved one within this broader story that has been going on since “in the beginning.”

This is the fun part.

I read over the notes and pray.  Then pray some more.  Usually, a biblical story or passage comes to mind.  Sometimes though, just a word sticks out and I run with that.  I challenge myself to not use the “normal” funeral passages or the suggested readings in The United Methodist Book of Worship, at least for the homily.  And I allow the Spirit to give me a passage from Scripture that helps tell the broader story of that person’s life.

I have to say, I secretly relish the looks on the faces of the front-row-family as I begin the homily portion of the service.  I especially love it when the expression is slight confusion.  Tears are dried for a moment as heads cock to the side, their owners asking, “where is she going with this story about Ruth?” or “why is she reading from Nehemiah?!”

Because at first, their stay-at-home mom known for her lemon pound cake has little to nothing in common with the most famous Moabitess of all time.  And they can’t see how a minor prophet’s story could possibly shed light on their grandfather’s death.

But the thing about the stories in the Bible is that they’re our stories, too.They’re stories of imperfect, complicated people trying and failing and yet, by the grace of God, being used to witness to the love of God in the world.  Their lives tell the story of God’s redemption and grace upon grace.

And so do ours.

After attending a funeral I preached, a pastor friend (snidely?) remarked “you can’t not present the Gospel, can you?”

No, I can’t.

Because to me, this is good news.  This is very good news.  The Gospel is not just that Jesus died to take away our sin and make us clean-happy-pure people, but that God came to redeem us in our mess and to include us in the work God is doing to mend all of creation.  

It’s difficult to eulogize a life in twelve minutes or less: to summarize decades of experiences and relationships.  To comfort a generation of family members trying to make meaning from an unexpected death.  Or to un-burn years of bridges.  To mend broken hearts.

But the Good News is that the stories of our mundane, regular everyday-ness are as much a part of God’s story as the greatest king in Israel’s history. That work done in homes and classrooms and jobsites in middle America 2,000 years after Jesus are as much miracle as any healing done by Peter’s shadow.  That the Good Samaritan is alive and walking around disguised as the elderly veterinarian or nursing-home-bound centenarian.

That our stories are part of something bigger that has been going on since God spoke it all into being.

So our lives are more than just a few years of work and family and our contributions to church potlucks?  Yes.  Our lives are more than accomplishments and accolades? Absolutely.  Our lives are more than just setbacks and screw-ups? Yep.

This is the hope we have, anyway.  This is the hope we declare at a funeral and every time two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name.  That this is not all there is.  And when we enter into the strange world of the Bible, we find who God is, and who we are too.