Let me start by saying that I understand the role of religion at a funeral. I understand that believing death isn’t real and permanent comforts a great many people. I’m not one of them, but I won’t begrudge solace to those who are.
That said, I despise, with all I am, the time at a funeral that is spent on advertising Jesus instead of on the dead and the survivors.
My grandfather’s service was Friday. He received one of the lovelier eulogies I’ve heard, delivered by my mother and my uncle. They talked about his childhood and theirs. They told the skunk story and about the frustrations of deer hunting with a man who loved the woods but apparently didn’t want to ever have to dress another deer in his lifetime. They talked about his courtship and marriage of 67 years and how he still thought my grandmother was the most beautiful woman he’d met when she died at age 90.
Before and after the people who actually knew my grandfather, a Lutheran pastor spoke. He played some religious music my grandfather had picked out a couple of weeks before he died, songs that my grandfather had sung through his life and that brought him comfort. My grandfather hadn’t been to church in decades, to the best of my knowledge, but that had more to do with an argument with a minister than with losing his religion.
The pastor was perfunctory in those bits of service that are actually service to the mourners. He read the bits of Revelations that deal with heaven without much attempt to string them into coherence. He did not, thankfully, try to pretend that he knew anything about my grandfather, as the pastor at my grandmother’s funeral had done. The pastor was saving his energy, and he was saving it for proselytization.
I don’t know whether anyone told him there were nonbelievers in the crowd. I doubt it. You don’t generally tell someone in a situation like this that he won’t face an entirely friendly audience. I didn’t notice him checking whether everyone prayed either, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. I was looking out the window, watching the birds outside the window the way my grandfather used to before he went mostly blind.
Still, for whatever reason, the pastor wasn’t content to simply reassure those of us who were religious that my grandfather and grandmother were together again in heaven–or would be together after the resurrection. He was clearly up on his theology but uncomfortable getting that specific with us; he hinted instead.
No, the pastor poured his energy into exhorting us all to believe as he did. There were bits and bobs throughout the service, but the worst of it came as a sermon after the eulogies. It was very much an “Enough about the dead person I don’t know; let’s talk about Jesus” moment.
Heaven is like Disneyland, you see.
The pastor apparently had a desperate need to tell us about the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” and how it played after The Wonderful World of Disney and made him want to go to Disneyland but how he as a child couldn’t imagine ever being able to go to Disneyland because it was so very far away and his family never traveled very far but how he finally at age 31 took his children there and has now been to every Disney theme park except Euro Disney and how that means that heaven may seem impossible but really isn’t. Really.
Me? I had to sit there and bite my tongue about Disney advertising their brand to young, impressionable children and about thin facades of magic and selling us all something we just don’t need. I had to be silent while he got to say whatever nonsense he wanted. And I had to do it at my grandfather’s funeral because selling Jesus to us all was more important than focusing on those of us who were mourning.
It was the single most selfish moment I’ve seen at a funeral, and the pastor didn’t have the excuse of being distraught.
It took all of lunch with my husband and niece and the 18-mile drive to the Fort Snelling cemetery with the motorcycle cop putting himself in harm’s way to smooth our progress to settle my anger. It took the rows upon rows of white stones stretching in all directions to restore my sense of perspective. The 21-gun salute and “Taps” were a far more effective remembrance than anything the pastor had said, as were the very short rituals of thanks from the President and Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered by the volunteers at the cemetery.
Then the pastor showed up again to inject religion into this ceremony as well by leading the Pledge of Allegiance. (It didn’t go quite as he expected, I think. I’ll say the pledge, but I can’t remember where “under God” is supposed to go. I always finish early.) Then another prayer in the cold and the wind.
I was wearing just a wool sweater, where everyone else was wearing winter coats, but I didn’t even notice in my anger. I just wanted it all to be done and over with so I could leave–my grandfather’s funeral.
Now, I’m sure that this pastor thought he was doing what needed to be done. I doubt anyone has ever told him to his face that he made a bad situation worse by his behavior. We don’t do that to pastors. However, after this experience and after hearing from so many people who had similar experiences, maybe it’s time for that to change.