Preacher at the Funeral

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

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.

Preacher at the Funeral
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17 thoughts on “Preacher at the Funeral

  1. 1

    The last funeral I was at was for my grandad — my dad’s dad, whose engineer’s mind I inherited; and it must have been at least 6 years ago.

    The vicar was spouting the usual bollocks about “resurrection to eternal life through our lord Jesus Christ”.

    Now, I don’t think of myself as a violent person. But at that moment, I could have cheerfully beaten the idiot to a bloody pulp, and probably felt cheated that it didn’t last long enough.

    Because my grandad was dead, and all this [censored] could talk about was pretending that he was still alive in some sort of better place.

    And I honestly do not understand how this pretence is supposed to make christians feel better. Because for me, everything has its course to run, and that includes life.

    And when I’ve had enough, I fully intend to check out in the manner, and at the time, of my own choosing — and to leave nobody in any doubt that I am here anymore.

  2. 2

    When my one of my wife’s aunts died, a random Catholic priest was brought in to handle her funeral. The man that came in looked and sounded, to me anyway, like Baron Harkonnen from the old David Lynch Dune. His handling of things drove the point home.

    We had the standard Catholic rituals with a man stumbling over himself to remember her name and that this was a “dearly departed sister” not a brother. He got notably angry that everyone in the room wasn’t standing/sitting/kneeling as fast as he commanded and wasn’t visibly partaking in the ritual, admonishing people for it during the funeral. Finally, he got to his sermon where we proceeded to tell the whole room that the dead are lucky because life is horrible and painful. “There is nothing to look forward to!” he practically yelled at us, eyes specifically on my wife’s two young (6 and 9 at the time) second cousins, “You just get old, like me, with pain in every joint! I can barely see anymore! Nothing works the way it did, and what still works causes me nothing but pain!”

    Of course the only way out of our lives of horror and pain was to get right with Jesus and then die, hopefully before our bodies start to break down. After the service my wife and her sister weren’t in tears, they were livid. I was as well, and I hadn’t grown up knowing her aunt… I can’t imagine the level of disrespect they felt.

    Luckily, it appeared that the two cousins had effectively tuned out the horrible ghoul of a man in the way that only kids can. They were back to crowding my wife while she played Plants vs Zombies on her phone and showing me how good they were getting at Angry Birds before dinner was even fully over.

  3. 3

    My five month old grandbaby died about seven weeks ago. My daughter (her mother) has decided that she is trying to be religious so I expected the religious component of the funeral.

    I was standing close to the family seating area just before the graveside service began and a man approached me and leaned in close to my face and said, “God don’t make no mistakes.” I had planned to just ignore him but he did it again. How dare you lean in to tell me that the death of my grandbaby isn’t a mistake, but an on-purpose event? I just looked him in the eye and said “I’m an athiest and I am not going to stand here listening to that crap.”

    Turns out he was a former co-worker of my daughter’s. He knew other members of the family and “reached out” to my daughter and asked to speak at the service. She already had a minister speaking, but agreed to let this guy speak too seeing as how he’s a friend of the family and all.

    The first minister spoke and although religion and prayers were involved it was more from the “we don’t understand why god would allow this-let’s bond together” sort of place. The “family friend” had to keep adding “amens” and “mmm-hmms” after every other sentence. Then when it was his turn he started hollering and screaming about hell fire and brimstone but how wonderful god is and “I hope those of you who aren’t right with god can see his power here and take this opportunity to get close to him.”

    He took a horrible situation and completely made it worse, and not just for me. Looking back on this I wish I had said something, but at the time my focus was on my daughter, my family and my own grief.

  4. 4

    The more of these stories I hear, the more I think the Phelps clan is not so much of an outlier.

    The worst funeral I’ve ever attended was for my step-mother’s mom. A lifelong Irish Catholic, church every Sunday, dinner with the Monsignor once or twice a month, same parish for decades, the whole 12 yards. So of course the funeral was at her church.

    In a two and a half hour ceremony, her name was mentioned exactly twice. Both times in the context of how much she loved the church. The rest of it was pure sales pitch. They didn’t even have the excuse of not knowing her; they simply chose to ignore her and go on about how in times like these it’s important to turn to a friend who can help you through it. okay, good idea. A friend who’s been through this kind of thing before. Yeah, well most of us have, where are you going with this? A friend who truly understands suffering. No, you’re not really gonna… A friend like Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. You really just did that.

    On the brighter side, I figured out why they stand there with their arms sticking out to the side, like a stupid-looking cross. It’s to draw focus. The long wavy gowns and arm thingies help with that too. It’s all about selling product, from start to finish.

    (Then a year later my father in law died. We had our own religion-free celebration of his life. Held at the local pub, who donated their large party room for the night, cause he had been a friend for years. We all told stories about him, sang his favorite songs, cheered for his Steelers, and remembered all the reasons we loved him. Best memorial ever.)

  5. 5

    @JustKat (#3) I’m so very sorry you were subjected to that behavior at such a terrible time. Several years ago, I attended the funeral of a murder victim, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m glad the emphasis was on the life of the person killed, not on religious orthodoxy. I simply could not have coped with that– it’s been hard enough to do that in less trying circumstances.

    Like Stephanie, I can understand why a religious leader wants to provide the comfort of believing that a person lives on after death. That’s fine, for those who believe in it. But remembering the person is helpful for every one. Why on Earth would a clergy member want to leave that out? It’s narrow-minded, insensitive, and offensive.

  6. 7

    I understand exactly how you feel. I have been to two different funerals of men I knew to be skeptical at best of the existence of God. At both funerals, the preacher (different men, different denominations) claimed that they had, in their final hours, asked Jesus to come into their hearts so we could all relax, knowing they were in heaven now. In one case, I suppose that was remotely possible, but if so, it was only to soothe the feelings of his wife. In the other? No fucking way.

    As Mark Twain said, “I wonder how they could lie so. The result of practice, no doubt.”

  7. 8

    JustKat, I am so sorry for your loss. I have four grandchildren. I can’t even imagine having to listen to that evil crap when I had just lost one. You are a hero for keeping quiet at the time. No matter what, it was your daughter’s needs that had to come first.

    I’ll never understand how any good Christian present didn’t walk up, hit the bastard in the face and say, “How dare you claim that God murdered that child.”

  8. 9

    @5 and 8 – thank you for your thoughts.

    I wish I could describe myself as ‘heroic’ but I cannot. Keeping quiet was probably more a form of shock.

    The funeral sales pitch does seem to be a common theme. The owner of the company I work for (who IS very religious) said that he attended the funeral of a woman who identified as christian but didn’t often go to church. The preacher at her funeral told the mourners (her daughters included) that even though she will be burning in hell it’s not too late for the rest of them.

    Lovely, eh?

  9. 11

    As I still have one grandparent remaining and no intention of attending another religious affair, I suppose I ought to ask: how do you actually go about having a civil funeral? It seems you can be a functional agnostic all your life, and they *still* bring religion up right at the end when you’re too dead to protest.

  10. 12

    These people are awful.

    I presume I’ve just been lucky in the funerals I’ve attended – about evenly split between funeral chapels and Catholic churches. A few desperately sad ones of mid-30s women who’d died suddenly. One was a suicide, which wasn’t really sudden, just sad, and the whole object of the priest was to persuade the congregation which included a fair number of ‘old-fashioned’ Catholics that god would welcome her into heaven because she died from an illness – not from sin. Very comforting and reassuring. No hellfire, no warnings, not for anyone.

    There _was_ one deeply awful funeral for an elderly friend who’d insisted, despite not going to church for decades, that she wanted the whole sung Mass ritual. That priest took every chance he could to nag, prod, bully, exclude people. Don’t know if they do it in the USA, but priests here usually invite non-Catholics to join the queue for mass and to ask for a blessing rather than a wafer – this bloke? Downright nasty.

    The main times I remember sales pitches is at weddings and baptisms. The baptisms – okaaaay. The weddings – a bit annoying.

  11. 13

    how do you actually go about having a civil funeral?

    I don’t know about anywhere but Australia. But here, if you get a funeral parlour to do it for you, you can have anything you want – within budget and reason.

    Most I’ve attended have been by “civil celebrants” – it’s a way for marriage celebrants to increase their income I suppose. Either the deceased person has specified the music they want – which can include hymns they remember from childhood even if they’re no longer believers. You can specify the readings – lots of lovely non-religious poems around or excerpts from favourite writers, whatever. Eulogies are best done by family or close friend – even if you don’t feel up to presenting it yourself, the celebrant will read the script you give and say whose words they are.

    If the person was a veteran or a freemason, they always have baskets of rosemary or other favoured flowers/herbs to put on the casket. The biggest problem for veterans in Australia if you have a recording of the Last Post is that too many parlours/sound technicians don’t check whether it’s the Oz or the US version. Upsets some of the old folk if you get it wrong.

  12. 14

    Whoops! Music options. Never, ever let the parlour choose the music. You’ll get ghastly dirge-like versions of Amazing Grace and/or sickly orchestrations of muzak.

    Even if you don’t have any special music or songs to remind you of the person – choose something, anything, that will make the occasion right for you and the family/friends.

  13. 15

    When my grandmother died, the pastor at her funeral took it one step further. He exhorted the audience to come forward and “give over their lives to god”, right in front of my dead grandmother.

    I was thoroughly disgusted that he was using the grief over my grandmother to manipulate the funeral goers.

  14. 16

    These awful stories always make me so angry for people who are forced to endure such insulting behaviour, and can’t protest because they don’t want to hurt other mourners’ feelings!
    Well I certainly hope nobody has any such event on the horizon, but fwiw you can plan it differently.

    My siblings and I organised the funerals for both our parents. We + friends did all the speaking ourselves on both occasions – we gave a short eulogy each, and the invited friends spoke about their recollections of our parents. We chose the music.

    Both times it was really comforting to get together with our parents’ old friends and celebrate what we loved about the person who had died, whether it was their wit, cleverness, compassion, achievements … and to say how much they had influenced us and how much we would miss them (and I still do, and always will). They were great funerals – I mean, they were a kind of comfort to all of us there, and they were all about the person we had lost.

    I could not agree more that listening to some stranger pushing their religious agenda at a time like that would twist the knife in the wound. A funeral company will organise the venue (crematorium “chapel”-type hall, in our case) and things like transport of people and flowers etc.; you are free to speak as much or as little as you like (though you do have to bear in mind that there could be another funeral scheduled after you). Give them a recording of the music you want played, with clear indications of which bit you want when.

    You do not have to have an officiant of any kind unless you actually want to.
    (I should add that my only experience of this has been in the UK, and of course things may differ in other parts of the world)

  15. 17

    “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.”


    At my grandmother’s funeral we were treated to a lovely bit of sermonizing on how atheists don’t understand collective mourning. When you don’t believe in anything, what’s all the crying about, right? *facepalm*

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