As an evangelical pastor I am often called upon to perform funerals or arrange memorial services. In over three-and-a-half decades I have learned some things about what makes a funeral meaningful. Today I would like to address one part of the funeral or memorial service–the eulogy. At a funeral there is an almost palpable vacuum in the room that can only be filled with eulogy. A eulogy is saying something good about another. People who attend the funeral long to hear good things about their loved one. So there should be obituary–basic facts and relationships, eulogy-saying good things about the departed one, and a comforting message that includes the gospel–the way to right relationship with God.
Most of us understand that a time of bereavement is a meaningful time to make the way to heaven plain, but when people feel that we have taken advantage of their grief to press our religious opinions upon them, they will not hear us with their heart. If you understand eulogy, you will gain the good-will of the people and good things can happen. Here are three ways to arrange a eulogy:
1. Give the Eulogy Yourself– but be sure you are the one to do it. Never say something that you do not know to be true.
Wendell Berry in his novel A Place on Earth proves himself to be a keen observer of human nature and demonstrates that he has thought deeply about bereavement, and eulogy, and the role of a pastor in it. If you read this with a thick skin and a listening heart, you will be a better pastor when it comes to what you say when someone’s cherished and well-known loved one dies.
Wednesday afternoon, after the news had pretty well got around, I seen Brother Piston going in up there at Mat’s. And I says to Jayber, “I know the speech he’s going to make.” And so would all of us. He come and said all that to me after we knew Tom was dead. And none of it quite fit. You could say that he didn’t have too good of an idea who he was talking to. While he was having his say I sat there and thought my thoughts. Here in a way he’d come to say the last words over Tom. And what claim did he have to do it? He never done a day’s work with us in his life, nor could have. He never did stand up in his ache and sweet and go down in the row with us. He never tasted any of our sweat in the water jug. And I was thinking: Preacher who are you to speak of Tom to me, who know him, and knew the smell of him?
And there he sat in your grandaddy’s chair, with his consolations and his old speech. Just putting our names in the blanks. And I thought: Preacher he’s dead, he’s not here, and you’ll never know what it is that’s gone.
The last words ought to say what it is that has died. The last words for Tom ain’t in the letter from the government, and they won the said by the preacher. They’ll be said by you and me and the rest of us when we talk about our old times an laugh about the good happenings. They won’t all be said as long as we live… I say that a man has got to deserve to speak of the life of another man and of the death of him…
…the life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who care about them, and ought to, and maybe itself is as much comfort as ought to be asked or offered. And surely the talk of a reunion in Heaven is thin comfort to people who need each other here as much as we do.
The worst thing about preachers is they think the’ve got to say something whether anything can be said or not. -A Place on Earth pp. 104-105 Wendell Berry
So, remember, it’s not always what you say, but what you arrange to happen and how powerfully and perceptively you listen. A pastor has to develop the art of never plugging names into a form and saying things that don’t come from a sincere place within. Listen. Try to put yourself in their situation–what if it was your brother, mother, friend who died. Then be quietly with them. But you will have things to arrange in the memorial or funeral or dinner to follow that will create an atmosphere for those healing, helpful, thought-provoking conversations. Then make arrangements:
2. Arrange for Someone Else to Deliver a Eulogy. There are about four ways to do that.
-You can arrange for a family member speak and give the eulogy.
-You can arrange for family member read a eulogy they wrote.
-You can arrange for a family member to read a eulogy someone else has written.
-You can have them write it and you can read it.
But be sure there is a meaningful eulogy.
3. Use Media to Create a Eulogy. If you are not in a position to eulogize and if you cannot arrange a family member to eulogize, try to have the famililes arrange a collage of photos or a slide program with a musical background. You may have a short film clip of the person who died. Once we concluded the service of a woman with a video of her singing at church and then a clip of her delightful yodeling.
If you arrange a meaningful eulogy you will care for people well and they will appreciate it.
Pastor Ken Pierpont
March 9, 2016