8 All the Stuff in the Middle

. . .to affirm that life, to accept that death . . .

“Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and admired,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”
From David’s eulogy for Saul and Jonathan.[1]

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After everyone raises their heads following the prayer, what’s next?

There isn’t one right answer for what happens between the opening and the message. Instead, there are choices to weigh. Let me describe some of the options that can be used and explain how they can be helpful.

  • Reading the obituary
  • Words from family and friends (Eulogies)
  • Open Mic
  • Music
  • Video
  • Scripture
  • Prayer

Reading the obituary

In the old days, obituaries were published in the newspaper with little thought of the cost. Now, the cost of a newspaper obituary can be significant and is charged by the word. That constrains the current shape of obituaries.

Sometimes, the family has spent time writing an obituary that would capture their understanding of their loved one. It captures relationships and milestones. In those cases, reading the obituary, just as written, provides an anchor for the part of the service that is about the person.

A couple thoughts from experience:

  • Always check pronunciations with the family.
  • If the obituary says “and six grandchildren”, I usually read their names at this point. It’s nice to include them.
  • I often don’t read all the last names if everyone in the room knows everyone.
  • If there were people who were overlooked in the obituary, like the good friend that was “like a brother”, I include them in the list with the family’s permission.

Other times, people didn’t write much at all. So don’t read it. The facts of birthdate and death date will be in the funeral home memorial folder.

Words from family and friends (Eulogies)

Eulogy means “good words”. And this is the place for people to talk about the life and meaning of the person who has died.

Sometimes one family member represents everyone, reading the stories that other family members have given them.[2] In one case, the person had four children and several grandchildren. One grandchild from each of the four families spoke. Sometimes families will make notes and ask the person leading the service to read them. Sometimes families will reserve their storytelling for later. And truthfully, some families have no good words to say about the person who died. They are simply here out of respect.

Tips for eulogies

  • When I am talking with people about what they are going to do, I encourage them to make notes. That way they are reminded of what to say when the emotion starts to overwhelm them.
  • I encourage people to take a chance, to be willing to try, and to not be afraid of the emotion.
  • I never put anyone on the spot. Your cousin may say to her daughter, “You have to do this. Grandpa will expect it. Grandma will be hurt if you don’t.” I suggest that you go to that girl. Ask her if she wants to, defend her if she doesn’t. And tell her that her Grandpa knows better, and her Grandma’s love doesn’t depend on it.
  • I tell people that tears are okay, because I almost always choke up a little.

Prompts for writing eulogies

If you want to help families think through what to say, you can offer these suggestions.

What’s a small event or action that you will always remember?

“When you plant a field to soybeans the year after it was planted to corn, some of the corn is still in the field. It germinates and grows, poking above the beans. It’s called volunteer corn. It has to come out. The year after Nancy and I got married, we spent a few days on her family’s farm. Although I knew a little about farms from my grandfather, this was a big farm. There wasn’t anything I could do. Except pull up the volunteer corn. My father-in-law invited me out into the field to help pull the corn. I bet he never remembered it. But 35 years later, every time I drive past a bean field with volunteer corn, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have helped.”

What smell or scene always reminds you of them?

“Every time I smell wintergreen lifesavers, I think of my grandmother reaching into her purse as we sat in the second row from the back in the small Methodist church. She passed the roll across my mother to me. She helped me understand the value of rescuing young children from the boredom of church.”

What would you like to say to them if you wrote them a letter? 

“Dear Mom. I’m sorry. I didn’t understand how much you cared until I started this letter. Now that I stop and look back, I realize how much you gave up for us because you loved us.”

What’s your earliest memory of the person?

“When I was child, maybe six or seven, we went to the farm after supper. It was getting dark in northern Wisconsin. I had been wanting fresh sweet corn, but my parents thought it was too late in the evening. My grandfather got up, went to the door and motioned to me. We went out and cut two ears of corn. My grandmother cooked them right away. I knew I was loved.”

What’s the impact you know they had on the lives of other people that others may not know about?

“People know that my grandfather was generous. Most people don’t know how generous. He had the little farmstand for the vegetables from the garden. The money from that went to the local foodbank, just like the leftover vegetables each day. He said, ‘let the people that can pay, pay. But people who can’t afford them need fresh veggies, too.'”

The risks and rewards of an open mic

Sometimes, families want to have an open mic as part of the service, to invite anyone who has a word about the person to speak.

An open mic can be dangerous. If there are long-winded people, be prepared to move in and help them wrap up. If there are people who tend to tell their own pains, be prepared to help them wrap up.

An open mic can, however, be wonderful. We learn things we never would have known. Sometimes, we need to laugh, and the stories told here often make us laugh. And you can use the open mic as a way to let family members who are unsure about speaking decide at the last minute. When they hear the stories of others, a grandchild may decide to speak themselves.

How do you help people wrap up their sharing?

  • Before you start the sharing time, tell people about time limits and time constraints.
  • Think about why a person is going long and whether this is an exception to the rule.
  • Stand up as a way to indicate that it is time to wrap up.
  • If a person is creating a disruption, you can move toward them and ask them to stop. Everyone in the room will be grateful.

Sample Introduction to an Open Mic

I asked Andy about whether he wanted to have a time for sharing. He said that it was up to me. He said that maybe no one would talk, maybe people would talk for a long time.Which would be, and I say this with affection, like Hazel.

She would start talking with you, would treat you like a friend until you were one, would talk with affection about others, would catch you up on relationship, would explain why she might be in this odd place at this odd time.

And she would smile. And you would feel seen.

Which means that we need to give each other a chance to share.

But here’s what I’d like to suggest.

Later, over a meal, over coffee, over the next weeks and months with Andy and each other, tell long stories, give longer affirmations. You all will need them later.

But for now, tell short stories, give brief affirmations. Bear witness to the work of God through Hazel to you.

Music

In the mid-twentieth century, funerals had music, almost always provided by an organist. This music was played before and after the service. At some point during the service, someone from the church or the funeral home sang a solo. Occasionally, the congregation sang a hymn.

Today, there is more variety in services. A prelude may be provided by the funeral home or by a family member using a smartphone. In the middle of the service or at the end, the recording of a favorite song may be played. It can be a favorite of Uncle Jerry, of the family, or even of the person giving the message.

As much as it is up to you, make sure that the song is appropriate for the setting. It should have language appropriate for the audience present and show respect for the memory. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun. But we don’t want to have the rest of the service disrupted.

Make sure the logistics are rehearsed. Will the phone connect to the funeral home sound system? Can the song be started easily?

Video

Media is complicated. People want to make videos or PowerPoints or other presentations of visuals. Connecting whatever the person made to whatever the funeral home has is always challenging. (For fifteen years, I was the one who had to make technology work. It was often frustrating for everyone. If someone like me isn’t present, it’s never as simple as, “You just plug it in here.”)

That said, sometimes it helps to have visuals before the service. And sons and daughters like to have their grandsons and granddaughters participate in the service in this way. Make sure as early as possible that whoever is making the video talks to whoever is showing it.

Actually, the easiest answer to using video during the service is to use photoboards and videos at the visitation instead of during the service.

Scripture

If the person who died had favorite passages of Scripture, read them here. If there is a text that will be part of the message, read it here.

Prayer

This is a deep breath moment for everyone. It gives us all permission to close our eyes, to not have people looking at us.

This is a great time to thank God for the person’s life, to ask for peace for our hearts and minds, to help us reflect well on God’s message to us.

Sometimes, the prayer can be led by a family member.

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God, 

Thank you. Thank you for all the ways our friend has given to us, has represented your love in this world. We each know more stories, we each need your comfort in different ways. In this moment, in this quiet, we ask you to give us that comfort. As we take time to remember this life and to reflect on you, please guide us. 

Through Christ our Lord, 

Amen. 


  1. 2 Samuel 1:23.
  2. My eulogy for my dad is chapter 19.

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