My first funeral message happened because the hospice chaplain knew how to do the service but didn’t know the guy. I knew the guy but not how to do the service. So we shared the platform.
My colleague did know Elliot but only for a few weeks in hospice, weeks when he had started to be honest, started to pull some pieces together.
I had known Elliot for a few years in the church where I was an associate pastor. I had several conversations with him and some with a friend of his. I had seen Elliot’s motel room, had cleared out the piles of accumulated life. I had listened to him ask for help and said yes to some things, no to others.
I knew how he talked when he could brag a little. I knew how he simply stopped interacting when I invited him to participate, to take small steps, to make changes. I knew how he had abandoned his family years before. How he had ignored his kids for decades. I knew how he always had a plan, an angle.
There was a small gathering for his funeral. Some people who took care of him. A daughter or two. Some people from the church. No more than 30, probably fewer.
My colleague did all the usual pieces of welcome, of prayer, of reading an obituary. And then I started.
I talked about how Elliot wasn’t perfect. That he had let people down. That he was a good story-teller but that often the stories were not entirely true and often put him in the best possible light. I talked about God’s work in all of us. I didn’t make excuses, for Elliot or for God.
I kept my eye on his daughter, the one I knew had struggled to come. She was nodding by the time I finished.
One of my friends talked to her. “If he had talked about what a good guy he was,” she said, referring to me, “I was ready to walk out.”
I’d been part of a funeral in the same room a couple years before.
I wasn’t on the platform that time, I was part of the tech crew. But I knew the guy who had died. I knew how difficult he was to work with, how demanding he was of attention and perfection. I later learned what he was like to his family, how difficult he was to live with, how demanding he was of attention and perfection.
But none of that was evident in the funeral. In the funeral, he was amazing, he was thoughtful and compassionate and extraordinary. I was sure that we must be burying the wrong guy.
A funeral message is a place for respect and for integrity. It’s a place to acknowledge a person’s actual humanness and God’s actual grace. With a heart toward the healing of the family and friends, we can gently describe what we know.
Elliot’s daughter found a little peace in the honest description of the dad who abandoned her and the Father who didn’t.