Eleanor Rigby / Died in the church and was buried along with her name / Nobody came.
Father McKenzie / Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave / No one was saved.
-John Lennon and Paul McCartney
I’ve done words for a long time. I’ve talked, I’ve earned three degrees about words. I’ve been around funerals and memorial services for a long time, too. I want to give you a secret that I am constantly telling myself because I keep forgetting it.
Here’s the secret: people forget what you say.
You can offer the best words, the clearest outline, the most articulate phrasing and stories and people will forget what you say.
The only reason we remember that Dr. King talked about having a dream is because the speech is called, “I have a dream” and he says, “I have a dream” nine times in four short paragraphs, and that’s the phrase used to describe the speech for more than fifty years.
Don’t overestimate your responsibility and opportunity in the funeral service. It isn’t our responsibility to fix anything, to calm everything. People will forget much of what we say, unless we are rude, insensitive, or thoughtless.
But that’s not you. Because you are here, reading this book.
So, how can you and I be most helpful in THIS moment in ways that help people move to the NEXT moment?
In your closest conversations with the family, as a thread through all your conversations with the friends, as fabric for your work, offer them clarity about four things:
Be clear about what to expect with grief.
Tell them that it is different for everyone, that grief is our response to loss and everyone has lost a different relationship. Tell them that there will be waves–tears one minute, laughter the next. Tell them that’s how it is and that they are not wrong or bad.
Be clear about what to expect from others.
Tell them that some people are thoughtful and others aren’t. Tell them that people don’t understand what to do, but that they are trying. Tell them that it’s okay to ask people to step back. Tell them that people will say stupid things, and it’s because they don’t know any better. Tell them that some people will be awesome and listen and be present. Tell them it’s okay to seek those people.
Be clear about what to expect from God.
Tell them that God will offer comfort and presence and compassion in unexpected ways. Tell them that God will work through random conversations and strange timings with other people. Tell them that God can handle them pounding on his chest, hollering at him in the darkness. Tell them that there are things we simply do not understand. Tell them that God will endure.
Be clear about what they can expect from themselves.
Tell them that they will be exhausted, and that’s to be expected. Tell them that they will be confused about how to feel. And that’s okay. Tell them that there isn’t a right way to grieve because no one has ever lost this person before. Tell them to breathe. Tell them that this is hard, and it’s acceptable that it hurts.
If you say these things while looking them in the eye, they still won’t remember what you said. But they will remember that you were with them.
And that’s really all you need to do.
Except for the service, of course. But now that you’ve done the important work, we can go on to the hard work.
- Beatles. Lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” genius.com/The-beatles-eleanor-rigby-lyrics, accessed 1/31/2020. ↵
- Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. "I Have A Dream". https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf. Accessed 11/15/2019. ↵
- And have them read Psalm 88, where the psalmist is expressing deep pain and sadness and doesn't get to a happy ending. ↵