Observing Memorials

It’s been a busy few weeks for death, though I suppose that describes most weeks rather than just my particular last few.  I conducted a memorial service this week for a member of the congregation, and I attended a memorial service this afternoon for the father of a close friend & associate.  And in mostly unrelated news, the pastor who confirmed me passed away yesterday, but I won’t be doing or watching his memorial service.  

Going to other memorial services is always a mixed experience now.  There’s empathy for the family and friends who are grieving.  There’s a certain level of professional curiosity – how is the pastor going to conduct the service?  What will the emphasis be?  Have I been doing it wrong all these years?
It seems as though a Christian memorial service can have one of two foci – either the person who is deceased or God.  It’s either a time for us to remember and share our relationship with that person and what their faith has meant in our lives, or it’s an opportunity to give praise and glory to the God who created, redeemed, and has sanctified our brother or sister in Christ.  
I opt for the latter.  I treat Christian memorial services as times for the community of faith to gather around the friends and family of the deceased and affirm the faith of the departed.  This means to acknowledge that the deceased was a person of faith, that they trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and it then means explicating what that faith means not just for them, but for those of us assembled.  The Gospel has to be proclaimed.  Jesus Christ as the way of reconciliation with God the Father must be the central focus.  
I find that this focus makes people preparing for their own death more comfortable.  Most folks don’t want a big fuss made about them.  I’ve ministered to some people who have refused the idea of a memorial service because it seems self-serving (even though they’re going to be dead at the time).  When I assure them that they are the reason for the gathering, but not the focus of the gathering, it seems to help them relax a bit.  The service has a purpose, and in my way of handling it, the purpose is not the glorification of a dead person (however good and wonderful they might have been), but the glorification of the God that they are now at peace with.
Others opt for the alternative though, focusing on the individual.  It’s a touching time, when personal testimonies make up the bulk of a service.  It never fails to bring the tears and the laughter, the emotional catharsis that we all crave as a release from the feelings of grief and loss.  But it always seems so awkward.  The picture that is painted of the deceased is invariably lopsided.  Whatever flaws and shortcomings they had are either ignored or treated as cute or lovable.  Whatever their good traits were seem exploded to monumental proportions.  It makes me itchy, and perhaps that’s just because I’d hate for anyone to be so mistaken about who I am after I die.  Maybe for other folks, it isn’t a mistake.  
It’s not that the Gospel can’t come through in this person-focused service.  But it’s often obscured.  Reference invariably is made to the person’s faith, but it’s rarely explained as to what that faith specifically was, and how that faith can and should be the faith of every person listening to the memories and testimonies.  It can too easily remain as yet another beautiful aspect of the deceased’s personality, without ever coming across as a vital, life-giving necessity that can be the joy of every person sitting there.  
Perhaps there’s a happy medium to be had.  I haven’t seen it yet, but perhaps it exists.  
Be that as it may, when I die, the preacher damn well better focus on the Gospel and not on me.  Not because it will matter to me at that point, but because it will matter a very great deal to whomever happens to be gathered to send me off.

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