At a Bible study group recently I shared that I had presided at some 200 funerals over the last 15 years. I have come to believe this to been the greatest privilege in my ministry as a healthcare chaplain. Some might think I must be kidding. Yet a funeral or memorial service is a time to learn a lot about people and their legacies as well as to preach messages of comfort but also salvation. In fact this is a time for strong evangelism. People come to funerals from all over the spiritual spectrum. Most are thinking about life and death, where the person is going and by extension where they are headed. So therein lies the greatest opportunity for evangelism.
Most of my memorials were for people in a continuing care community I served for nearly eight years. It was called Friendship Village and later took on the moniker of Trinity Village. Most of the residents knew the Trinity, but did not having a strong understanding of theology. As the years proceeded the community began to better represent the demographic is served, the African American community. This also brought a stronger Christian ethic encompassing the more demonstrative denominations. It was only in my last couple of years at the village that I began to hear “Amen” and “preach it.”
Perhaps the most memorable service was for a former railroad man who had belonged to a Harley (HOG) gang. Now I didn’t know him in his biker days, but the HOG reps showed up anyway. It was a hot summer day with a 3PM service. A little after noon the bikers started arriving and parking out in front of our chapel building. A party ensued with lots of music and drinking. When the doors opened at about 2:30 there was a stream of black leather clad guys and gals streaming into the chapel. I asked for cigarettes to be extinguished and bottles to be left outside. The group abided by throwing the bottles out on the lawn. Our one dual-purpose security plant operations man looked a little overwhelmed. Our 80+ aged residents seemed entranced finding the sight of open topped biker-women something straight out of Easy Rider better than the old hymns we sang. Of course none of our men could grow hair like these guys.
The service began and the crowd settled down to sing Amazing Grace. The ancient hymn evoked much emotion- loud, and out of tune. But it was when we got to the eulogies and remembrance that the fun began. Biker after biker wanted to tell how the deceased had fixed their bike or gave them a ticket for the train. The stories brought cheers and applause, something a little unusual for our “old folks” home. Now of course some enjoyed the lively fun, others swooned. So I needed to find the leader of the pack. It was obvious once I found the guy with two girls hanging on him. I asked him to wind it up and wrangle his gang out of chapel. In a couple of minutes he rose and addressed the assembly, thanking me for the opportunity to remember their compatriot. With that he led the motley crew out the door to the waiting bikes. The roar was deafening as the “Milwaukee Steel” rumbled in unison. The salute to their fallen friend brought the ancient audience to their feet for the first time I had seen in chapel in eight years. As they roared away I heard one exclaim, “Now that was a send off.” Members of the gang came back from time to time to show those interested in their new bikes.
I learned a lot about people from friends and relatives at funerals. It was difficult to hold tributes to three minutes, my unwritten rule. I presided at the service of an 88 year old German and former SS officer. He had become the leader of local German patriot groups. He told me that he had deserted to escape assassination when he turned from the Nazi plans. I will never know the details of his military service. He knew that my father had been severely wounded by a German 88mm artillery round at Monte Casino, Italy in 1944.
I led a funeral service for a woman who had played viola for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. She was not a “believer” but had provided the funding for a dozen grand children to attend college. Their praise and stories of this woman’s love of family was laudable. One of them who had attended Julliard played a stirring violin solo.
I often preach from the 23rd Psalm speaking of the “valley of the shadow of death” and how to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I always quote from the John 11 resurrection and life verse. Moreover, I love to teach from John 14 speaking of the house the Lord has prepared for us who understand that the Lord Jesus is “The way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but by Him.”
Occasionally I get asked by a social friend to preside at their parent’s funeral. This is a privilege, and it gives me a privilege to share the gospel. They also see me in a role other than hospital CEO a position I held for 35 years.
I have been asked by an elderly couple who are close friends to do their funerals. I have already written the draft homily based on a story involving a fishing trip with this friend that I published in my book, This is the Way, Walk in It.
I never know how my homilies and prayers affect the congregation. This is something I will probably not learn until I meet them in heaven if it is God’s will.