Why attend funerals?

Through my years of life and especially ministry, I have attended many funerals. In fact, as a pastor and then serving Mississippi Baptists these past years, I have found myself on many days unable to attend some funerals because I already have a commitment to speak at or attend another funeral. Funerals are important parts of society because in some ways they allow us to affirm and reaffirm that life is really important and the person who passed away was important.

The great old preacher, pastor, professor, and servant of the Lord, C. Z. Holland, used to say that one of the things he really wished he could do was preach his own funeral. He would go on to say that we really have things turned around in our society, that we need to have a funeral while people are still alive. Why? One, to see who comes. Two, to hear what they have to say. Three, so that you would better know how to fill out your will. While some people don’t see any need and see it as a waste of time to attend a funeral, truth is that that is not the truth. It is a sad thing when no one comes to a funeral.

While I was a pastor on the Coast, a funeral home called me and asked if I would do a funeral. It was going to be a simple graveside service. It was the funeral of a man who had passed away and had no family. No one had made the arrangements and they were just struggling to find someone who could come and make some remarks before the burial. I told them that I would be glad to, and when the time came I went with the funeral directors to the cemetery. As we gathered at the appointed time, we waited to see if anyone else would come. None did — no family, friends, work associates. No one was there except me and the funeral directors and the men who had prepared the grave.

We allowed the clock to go a little past time to see if anybody would finally show up. Sure enough, a car came our way, stopped, and a man got out. He walked over to where we were and asked if this was the funeral for and called the man’s name. We said yes and he said, “Well, I’m not sure if this is the man that I know.” He then told us they occasionally would run into each other at the bar late in the afternoon and have a drink together. He wasn’t sure if even that was his name, but thought it might be his semi-acquaintance. The funeral directors were accommodating to him and opened the casket so he could check. He leaned over, looked at the man, and said yes, that was the man with whom he occasionally would talk. With little other comment while they were closing the casket, he walked away, got in his car, and drove off. Once again, there were only the funeral home employees and me to start the service. How sad that no one knew and no one really cared that a man was here and he was gone.

I remember when one of my fine deacons came to me and said, “You know, I’m fairly flexible in my work and if you ever need some additional people to come to a service so that it will look better, I’m available though I may not even know them.” Occasionally I would have a funeral and would ask him, “If you can, just drop in.” He would – often if I asked him but more often when I didn’t say a thing. He just believed it was thoughtful to express care and concern for the family of the deceased. I agree.

I’m writing this article just to say that you ought to go to every funeral you hear about taking place in your community or area, but especially when there is a connection with your church or some aspect of your life. It’s a meaningful thing for you to actually take the time to show up, to actually care, and to express your sympathy to the family. Why attend a funeral? The person who has passed away doesn’t know you’re there or care, but why should you attend? While I’m not suggesting that you ought to spend every day of your life going to funerals, I would suggest three good reasons why you ought to go to ones that are meaningful and closely connected to your life experiences.

One – it is respectful. Respect may not be something that has a lot of appreciation in our culture, but being respectful is still a significant thing. It has been my simple and personal observation that people who are respectful deserve respect. People who fail to put that piece of significant life experience into their daily walk miss out on a bunch. It’s not just about being respectful to the person who died. You can easily think, well, he or she doesn’t even know I’m here, but the respect you show for the person means a great deal to family and friends and people who may know them a whole lot better than you and they respect them. Somehow it has a way of bleeding into your life and them having respect for you.

Two – it is revealing. When I say going to a funeral is revealing, I mean oftentimes a celebration of life and especially a Christian funeral focuses on the deceased’s relationship to the Lord and those who have been significant in his or her life, family, and relationships. Many times you will hear things you had forgotten – achievements and unknown accomplishments – and suddenly you recognize that over a period of decades that her or she lived, his or her life had an impact far beyond anything you remember. It is revealing.

I remember a man when I was a young pastor who was late in his retirement years. He would go on to be with the Lord while I was his pastor. Only at his death did I discover what an incredible career he had in the military, what an amazing guy he was, and what he had accomplished and done not just in the military but throughout his life. The time he spent in a prison camp that he never talked to me about. The recognition and achievements he had in business that were so distant to him when I knew him and that he never mentioned. He meant a lot to me but it involved none of those things. At his funeral, while I already thought he was a great person, I realized that I had for a few minutes walked down the pathway of life with a truly incredible man.

Three – it is a reminder.  You and I, all of us, are moving toward a day like that in our own existence. Life will be over on this planet but will continue in a world to come in the presence of Jesus for His children, His Christian followers. Just remember: people will gather one day to think about you and your life and the significance of it and what kind of life you lived for the Lord and they will be reminded that this life is a small capsule of time during which we are privileged to live, serve, and honor Christ. The late baseball great Yogi Berra was going to a funeral and somebody asked him why. He said, “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.” Yogi was on target but off track. It is a reminder that what we’re going to do for Jesus, we need to do now because we’re not going to have opportunities forever and forever. 

The author can be contacted at directions@mbcb.org.

Jim Futral

Executive Director-Treasurer