by Janet Hommel Mangas
Oh, for heaven’s sake! I thought, when Kent Odor told my seminary classmates we were attending a funeral to start off our Pastoral Care in Ministry class.
It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable around funerals—I’d helped bury more than 2,000 people. Since I had previously worked as a horticulturist and superintendent of a large cemetery, part of my job for eight years was to make sure my crews prepared the burial sites properly. At each graveside service we stood respectfully nearby until the casket was lowered and the last piece of earth was neatly mounded. I was always within earshot in case the funeral director, minister, or family needed anything. But years later, attending a funeral as a class field trip with my classmates and sitting in the back of the small chapel seemed, well, rather awkward—even for a seasoned funeral attendant who had listened to hundreds of funeral services and eulogies.
Even though I was not a Christian when I worked for the cemetery, I was often touched and bewildered by the different ways people grieved and showed their love, respect, and honor. One man bought his beloved wife an $8,000 solid bronze casket to show his love. Two women nearly got into a fistfight after the burial service over some material objects they both coveted.
A grieving father stood up after the graveside prayer, lifted the feather-weight baby casket that held his three-month-old daughter, and making tearful eye contact with me, gently placed it into my arms whispering, “Take care of my baby girl.”
Respect and Honor
In 1985 two feuding motorcycle gangs made the headlines following a gang related murder. As superintendent my responsibility was to see that everything ran smoothly, including the escort of nearly 100 rumbling Harley Davidson motorcycles to the gravesite. A hidden state police sharp shooter stood on a hill 100 yards away with his rifle locked and loaded. The motorcycle riders remained after the service ended. One burly, bearded gang member wearing his Sons of Silence leather jacket approached me and pointedly asked, “Now what?”
“Sir, we usually wait until the family and friends are gone to fill in the grave—out of honor and respect.”
“Naw, go ahead and start, we all brought our shovels to fill the grave ourselves,” he said as he motioned to his gang members.
Then I noticed the shovels attached to the sides of their Harleys.
After watching us lower the casket into the vault, seal the lid, and lower the vault into the grave, the bikers dutifully used their shovels to manually fill their friend’s grave. They often came back to visit the gravesite and always left an unopened container of beer on the flat granite headstone.
A Valuable Lesson
Now that I’m a Christian, I am thankful to have witnessed a wide variety of funeral experiences. It reminds me that although we have varied traditions, we all have one thing in common. The late Dr. Russell Blowers taught me a valuable lesson during our impromptu class field trip to a funeral service that winter day in 1996. Dr. Blowers taught that every person at a funeral needs one simple thing: the same thing the motorcycle gang needed, the same thing I needed, the same thing the sinful Samaritan woman needed when she met Jesus at the well (John 4). We need the living water—eternal life through Jesus Christ, the good news, the message of hope.
I recall how Dr. Blowers honored the deceased’s life while simply but unmistakably presenting the gospel message.
Kent Odor, who served alongside Russell Blowers for nearly 12 years at Indianapolis’ East 91st Street Christian Church while co-teaching the Cincinnati Bible Seminary Class, explained:
On that day I wanted everyone to understand how important funerals could be in pastoral ministry. I was especially interested in that field trip because the occasion let everyone see a master at work in the difficult situation of an unsaved person who was unknown to the minister. Russ used every opportunity for the gospel to be presented clearly as well as anyone I have known. He loved using funerals to show the love of God in a practical way. He also was able to affirm the worth and value of the deceased person and comfort the family with God’s grace as he gave them a clearer picture of what God wanted for them.
The Purpose of a Funeral
As writer Alex B. Noble suggests,
To some extent all funerals are the same at core, i.e. two things are communicated: (a) God is with us and (b) God guarantees resurrection. What varies is the peripheral trimming. The cake is the same but the icing is decorated differently. While this is largely true, the differences do sometimes go deeper than that. Funeral services should have both secure, comforting, timeless familiarity and also creative, original elements unique to the deceased.
The core gospel idea should always be communicated. Jesus modeled this during at the funeral of a friend. John 11 tells us that after Lazarus was dead and in the tomb four days, Jesus shared these important words: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
In a Preaching Today Audio Series interview, author Scott Gibson answered a question about the purpose of a funeral:
I appreciate what Warren Wiersbe has said: ‘It’s my conviction that the purpose of the funeral message is to exalt Jesus Christ as the adequate answer to every problem.’ Our purpose is to confess Christ’s resurrection, to give hope and comfort, to allow hearers to have some kind of emotional or spiritual release, to bring them into the presence of God, and to give them the hope of the gospel.’
A Funeral Lesson Applied
More than a decade after Dr. Blowers taught by example what a funeral should look like, I had the opportunity to use his field trip example. My grandfather Ralph, the youngest of 11 children, died two days before his 98th birthday. I should also note that being the third of seven children of Ralph’s eldest son, and among 36 grandchildren and more than 60 great-grandchildren, I was not an obvious first-pick draft choice to speak at my grandfather’s funeral. But praying for the opportunity to present the gospel message to my large family, most of whom were not believers, meshed with the will of God. Aunt Sandy asked if I would share a few words about Grandpa, since the officiating minister didn’t really know him. There was a combination of tears and laughter as I shared brief stories from each of Ralph’s sons and daughters, affirming his worth and value while comforting our family. But most importantly the gospel was shared clearly and concisely, thanks to the model of Jesus Christ and teachers like Dr. Russell Blowers:
I know one thing about everybody in this room, especially me—we are all sinners. I know this not only because we’re family, but because the Bible says in Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ And for one sin, we deserve death. But that is exactly why God sent his only begotten Son Jesus. He died on the cross to pay the price for my sins—for your sins—for our past, present, and future sins. I pray John 3:16 for our family and friends: ‘For God so loved [the Ralph Hommel family and friends] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’
Janet Hommel Mangas is a freelance writer in Greenwood, Indiana.
A Layman’s Guide to Sharing the Gospel at a Funeral:
Here is what I learned from my experience:
Pray—Ask God for opportunities to share and be prepared to participate and watch what God does.
Listen—Even though I obviously knew my grandfather’s family, I listened intently and made notes during the calling hours so I could share other stories by family and friends.
Expect—Expect that God will show up in unexpected ways. When the presiding minister reiterated the same Bible verse in a complementary way, it was an amazing God-incidence.
Provide—Offer free Bibles on a table at the funeral for visitors to take home. Maybe even colorful covers for the children.
Avoid—Do not think that someone else would do a better job at your God-given task. You can share the good news of Jesus in this difficult situation. The majority of funerals I’ve attended may have included the reading of Scripture, but the gospel message was not presented. Paul reminds us in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes; first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”