I had a funeral today. It was a celebration for a 96 year old woman who was loved by her family. I like doing services like those. I had never met the woman. She had not lived in this region of the world since I have moved here. But it was easy to do her service because her family loved her so deeply. They made it easy to find a life worthy of celebration. Since I didn't know her, I could tell you what her personality was or what she believed or how she lived. But her family took her life and painted a picture of who she was. And it was beautiful. It was so easy to see the Gospel through her life and proclaim the hope through faith of the Good News.
I had a conversation with one of the funeral home employees about "difficult funerals". It reminded me of the hardest funeral I ever had to conduct. It was for a person who had no family who lived near. The closest family member was half the country away and was too feeble to make the trip. They couldn't afford to bring their loved one to them, either. The people who knew her were few. And even those weren't super close. When it came time to address the gathered few in that service, there were no memories shared or expressions of love for her. It made it nearly impossible to know who I was proclaiming Good New over.
The beginning of the week, I listened to the reading of an article from Smithsonian magazine. It concerned one of the darkest chapters in modern U.S. history - the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The article was about the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and it described his funeral. Oswald was buried in Fort Worth. The only mourners who were at the graveside where Oswald's mother, wife, and two children. There were no pall bearers; reporters who had been tasked with reporting on the event were asked to serve. Those who opened the grave had not been told who it was for in fear that they would not be willing to do the work. Two pastors turned down the task of conducting the graveside service out of fear that a sniper would attack anyone participating.
I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to fill the role of being the proclaimer of Good News over the grave of one who was despised by so many. I can only hope that my belief in God, as I hold those beliefs, would overcome the overwhelming sense of what that moment represented to the nation and the world. I can only hope that I would be worthy of the grace that must fill that place and moment that every graveside, no matter whose, represent.
It doesn't matter who is to be laid to rest in the grave. It doesn't matter how they lived or died. It doesn't matter what they believed or if they believed. The grave is an equalizer. We all face its maw. We may no know when we will approach it. It is the last moment any of us has to have a word of grace spoken over us.
For me, I approach a funeral from two directions. The first is to celebrate the life of the one who has passed. I consider every life to be of sacred worth. I feel that everyone is given life as a gift. Some people make the most of the gift. Some people are faced with circumstances that limit their acceptance of the gift. Others have that gift taken from them through choice, consequence, or tragedy. But every life is one that should be celebrated for the very fact that they lived for some length of time. The most emotional funeral I was part of involved the life of a child who never had the chance to see the sunrise or sunset of a day. He never had the chance to draw a breath outside of the womb. But we celebrated his life. Everyone should have their life celebrated.
The other direction I take is to approach it from the other end. I work back to the funeral from the eternalness of life that God offers. There is a lot of mystery (in my theological perspective) on what eternity is or how we pass from this life to the immortal existence. For persons who have no faith or it is unknown what faith they have, I still think there is Good News that should be proclaimed. God's grace is encompassing. I believe that the fullness of eternity is limited. I believe that there is a people God selects who will receive a more complete experience of the eternal life. But I believe that there is a general experience of eternal life that all will know. And for those who do not have the complete experience of eternity, there is still a ministry of God's presence that comes to them.
This isn't Universalism. This is Revelation chapter 20 and 21. The nations stand outside the recreated city of God and are ministered to from the leaves of the tree of life. I am not sure how that is to transpire. I just see it in that book as the only image of eternity. But if this is the case, then there is a chance that no matter who is laying at the opening of the grave will experience God's eternal presence.
I don't preach hell at funerals. I don't need to. There are plenty of opportunities to give up on hope in life. There are plenty of experiences in life where people don't get to hear Good News spoken over them. For the pastor who was conducting the service over Lee Harvey Oswald, there was enough hell surrounding that grave. No more needed to be proclaimed.
It would not be easy. It sometimes isn't easy to speak that Good News over people who haven't killed a world leader and much-loved President. It is sometimes difficult to speak a word celebrating someone's life or declaring the Gospel when you have no one who remembers them, no one honors them. But they are still worthy of having that grace spoken.
So I hope that if the day ever comes, I will be able to proclaim the Gospel over anyone who rests at the mouth of the grave. I ask that I can lead people in the celebration of a life of sacred worth and into the hope of a god whose presence is eternal and will be big enough to touch anyone.