Occasionally these services-and the older we become the more funerals and memorial services we attend-the identity of the deceased remains something of a mystery to the congregation. It seems as if the congregation is forced to consult the front of the funeral flyer simply to make sure they are in the right place. The preacher sometimes reads the deceased's name in the obituary, but after that perfunctory mention the preacher fails to mention the deceased by name again. Or the preacher simply dismisses the person's life completely and preaches a sermon with no reference to the deceased person's life.
For one example, outside Corsicana, Texas, during the summer of 1981, deputies found a young woman brutally murdered. These deputies found her partially nude body dumped on a remote country road in Navarro County early one Sunday morning. Law enforcement authorities never caught the murderer(s). Because of the viciousness of the crime, the community's emotions were bitterly frayed. On the afternoon that the community held her funeral services the church's sanctuary overflowed. Three hundred or more people milled outside the church during the service for lack of seating.
The funeral preacher was the church's pastor. The entire congregation, both inside and outside the church, was absolutely silent except for reserved weeping. Many of the people gathered did not know the young woman well, but out of their emotional distress, they gathered at the church to hear some word of hope or closure. The pastor proceeded through the funeral liturgy in an ordered, efficient, but passionless fashion. Incredibly, he never mentioned the deceased young woman by name. The funeral sermon was so generic that he could have delivered it for anyone. At the conclusion of the service and because of the anger it evoked in the congregation, only a handful of people even spoke to the minister. This well-meaning pastor had reduced this particular person to merely anyone who could have been anywhere. No name, no life-she was merely an occasion for gathering that summer afternoon. An irate man remarked upon leaving the church, "that preacher just killed her again." Every sermon has as its double focus-both the good news of the gospel and the person for whom the Christian faith was incarnate to one degree or another.
Likewise the imbalance of the message can also be too far the other direction. Regularly contemporary funeral sermons concentrate so completely on the character and good moral qualities of the deceased that the gospel seems overlooked. If one attended one of these services, he or she would be hard put to explain why it was a Christian memorial service or even held in a church.
In her book In Times of Crisis and Sorrow (Josey-Bass, 2001) my friend, Carol Noren, writes these suggestions for a funeral sermon:
"The Christian funeral is an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. That proclamation must be as straightforward and free from in-house code language as possible in order for visitors to understand it. Referring to texts by citation only is not advised; it effectively shuts out those who don't know the Bible well . . . Simple language is also appreciated by the mourners, who may be too wracked by grief to take in a complicated exposition of a text."