It remains the most humiliating moment of my pastoral life. I can now laugh about it a little these few years after the incident, but I still wake up with a start sometimes and feel the cold chill of disbelief and embarrassment creep over me. I cringe even as I type. Whenever I hear pastors speak regretfully of their ministerial foibles I think, “Should I tell the story? It will certainly help this poor soul feel better if I do.” Increasingly, I do tell the story, and I will do so now.
A few years ago two elderly women passed away in our church within a day or two of each other. Their funerals were held on a Thursday and a Saturday. I took my black leather-bound funeral-notes notepad to the funeral home on Tuesday and Wednesday of that week and visited with the families.
On Thursday morning I gathered the notes for the funeral, entered the sanctuary, and, at the appropriate time, delivered the message. I told a number of stories about the deceased, including, among other things—and there is a reason I remember this particular detail—her love of quesadillas. Looking back, I recall mentally noting an increasing sense of shifting and whispering among family members as I spoke, but I thought nothing of it. After all, it is not uncommon for family members to nod or whisper knowingly during funeral messages when a comment stirs a memory.
Continuing thus, I preached the entire message.
There was a very large crowd for this funeral. This dear lady had passed away the Sunday morning prior during the worship service. The family was loved and her passing away during the worship service had been quite traumatic for all of us.
Immediately after the service a friend came walking swiftly up to me and said what I will never forget. Do you know how oftentimes when people are in an accident or go through something very shocking they say that they could see the accident happening almost in slow motion? That is how this encounter happened: grueling slow motion leading to jarring impact.
“Wyman…you preached the Saturday funeral message. You preached the wrong funeral.”
I immediately laughed. “No I didn’t, man. Good try tho…”
The world stopped spinning on its axis.
“Wait…did I…oh no…”
I had. I had preached the wrong funeral. I had grabbed the wrong notes. The entire message was over the entirely wrong deceased person. Not a single story, attribute, remembrance, or detail I had recounted applied to the dearly departed saint in the casket.
I preached the wrong funeral message.
I do not cry much. Somehow, I did not cry on this day. But while I drove numbly to the graveside to face the family I thought I was going to. My lip quivered and my eyes filled with tears. I managed somehow to keep it at bay. How could I have done such a thing? How on earth?
I wanted to crawl into the vault and be done with it when I reached the cemetery.
At the cemetery I stepped in front of the family, pale and numb with shock and embarrassment. I began clumsily: “Look…I need to explain something…”
In that moment, something unbelievable happened. Something unforeseen, unlooked for, and mercifully offered: the family laughed. Everybody laughed. I lowered my head and managed to chuckle.
I explained what happened. From a chair on the front row there at the graveside one of the sons said, “Pastor, I was listening to you and thinking, ‘It’s like I didn’t even know my own mother!’” To which I replied, “That’s because it wasn’t your mother I was talking about it!” Another said, “I never knew my mother liked quesadillas!” The family guffawed. Then, further grace: the lady’s elderly sister, a church member also, said, “Pastor, our sister is probably laughing in heaven! She would have loved to have been here to hear that! Do not feel bad.” Finally, a son said, “Oh don’t worry about it, Pastor. Just preach mama’s message on Saturday.” Again, laughter all around.
Mercy upon mercy. The offended forgiving the fool. I remain truly grateful.
As you might imagine, word spread far and wide. A month later I did another funeral with a different funeral home. The funeral home director came over with his friend and said, “Are you the guy who preached the wrong funeral message?” He and his friend laughed. I wilted. I later shared with my wife that being bullied by morticians was a new low for me in my ministry of over twenty years.
Most people who mentioned it to me—and oh there were and are many!—were amused. At least one I know of was angry. A lady told me her grandmother was present and simply could not get over what happened: “How could he do such a thing? Why did he do such a thing?!” she recounts her grandmother saying over and over again. And, try as she might, the lady could not convince her grandmother that I am not malicious, just really stupid.
It has stayed with me: the nightmare of it, the embarrassment, the lessons, and, increasingly, thanks to the family’s reaction, the humor of it.
If there is a point for pastors in this story it would be this: always double-check your notes and pray for mercy when you royally mess up. If there is a gift in this story for pastors, it is this: take comfort in the fact that your mistakes will almost certainly never be as humiliating as mine.
Finally, what of the Saturday funeral? Well, I grabbed the right notes and walked to the pulpit. There in the audience were many of the people who had been there that Thursday before. I began: “Many of you will have already heard this message…” And, once again, mercifully, laughter upon laughter.