At 107 years old, the small frail woman still enjoyed life. Her humor and insight had sharpened with age. When her pastor, Robert Oldham, visited during her final months, she cheered him and herself by recalling the words of the country song “This Old House”: “Ain’t gonna need this house no longer.”
At her funeral, the pastor cheered the mourners by describing the conversation.
“‘This old house ain’t been a home,’ she told me, referring to the song, ‘Why, look at it!’ and she began pointing to herself.
“The roof’s leaking’ — she pointed to her thinning hair. ‘The underpinning’s shaking’ — and she stuck our her thin legs. ‘And the telephone’s out of order’ — she pointed to her mouth, her voice too soft to be heard unless you sat very close. ‘Why, even the window’s foggy,’ she said, pointing to her eyes and her failing vision.'”
Family members told the pastor later how much they appreciated that part of the eulogy.
Oldham has conducted more than 200 funerals during his 35 years as a pastor, and he has included humorous stories in about a third of them. “I’ve received many thank-yous from family members, but never a complaint,” he says.
He is not alone in using an appropriate light touch at funerals. At a national pastors conference at Moody Bible Institute last spring, 26 percent of the pastors surveyed reported they have included humor in at least one service. Among pastors with 15 or more years of experience, the figure jumped to 40 percent.
The press recently has reported the use of light-hearted stories during the funerals of two prominent leaders. One eulogizer reminisced about the competitive desire of Ray Kroc, founder and chairman of the board of McDonald’s, by telling of Kroc’s intense booing of his own San Diego Padres — when the baseball team was ahead by five runs. At the funeral of Martin Luther King, Sr., last November, humorous stories were included by several speakers, including former President Jimmy Carter.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes advises, “There is an appointed time for everything … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Despite the traditional wisdom that serious events such as funerals are not the place for humor, researchers now are discovering what many ministers have long known: Sometimes the time to mourn is also a time to chuckle with fond remembrances.
Two recent experiments at the University of Illinois at Chicago suggest that benefits exist in using humor at funerals. Using videotaped eulogies, the studies found that listeners appreciated a speaker more and rated his credibility higher when he included bits of appropriate humor than when he gave the standard eulogy without humor.
The type of humor is important. The appropriate humor illustrates the person’s accomplishments, points out positive character qualities, or includes anecdotes or witticisms spoken by the deceased.
A eulogy always should be respectful; humor can contribute to that respect.
For example, a minister recalled the enthusiasm of one woman with this story:
“Helen’s favorite word was fantastic. Any event or occasion she found enjoyable was fantastic. One night she accompanied her son Bob to an outdoor concert. Bob had brought a portable tape recorder along. Just as the orchestra brought the music to a climax, Helen turned to Bob and yelled, ‘Fantastic, isn’t it!’ Bob still has that fantastic moment preserved on tape, and he tells me he loves his mom not in spite of, but because of, her natural excitement.”
Oldham, now an associate professor of pastoral training at Moody Bible Institute, believes the light touch should be considered when (1) an older person has lived a full life, (2) the death has been expected, even if the person is young, or (3) the person has been known for his sense of humor. Avoid including humorous stories, he suggests, when the person died a violent death, such as in an auto accident or by suicide.
Humor does not need to be used in quantity. A story or two is enough. The humor should naturally illustrate the point the speaker is making, much like the dramatic anecdote in a Sunday sermon.
One minister, who wanted to show the humility of the deceased, told his listeners, “When someone asked him how he became a hero in World War II, he replied, ‘It was by accident. They sank my boat.'”
Humor, so natural in life, may be fitting in death, when friends look back at their comrade with fond memories. God allows grief, but he also provides cheer and restoration.
And for that we can smile.
This article first appeared in the August 9, 1985, issue of Christianity Today.

Share This On: